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US officials in contact with TikTok over political disinformation

A senior government official says Washington has reached out to the popular Chinese-owned platform.

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Government officials said they're planning to strengthen their communications with TikTok. 

James Martin/CNET
This story is part of Elections 2020, CNET's coverage of the run-up to voting in November.

To take on the next generation of disinformation, the US government has started reaching out to TikTok, senior government officials said on Tuesday. The Chinese-owned platform has grown increasingly popular in the US among teens, and has frequently been used for sharing political memes

On a press call about election security on Super Tuesday, senior officials from the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said that it's working with local election officials, as well as social networks, to manage disinformation online. 

The US government has built strong relationships with social networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube after disinformation ran rampant on those platforms during the 2016 US presidential election

TikTok, which surged in popularity in the US over the last year, is the newest social network on CISA's radar.

"The relationships that we have with social media companies are related to how established they are in the United States," a senior CISA official said on the call. "We have a line of communication with TikTok, and it's just one of those areas we're going to continue strengthening out."

TikTok didn't respond to a request for comment. 

TikTok has taken the internet by storm, amassing more than 1.5 billion downloads, and marketers expect more than 50 million US users by 2021. In 2019, the social network's US users grew by 97.5%, particularly among teens and children. Political messages are already common on the platform.

While TikTok banned political ads last October, political memes and conversations on issues from climate change to Chinese censorship, LGBTQ rights and the US presidential race are flooding the platform. 

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The platform also presents a new opportunity for disinformation. In January, TikTok announced that it was banning disinformation campaigns on its platform -- though its enforcement could be a different story. After the ban, researchers still found disinformation on TikTok related to coronavirus, spreading conspiracy theories about the public health crisis and its origins. 

And there's a wrinkle: Unlike Facebook and Twitter, TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, Bytedance. 

"DHS and the US government have enjoyed the luxury of most social media platforms being US-based. These days are over with the rise of TikTok," said Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who studies social media. "It is telling that they are only starting to have conversations with them, yet we are already in the process of electing the next president of the United States."

Lawmakers have raised concerns about TikTok over its owners, calling for an investigation to determine if the platform is a national security risk. In February, the US Transportation Security Administration said it would stop using TikTok, and the US Army and Navy have similar bans

Government agencies, including CISA, are warning US voters to watch out for disinformation on Super Tuesday, and CISA said it's working with federal, state and local officials out of a building in Virginia to monitor for election interference. 

Representatives from social media companies were also on site, but it's unclear if TikTok was among them. By noon ET on Tuesday, senior CISA officials said they have not detected any spikes in disinformation campaigns spreading on social media. 

Officials noted the progress that the US government has made since 2016 on handling disinformation. 

"We have constant contact and communication with these companies," a senior CISA official said. "It seems almost daily there's takedowns of what they call 'inauthentic activity.'"