TikTok To Sponsor Journalism Conference Amid Espionage and Propaganda Allegations

Chinese president Xi Jinping and the TikTok logo
June 15, 2023

TikTok is sponsoring a journalism conference for a media watchdog group that aims to "fortify journalism's role in a free society," even as the social media giant comes under fire for helping China spy on journalists and disseminate pro-Beijing propaganda.

The Poynter Institute, which operates the liberal fact-checking site PolitiFact, is organizing GlobalFact 10, which will take place in Seoul starting June 27. TikTok is one of the corporate sponsors for the three-day "global fact-checking summit" and is sponsoring a pre-event cocktail reception, according to an itinerary of the summit.

TikTok executives will speak on panels about the company's efforts to counter disinformation on its platform. Its "publisher education team" will hold a "fireside chat" to teach journalists "best practices for building a TikTok presence and creating engaging content."

TikTok, which is owned by Chinese firm ByteDance, is sponsoring the event as it tries to win allies in its fight against a U.S. ban over its ties to China. American officials say the video app poses a national security threat because the Chinese government could easily use TikTok to spy on its users and push pro-Beijing propaganda to American audiences. TikTok, which has hired an army of lobbyists, has so far avoided a ban, thanks in large part to reluctance from Democrats who see the site as a political asset.

The Poynter summit, which will be attended by Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler, will give TikTok and other tech companies an opportunity to promote their platforms and tout their fight against disinformation.

Five TikTok executives, including the company's global policy lead for harmful misinformation, will conduct a June 29 seminar on TikTok's "approach to countering misinformation." Members of TikTok’s "publisher education team" will also appear at a seminar with Poynter Institute executive Alex Mahadevan on the issue of "building a TikTok presence."

It's a remarkable arrangement for a media watchdog that claims to be a champion for "freedom of expression, civil dialogue, and compelling journalism that helps citizens participate in healthy democracies."

The Justice Department is investigating ByteDance after employees at the company obtained location data on two American journalists who reported about the company's links to the Chinese government.

And a former ByteDance executive has alleged that Chinese officials have "supreme access" to TikTok's algorithm. The former employee, Yintao Yu, claimed in a lawsuit that a special unit of Chinese Communist Party members at ByteDance oversees the content on TikTok in order to advance "core Communist values." Yu claims to have witnessed the ByteDance team promoting anti-Japanese content and demoting posts that support pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

It is unclear how much money TikTok is giving Poynter for the conference, but TikTok has been a major funder of the media think tank for a number of years. According to Poynter's website, TikTok has donated at least $50,000 to the think tank. Other major funders include Facebook, Microsoft, AARP, and the philanthropic networks of Democratic donors Pierre Omidyar and Craig Newmark.

TikTok's donations to Poynter go to help PolitiFact "continue to fact-check elected officials and hold government officials accountable," according to PolitiFact's website. Conservatives have criticized PolitiFact over its perceived liberal bias.

The fact-check site was itself fact-checked last month after it defended teachers' union boss Randi Weingarten over her support for school lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic. A Washington Free Beacon analysis found that the vast majority of PolitiFact's fact-check articles were aimed at Republicans. And in 2021, PolitiFact retracted an article that dismissed as "inaccurate and ridiculous" the theory that coronavirus originated in a Chinese medical lab.

Poynter and TikTok did not respond to requests for comment.