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On TikTok, Chinese State Media Pushes Divisive Videos About U.S. Politicians

ILLUSTRATION BY PHILIP SMITH FOR FORBES; PHOTO BY SEBASTIAN KAULITZKI
ILLUSTRATION BY PHILIP SMITH FOR FORBES; PHOTO BY SEBASTIAN KAULITZKI

TikTok accounts run by the propaganda arm of the Chinese government have accumulated millions of followers and tens of millions of views, many of them on videos editorializing about U.S. politics without clear disclosure that they were posted by a foreign government.

The accounts are managed by MediaLinks TV, a registered foreign agent and Washington D.C.-based outpost of the main Chinese Communist Party television news outlet, China Central Television. The largest of them are @Pandaorama, which features cute videos about Chinese culture, @The…Optimist, which posts about sustainability, and @NewsTokss, which features coverage of U.S. national and international news.

In the run-up to the 2022 elections, the @NewsTokss account criticized some candidates (mostly Republicans), and favored others (mostly Democrats). A video from July began with the caption “Cruz, Abbott Don’t Care About Us”; a video from October was captioned “Rubio Has Done Absolutely Nothing.” But @NewsTokss did not target only Republicans; another October video asked viewers whether they thought President Joe Biden’s promise to sign a bill codifying abortion rights was a “political manipulation tactic.” Nothing in these videos disclosed to viewers that they were being pushed by a foreign government.

The TikTok accounts run by MediaLinks do provide some information about the entity behind them: Profile bios for the accounts say, “Material distributed by MediaLinks TV LLC on behalf of CCTV. More info at DOJ, D.C.” But the vast majority of people viewing MediaLinks videos never see this language. According to data posted on LinkedIn by a MediaLinks employee, NewsToks garnered 8.3 million video views between May 8 and July 6, 2022, but only 57,600 profile views during the same 60-day period.

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