Spy balloon videos dominated TikTok. Why didn’t China stop them?

TikTok insists it is not a propaganda tool of the Chinese Communist Party. Viral coverage of the Chinese spy balloon showed it not only allowed but promoted content critical of the authoritarian government

Bevan Hurley
Wednesday 08 February 2023 14:07 GMT
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As cable news networks were scrambling to get cameras to Myrtle Beach to capture F-22 fighter jets circling a Chinese surveillance balloon, TikToks of the dramatic confrontation were already going viral on the world’s most popular app.

Real estate broker Scott Comey posted two clips showing military aircraft circling the balloon above his South Carolina home on Saturday afternoon that racked up about 180,000 views.

Mr Comey told The Independent in an interview on Monday that the spectacle was “kinda freaking me out a little bit”.

“It was kinda cool to see it in the sky but also kinda scary, because nobody knew what was in (the balloon),” he said.

He filmed a third clip showing the balloon as it was shot from the sky and said he posted it within about a minute, and then sat back and watched as the numbers mounted.

In just over an hour it hit one million views, and has racked up more than 2.3 million views in 48 hours.

“It was crazy how quick it went up,” he said.

The clip has since received 67,000 likes and more than 2,000 comments, including one from Michele6070: “*sees on CNN they shot down the spy balloon.. comes to tik tok to see the videos*”.

Not bad, for someone with 3,000 subscribers whose DIY home improvement, shopping and travel TikToks usually get a few thousand views at best.

Another video posted to the @CarolWoolsey’s account showing someone giving the balloon a two finger salute to the soundtrack of ACDC’s Thunderstruck had received nearly five million views in three days.

And a separate clip from the @bubbathompson0 account titled “When your drunk buddy gets a video shooting the Chinese balloon down” had nearly two million views by Tuesday.

In it, two narrators give a realtime commentary of the balloon getting blown up, while offering some spicy takes about “Commie China”.

The popularity and immediacy of the clips reflects how TikTok’s extraordinary reach and engaged usership allows its users to capture breaking news events even more nimbly than dedicated networks.

It also suggests that the platform’s mysterious algorithm was directing users towards the #chinesespyballoon content.

The world’s most popular app, with more than two billion downloads worldwide, is facing calls in the US for a complete ban.

Calls from lawmakers in Washington DC for an outright ban on TikTok have intensified in recent months due to concerns its Chinese owners Bytedance could be coerced by the country’s authoritarian government to surveil or manipulate public opinion in the US.

The argument is that TikTok can put its thumb on the scale by influencing the algorithm, and share personal data with its the Chinese government, which keeps citizens in line through its surveillance state.

More than 30 states have already banned the app from government-owned devices in recent months.

The concern among US lawmakers was that the CCP would suppress any videos that were critical of China, while promoting its own values to TikToks core user-ship of Gen Zers.

In this photo provided by Chad Fish, the remnants of a large balloon drift above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, with a fighter jet and its contrail seen below it on 4 February
In this photo provided by Chad Fish, the remnants of a large balloon drift above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of South Carolina, with a fighter jet and its contrail seen below it on 4 February (AP)

Even China’s richest man Jack Ma had to disappear from public life, had his assets stripped, and a planned new IPO for the fintech giant Ant canned after making comments that were mildly critical of President Xi Jinping.

Bytedance has previously admitted to using its own app to spy on Forbes journalist Emily Baker-White in an attempt to track down her sources after she revealed that US user data had been accessed in China.

But as the Washington Post noted, TikTok appeared to be directing users towards the #chinesespyballoon hashtag even while the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was still insisting it was an errant weather balloon.

TikTok, like most other social networks, collects data from users to create a curated experience and moderate what’s posted. It collects user’s locations and messages they send one another, for example, and tracks what type of videos they like, to better target ads towards them.

As the geopolitical skirmish played out in the skies over South Carolina, many on social media were comparing the 200 foot tall surveillance balloon with a two thousand pound payload to an app whose stated mission is to “inspire creativity and bring joy”.

“There are 210 million Chinese spy balloons on Americans’ phones right now in the form of TikTok,” Ashley Hinson, a GOP congresswoman from Iowa, tweeted.

“We must address the CCP surveillance state & wake up to this threat.”

Former NBA basketballer Enes Freedom tweeted: “Everyone is talking about the Chinese spy balloon when close to 100 million people in America have TikTok on their phone!!”

And in his Friday monologue, late night host Bill Maher said: “The Chinese promised they would never use a spy balloon to infiltrate and monitor America. That’s what TikTok is for.”

The company has long maintained it operates autonomously and would not share information with the CCP.

A high altitude balloon was shot out of the sky by an F-22 jet after travelling across the US for several days
A high altitude balloon was shot out of the sky by an F-22 jet after travelling across the US for several days (AP)

Spokeswoman Brooke Oberwetter told The Independent in an email that the platform did not promote or “boost” any content related to the balloon.

“It went viral on its own,” she said.

Ms Oberwetter also pushed back on claims that TikTok was in any way comparable to the surveillance balloon.

“There is absolutely no connection between these two things. Anyone suggesting there is should not be taken seriously on matters of national security.”

Ever since the Trump Administration tried to force ByteDance to sell TikTok to a US company in 2020, the social media company has tried to walk a fine line between the two increasingly bellicose superpowers.

Last week, the company invited selected tech journalists to its Los Angeles Transparency and Accountability Center to try to counter the idea that it was a propaganda tool of the US’s fiercest adversary.

Journalists were invited to complete a tutorial on how the platform’s For You algorithm works, to help understand how the all powerful recommendation system is powered. 

The company touted its Project Texas partnership with Oracle, that will see all of its US-generated content and data that had previously been stored offshore shifted to US servers.

For TikTok users like Scott Comey, who managed to scoop CNN with his spy ballon videos, warnings about being caught up in a giant Chinese surveillance operation seem overblown.

“They’re not shutting anything down,” he told The Independent.

“You would think that if they really cared that much, that they would have deleted some comments that were negative to China.”

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