National Security

We must disarm TikTok, WeChat

August 2, 2023

Senator James Paterson
The Australian Financial Review
Wednesday 2 August 2023

Social media platforms are not just the dominant communications channels in modern societies, they are the public square for democracies.

As the Australian Human Rights Commission noted, social media can be used to strengthen and undermine our democracy. While it has increased access to information and facilitated a broader range of voices in our democracy, the proliferation of disinformation threatens our public institutions and social cohesion.

Foreign authoritarian states know this. They do not permit free and open debates in their own societies, which is why they use ours as a vector for their disinformation operations to manipulate our decision-making to advance their strategic interests.

After several months of investigation, the Senate Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media found that our country is dangerously exposed to cyber-enabled foreign interference.

TikTok was determined to deny and obfuscate in their attempt to downplay the association of their parent company, ByteDance, and the Chinese Communist Party. Even today, TikTok Australia still can’t stomach to tell the truth that ByteDance is headquartered in China – despite the fact TikTok itself previously admitted this fact in November 2020 in their own court filings in the US.

Further, TikTok was unable to explain why it collects huge swathes of Australians’ user data beyond what cyber experts such as Internet 2.0 say is necessary for the app to function. TikTok could not reveal how often this data has been accessed by China-based employees after initially suggesting that this information was all logged, and refused to apologise for misleading the public when they falsely denied their colleagues had used the app to spy on journalists.

TikTok even admitted that its China-based engineers can make remote changes to the app’s algorithm, which presents a real risk to the information sphere of our democracy in the event of a geopolitical crisis.

These revelations do not bode well given that TikTok also admitted that its China-based employees cannot refuse to co-operate with China’s intelligence services under article seven of the 2017 National Intelligence Law.

Dr Seth Kaplan, from Johns Hopkins University, testified to the committee that “everything we fear about what TikTok may become is already occurring on WeChat”. He warned us that WeChat, which has at least 500,000 Australian users, is effectively a narrative machine for the Chinese Communist Party.

WeChat failed to answer for these very serious allegations by repeatedly refusing to appear before the committee on the poor excuse that they have no legal presence in Australia, demonstrating the contempt they hold for the Australian Parliament.

In their written responses to my 53 questions, WeChat flatly denied the censorship and surveillance rife on their platform despite all the contradictory evidence presented by independent experts and researchers including CyberCX, Internet 2.0 and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

We carefully examined the serous risk that Twitter, Meta, LinkedIn and YouTube are being weaponised by authoritarian regimes to pump disinformation into our democracy to influence our political systems.

Responding to foreign interference through social media is critical to protecting our democracy. The committee’s bipartisan report has made 17 recommendations – based on the liberal tradition of transparency, not censorship – to make Australia a harder target for malicious actors to interfere in our democracy.

The committee recommends a range of enforceable transparency standards that all large social media companies must comply with to operate in Australia, so that users can both evaluate the content they see on these platforms, and the conduct of the platforms themselves.

This includes requiring state-affiliated media entities to be proactively labelled on all platforms, requiring platforms to maintain a physical presence in Australia so they can be held accountable before our laws and requiring them to be open to external researchers to investigate and attribute disinformation operations.

Any access to Australians’ user data by employees in authoritarian states and any content censored by governments must be disclosed.

The government should mitigate the espionage and data security risks of social media apps beholden to foreign authoritarian regimes by banning their use on work-issued devices of entities designated as systems of national significance under our security of critical infrastructure framework, and ban their use on government contractors’ work devices that access Australian government data.

To protect the 8.5 million Australians on TikTok, Australia must be prepared to support the efforts of the US Government to force ByteDance to divest ownership of TikTok.

Deterring this malign behaviour must be a priority for government by bolstering Magnitsky sanctions to target cyber actors who meddle in our democracy. We must also harden the resilience of our diaspora communities targeted by transnational repression to protect their right to free speech.

For the first time we are dealing with a pervasive foreign interference threat which directly affects millions of Australians who use social media daily.

Our response requires vigilance from individuals, government, and the private sector. But if we act now against this insidious threat, we can safeguard our democracy for future generations.

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