Domestic extremists used TikTok, an app best known for short videos and viral dances, to spread information about bringing guns to the January 6th Capitol attack and accessing the White House through tunnels, according to a Homeland Security briefing.
The briefing document reveals domestic extremists have been using the social media platform since October of 2019 to “recruit adherents, promote violence, and disseminate tactical guidance for use in various terrorist or criminal activities.” Although TikTok has moderation, the briefing says, both foreign and domestic extremists “are exploiting standard features of the platform to evade the platform’s detection and removal efforts.”
The document also says TikTok’s algorithms and layout can “unintentionally” promote violent extremist content — even content generated by users with little to no following. That content is promoted through TikTok’s “for you page” that recommends content to users based on their viewing history and activity. “A user’s account may have zero followers but could have substantial viewership on some videos, which could aid violent extremist TikTok users in evading TikTok’s content moderation efforts,” the document said.
The briefing is dated April 19 but came to light Thursday via a Freedom of Information Act request by Property of the People, a nonprofit organization focused on government transparency. Its existence was first reported by Politico.
In addition to domestic extremism content around the Capitol riot, DHS said that TikTok has identified videos on the platform that discuss how to interfere with the National Guard during a riot, how to sabotage railroad tracks and how to access the White House via tunnels. Foreign terrorists have also used the app to promote violence and terrorism.
A spokesperson for TikTok, Jamie Favazza, said the app is working to remove content that violates their rules. “There is absolutely no place for violent extremism or hate speech on TikTok, and we work aggressively to remove any such content and ban individuals that violate our Community Guidelines,” Favazza said in an email to Politico.
A recent report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue released late last month identified 312 videos on the platform promoting white supremacy as well as propaganda content originally produced by ISIS. They found that extremists’ use of TikTok’s features, such as the ability to add music to a video or to merge your video with another person’s, demonstrate “the key role that TikTok’s own features play in extremist content on TikTok.”
In addition to concerns about violence promotion on the platform, DHS cited another reason for distributing the briefing to its staff: they may not be familiar with TikTok at all. The app is most popular with younger people, meaning DHS employees, who tend to be older, may have “limited awareness of its functionality.”