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The Technology 202: Influencers are evading TikTok's political ad ban, researchers say

with Aaron Schaffer

TikTok has one of the strictest bans on political advertising in the tech industry. But partisan influencers are flying under the radar on the social network, exposing a critical blindspot in the company’s rules, researchers say. 

A new Mozilla report uncovered more than a dozen examples of influencers on the platform with apparent financial ties to political organizations posting without basic disclosures that their messages were sponsored. The researchers say both conservative and liberal influencers were exploiting a “loophole” in TikTok’s rules and enforcement. 

Influencers are playing a bigger role in politics, prompting new concerns about political ad transparency online. 

Lawmakers have been calling for greater regulation of political ads on social media for years, after Russian actors exploited targeted ads on social media to influence the 2016 election. Since then, companies across Silicon Valley have tightened their ad policies, but researchers are concerned that paid content from influencers could create a new host of challenges. 

Sponsored content, often called “sponcon,” has long been controversial because it can be difficult to differentiate from a regular post in the social media ether. Some experts have called on the companies to treat sponcon the way they would treat traditional political ads. 

The Mozilla researchers say their findings show that TikTok is not keeping up with industry best practices on political advertising or disclosing sponsored content. 

“Platforms have come before them who have had to sort this out, and have actually undergone a lot of scrutiny for not sorting it out sooner,” said Brandi Geurkink, Mozilla’s senior manager of advocacy in an interview. “We're looking into TikTok and not understanding why they haven't implemented the most basic things around ad transparency. … TikTok is really falling behind in that regard.” 

Their report includes examples of influencers with ties to organizations across the political spectrum. 

The report mentions an account called House of US, which was reportedly funded by the liberal political action committee The 99 Problems, to post pro-Biden content. Researchers found on that account calling people to “vote blue,” which did not say it was sponsored. 

The report also identifies an account of a paid contributor with the prominent conservative youth organization Turning Point USA, as well as posts from a self-described “political influencer” who posted content from a Turning Point USA event, which she said the organization flew her out to attend. 

The 99 Problems didn't respond to a request for comment, but Turning Point USA pushed back on the report’s findings.

"The organization has thousands of activists organically posting on TikTok but has not paid for a single sponsored post—full stop,” Andrew Kolvet a TPUSA spokesman, said in a statement. The organization does provide travel stipends for students to attend its events, but it says it does not require them to post about the events on social media. 

Sponsored content on TikTok is particularly sensitive given its popularity among young Americans, who might be first-time voters. 

National political candidates have not been as active on TikTok as other major social networks, amid data privacy concerns related to its owner, the Chinese company ByteDance. But the app has surged in popularity during the pandemic, making it an increasingly attractive channel for political groups seeking to get out their message.

TikTok announced in an October 2019 blog post that it would not allow paid election ads, advocacy ads or issue ads. The company says that applies to influencers who create and post paid content. TikTok is reviewing Mozilla’s findings, and it has taken down one video identified in the report for violating its rules. 

"Political advertising is not allowed on TikTok, and we continue to invest in people and technology to consistently enforce this policy and build tools for creators on our platform,” said Ashley Nash-Hahn, a TikTok spokeswoman in a statement to The Technology 202. “As we evolve our approach, we appreciate feedback from experts, including researchers at the Mozilla Foundation, and we look forward to a continuing dialogue as we work to develop equitable policies and tools that promote transparency, accountability, and creativity."

TikTok’s policy stands in sharp contrast from other companies like Facebook, Google and Snap, which do allow political ads. Facing the threat of regulation, these companies have developed ad transparency tools and databases to help researchers and journalists track them.  

The Mozilla researchers say TikTok needs to make major changes to address their findings. 

The researchers say that TikTok needs to develop better tools to ensure influencers are properly disclosing that posts are through paid partnerships or sponsored. TikTok says it is currently working on ways to better educate creators about how to post sponsored content and ensure that they’re abiding by Federal Trade Commission guidelines. The company recently released a video for influencers with instructions for posting branded content on the social network. 

The researchers also say TikTok should also build ad transparency tools -- such as a database -- that would allow researchers to better track paid political ad content. 

Mozilla plans to launch a campaign today calling for changes to TikTok, and they will continue to monitor social influencers use of the platform during elections in other countries this year.

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The tariffs won’t go into effect for six months as U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai works to find “a multilateral solution to a range of key issues related to international taxation,” the Wall Street Journal’s Yuka Hayashi and Paul Hannon report. Tai said that investigations found that the tariffs were necessary after the United Kingdom, Austria, India, Italy, Spain and Turkey announced digital taxes on U.S. companies.

Austria and the United Kingdom praised recent momentum in international tax negotiations. Spain declined to comment, while India, Italy, Spain and Turkey did not respond to requests for comment.

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“We are concerned about repeated instances where Alphabet missed the mark and did not proactively ensure its products and workplaces were safe for Black people,” the five senators wrote in their letter to Google executives. “We can no longer rely on promises and need Alphabet to take affirmative steps to protect Black people and other people of color. A racial equity audit is long overdue,” they added. Google did not respond to a request for comment.

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Trump spokesman Jason Miller said the blog “was just auxiliary to the broader efforts we have and are working on.” The posts on the site have been taken down; the site now redirects to a page for people to give their contact information to Trump’s campaign.

Rant and rave

CNBC Digital senior vice president and executive editor Jay Yarow:

Garrett Graff, director for cyber initiatives for the Aspen Institute's Aspen Digital program:

Editor and writer Silvia Killingsworth:

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