TikTok, the popular social media app, has been hit with a new lawsuit alleging that its parent company, ByteDance, used bots and stolen content to artificially inflate engagement on the platform. The former head of engineering Yintao Yu filed the lawsuit, who claims that he was fired after pushing back against ByteDance’s practices, including stealing content from other apps. Yu also alleges that ByteDance acted as a “useful propaganda tool for the Chinese Communist Party” and that China-based employees had access to US users’ data.
While Yu’s allegations describe how ByteDance operated five years ago and come after several years of mediation, they could still increase scrutiny for TikTok, which is already facing the possibility of a nationwide ban in the United States. Lawmakers and officials have claimed that TikTok is a national security threat and cannot be trusted to protect US users’ data.
Yu’s claims could exacerbate those concerns. The lawsuit alleges that there was a “special unit of Chinese Communist Party members” at ByteDance offices in Beijing who “guided how the company advanced core Communist values.” Yu also claims that ByteDance employees manipulated Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, to suppress content about protests in Hong Kong and “elevate content that expressed hatred for Japan.”
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Some of Yu’s allegations directly relate to TikTok. He claims that ByteDance engineers stole popular content from apps like Instagram and Snapchat and uploaded the videos onto TikTok. He also alleges that the company used bot accounts to boost the app’s engagement metrics when it was trying to gain a foothold in the US.
A spokesperson for ByteDance has denied the allegations and stated that the company plans to “vigorously oppose what we believe are baseless claims and allegations in this complaint.” The spokesperson also noted that Yu worked for ByteDance for less than a year and that his employment ended in July 2018.
TikTok has been attempting to distance itself from its ties to ByteDance and China, including during CEO Shou Zi Chew’s congressional testimony in March. The company has also invested over a billion dollars into Project Texas, which aims to separate TikTok’s US user data from the rest of ByteDance to alleviate US regulators’ concerns.
However, these efforts may not be enough to sway US officials, who remain skeptical of TikTok’s ties to China and its ability to protect US users’ data. As the legal battle over TikTok’s future in the US continues, these new allegations could further complicate the situation for the popular social media app.