News ‘Political football’: TikTok launches charm offensive with MP letters and media blitz

‘Political football’: TikTok launches charm offensive with MP letters and media blitz

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The boss of TikTok Australia has gone on the offensive against “false claims” made by Australian politicians by launching a public advertising campaign to fend off safety and security criticisms.

The video-sharing app, one of the world’s most popular social media platforms with more than 800 million users, has come under fire from federal politicians who fear it may present a risk of foreign interference.

TikTok, owned by Beijing-based company ByteDance, has faced scrutiny for its alleged links to the Chinese government.

This includes reportedly censoring pro-democracy protests from Hong Kong and videos discussing the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

TikTok says none of its data is housed in China, claiming the information of Australian users is held in Singapore and the United States.

Federal Coalition MPs have called for the app to be banned in Australia, while Labor senator Jenny McAllister wants TikTok to appear before the Senate committee into foreign interference through social media.

Now the app is launching a broadside of its own, with a multi-pronged public campaign beginning this week to counter some of the allegations levelled at it.

TikTok Australia general manager Lee Hunter wrote to every single federal politician this week to address “a number of false claims made about TikTok over recent weeks”.

“Contrary to some claims, it is critical you understand that we are independent, and not aligned with any government, political party or ideology,” Mr Hunter wrote, saying the app would never and has never shared information with the Chinese government.

“The truth is, with tensions rising between some countries, TikTok has unfortunately been caught in the middle, and is being used by some as a political football.”

Labor MP Stephen Jones shared a copy of the letter he received on Twitter.

On Thursday, Mr Hunter spoke to 2GB Radio, adding that the app had “really strict” rules about privacy and data security.

“TikTok user data isn’t kept in China. We restrict it from being in China. The fact is, the Chinese government has never asked for it,” he said.

Mr Hunter criticised what he called “misinformation” spreading about TikTok, but said “the scrutiny is a good thing for us”.

He said the app had recently pulled out of Hong Kong because of new, controversial national security laws which could potentially force TikTok to hand over users data.

In another interview with the ABC’s Radio National on Thursday, Mr Hunter said he “welcomed a dialogue” with the Australian government, and said TikTok would appear before the Senate’s foreign interference committee. He said he wanted an “open and transparent” conversation with politicians.

Mr Hunter’s radio interview blitz came on the same morning that full-page ads for TikTok appeared in national newspapers, requesting people “don’t make TikTok a political football”.

“Australia’s data has always been secure with us. We’re focused on your safety every day,” the ad reads.

“We’re fun. We’re safe. We’re independent.”

In December 2019, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute described TikTok as a “vector for censorship and surveillance”. In recent weeks, Coalition politicians have also taken aim at the social media platform, with Jim Molan calling it “a data collection service disguised as social media”, and George Christensen said it should be banned.