So after all the efforts of the US Government to force TikTok to detach itself from its Chinese roots, after the threats of a full ban on the app unless it was sold into US ownership, after various court cases challenging and defending the US Government’s ruling.
After all of this, the single outcome of that entire process, the only thing that’s actually happened in response, is that TikTok has lost a US-based CEO and appointed one from its Chinese parent company instead.
Which seems somewhat ironic, really.
Today, TikTok has announced that current ByteDance CFO Shouzi Chew has been appointed as the new CEO of TikTok. Chew will succeed former Disney exec Kevin Mayer, who lasted around 3 months in the role, before leaving in August last year in the midst of the platform’s stoush with the Trump Administration.
At the time, it seemed as though Mayer wanted to avoid the potential negative fallout from the company’s ongoing battle with the US Government, but Mayer has since explained that he left because it did indeed seem that a full sale of TikTok was imminent.
As explained by Mayer (to CNBC):
“It did look as if that was a serious ruling by the CFIUS guys, that it had to be divested, and it was going to be divested. The fact is, the job that I signed up for was going to be gone, and I didn’t want to go run a division of Microsoft or Oracle.”
Microsoft and Oracle, of course, were the leading candidates to acquire TikTok at that time, but the deal, in the end, didn’t end up going ahead. TikTok managed to delay a final ruling through repeated (and costly) legal challenges to the US Government’s order, which meant that the final decision was pushed back till after the US Election. Which then put TikTok’s fate largely in the hands of US voters. If Trump was returned, there was a good chance that he would continue to push for TikTok’s full separation from China.
But with a Biden victory, that meant a fresh set of eyes to look at the TikTok deal. And while the Biden admin is still, reportedly, weighing if and how it tackles security concerns related to TikTok, and the potential that it could share data on US citizens with the CCP, right now, it seems like the push to separate TikTok from its Chinese ownership is off the cards. Which, as noted means that the company has continued unimpacted by the challenge.
And now, it’s appointed a ByteDance exec into the top job at the company.
That also, of course, will mean a change in role for interim head of TikTok Vanessa Pappas, who stepped into the top job to replace Mayer in a temporary capacity. Recognizing her efforts, Pappas will now become the COO of the company, advancing from her previous title as general manager before the acquisition saga.
Pappas has helped guide the company through an incredibly challenging transition period, which has also incorporated the COVID-19 pandemic, and many legal and regulatory challenges, in several regions, as the app expands throughout the world.
Now Pappas moves into a role more aligned with her skills and experience, with Chew taking on the more CEO-type responsibilities involved with expansion of the app.
And for clarity, while Chew is currently the CFO at ByteDance, he is actually based in Singapore, so that could lessen the concerns around ongoing linkage with the Chinese Government.
But probably not. The issue that regulatory authorities have is that under China’s cybersecurity laws, any Chinese-owned company has to share user data with the CCP, on request. Whether such a request has been, or will ever be made, we don’t know, but if a request for such did come through, under the law, as it’s constructed, TikTok would, theoretically, have to comply, putting all of TikTok’s user info, on millions of people around the world, into the Chinese Government’s hands.
TikTok has tried to reassure authorities that this won’t happen, repeatedly noting that it would not share foreign user data with the Chinese Government, while ByteDance also, at one stage, tried to say that it was now ‘a Cayman Islands-based business‘, not a Chinese one, as it was now incorporated in the tax haven.
But it does still seem that its links to China remain strong, which will maintain those concerns.
And as the Chinese regime continues to exert its power, in various global conflicts and relations, those tensions, and issues, will remain.
Whether that will be enough for the new US administration to take a harsher view of TikTok itself, we’ll have to wait and see.
Twitter Faces Advertiser Boycott Due to Failures to Police Child Abuse Material
Twitter’s no good, very bad year continues, with the company this week being forced to inform some advertisers that their ads had been displayed in the app alongside tweets soliciting child pornography and other abuse material.
As reported by Reuters:
“Brands ranging from Walt Disney, NBCUniversal and Coca-Cola, to a children’s hospital, were among some 30 advertisers that have appeared on the profile pages of Twitter accounts that peddle links to the exploitative material.”
The discovery was made by cybersecurity group Ghost Data, which worked with Reuters to uncover the ad placement concerns, dealing another big blow to the app’s ongoing business prospects.
Already in a state of disarray amid the ongoing Elon Musk takeover saga, and following recent revelations from its former security chief that it’s lax on data security and other measures, Twitter’s now also facing an advertiser exodus, with big brands including Dyson, Mazda and Ecolab suspending their Twitter campaigns in response.
Which, really, is the least concerning element about the discovery, with the Ghost Data report also identifying more than 500 accounts that openly shared or requested child sexual abuse material over a 20-day period.
Ghost Data says that Twitter failed to remove more than 70% of the accounts during the time of the study.
The findings raise further questions about Twitter’s inability, or willingness, to address potentially harmful material, with The Verge reporting late last month that Twitter ‘cannot accurately detect child sexual exploitation and non-consensual nudity at scale’.
That finding stemmed from an investigation into Twitter’s proposed plan to give adult content creators the ability to begin selling OnlyFans-style paid subscriptions in the app.
Rather than working to address the abundance of pornographic material on the platform, Twitter instead considered leaning into it – which would undoubtedly raise the risk factor for advertisers who do not want their promotions to appear alongside potentially offensive tweets.
Which is likely happening, at an even greater scale than this new report suggests, because Twitter’s own internal investigation into its OnlyFans-esque proposal found that:
“Twitter could not safely allow adult creators to sell subscriptions because the company was not – and still is not – effectively policing harmful sexual content on the platform.”
In other words, Twitter couldn’t risk facilitating the monetization of exploitative material in the app, and because it has no way of tackling such, it had to scrap the proposal before it really gained any traction.
With that in mind, these new findings are no surprise – but again, the advertiser backlash is likely to be significant, which could force Twitter to launch a new crackdown either way.
For its part, Twitter says that it is investing more resources dedicated to child safety, ‘including hiring for new positions to write policy and implement solutions’.
So, great, Twitter’s taking action now. But these reports, based on investigation into Twitter’s own examinations, show that Twitter has been aware of this potential issue for some time – not child exploitation specifically, but adult content concerns that it has no way of policing.
In fact, Twitter openly assists in the promotion of adult content, albeit inadvertently. For example, in the ‘For You’ section of my ‘Explore’ tab (i.e. the front page of Explore in the app), Twitter continuously recommends that I follow ‘Facebook’ as a topic, based on my tweets and the people I follow in the app.
Here are the tweets that it highlighted as some of the top topical tweets for ‘Facebook’ yesterday:
It’s not pornographic material as such, but I’m tipping that if I tap through on any of these profiles, I’ll find it pretty quick. And again, these tweets are highlighted based on Twitter’s own topical tweets algorithm, which is based on engagement with tweets that mention the topic term. These completely unrelated and off-topic tweets are then being pushed by Twitter itself, to users that haven’t expressed any interest in adult content.
It’s clear, based on all the available evidence, that Twitter does have a porn problem, and it’s doing little to address it.
Distributors of adult content view Twitter as the best social network for advertising, because it’s less restrictive than Facebook, and has much broader reach than niche adult sites, while Twitter gains the usage and engagement benefits of hosting material that other social platforms would simply not allow.
Which is likely why it’s been willing to turn a blind eye to such for so long, to the point that it’s now being highlighted as a much bigger problem.
Though it is important to note that adult content, in itself, is not inherently problematic, among consenting adult users at least. It’s Twitter’s approach to child abuse and exploitative content that’s the real issue at hand.
And Twitter’s systems are reportedly ‘woefully inadequate’ in this respect.
As reported by The Verge:
“A 2021 report found that the processes Twitter uses to identify and remove child sexual exploitation material are woefully inadequate – largely manual at a time when larger companies have increasingly turned to automated systems that can catch material that isn’t flagged by PhotoDNA. Twitter’s primary enforcement software is “a legacy, unsupported tool” called RedPanda, according to the report. “RedPanda is by far one of the most fragile, inefficient, and under-supported tools we have on offer,” one engineer quoted in the report said.”
Indeed, additional analysis of Twitter’s CSE detection systems found that of the 1 million reports submitted each month, 84% contain newly-discovered material – ‘none of which would be flagged’, by Twitter’s systems.
So while it’s advertisers that are putting the pressure back on the company in this instance, it’s clear that Twitter’s issues stem far beyond ad placement concerns alone.
Hitting Twitter’s bottom line, however, may be the only way to force the platform to take action – though it’ll be interesting to see just how willing and able Twitter is to enact a broader plan to address such amidst of its ongoing ownership battle.
Within its takeover agreement with Elon Musk, there’s a provision which states that Twitter needs to:
“Use its commercially reasonable efforts to preserve substantially intact the material components of its current business organization.”
In other words, Twitter can’t make any significant changes to its operational structure while it’s in the transition phase, which is currently in debate as it headed for a courtroom battle with Musk.
Would initiating a significant update to its CSE detection models qualify as a substantial change – substantial enough to alter the operating structure of the company at the time of the initial agreement?
In essence, Twitter likely doesn’t want to make any major changes. But it might have to, especially if more advertisers join this new boycott, and push the company to take immediate action.
It’s likely to be a mess either way, but this is a huge concern for Twitter, which should be rightfully held to account for its systemic failures in this respect.
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