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TikTok says it's going to fight election misinformation

TikTok remains under intense U.S. government scrutiny and is the subject of a potential imminent sale to Microsoft.
Image: TikTok logo
A TikTok logo is displayed on a smartphone on Jan. 6, 2020.Dado Ruvic / Reuters

TikTok, under intense U.S. government scrutiny and a potential imminent sale to Microsoft, said Wednesday that it will take steps to limit misinformation and election interference on its platform.

In an announcement 90 days before the election, the company said it's working with fact-checking organizations to combat misinformation, particularly about elections and medical issues.

In recent months, as the U.S. presidential election nears and relations between the U.S. and China have cooled over the coronavirus pandemic, TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, has found itself caught between the two superpowers. President Donald Trump has threatened to somehow "ban" the company in coming weeks if it doesn't sell its U.S. operations to an American company in a deal to his liking.

TikTok, an app for sharing short videos, is largely known as a way for teenagers to go viral with dances and comedy — but not a typical breeding ground for disinformation campaigns. Its announcement largely follows the language of other major American social media companies like Facebook and Twitter, companies that spun up efforts to counter influence operations on their platforms after Russia exploited them during the 2016 election.

"In light of the pandemic, we are erring on the side of caution when reviewing reports related to misinformation that could cause harm to our community or to the larger public," the company said.

"This may lead to the removal of some borderline content," TikTok's website now says.

The company will also work with the Department of Homeland Security's Countering Foreign Influence Task Force force, it said. The major U.S. tech companies periodically communicate with CFITF about foreign threats to their platforms, though the FBI is the lead agency on those issues. The FBI didn't immediately respond to request for comment.

TikTok has only recently had one or two calls with DHS, according to a person familiar with the matter who requested to not be named because they were not authorized to discuss the talks.

TikTok has recently been looking to get third-party help in figuring out how to address potential influence operations, said Graham Brookie, the director of the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.

"TikTok, regardless of ownership, has a wide user base, and has naturally been reaching out to a number of the groups that work on content moderation policy," Brookie said.