TikTok’s Spin Doctor Knows Better Than to Tell the Truth

if you squint, michael beckerman tells you all you need to know about who can see the company’s user data
River Page

Credit: Alamy

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Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that, if enacted, would force the Chinese-owned tech company ByteDance to sell TikTok within 180 days. If it doesn’t comply, the app will be banned in the U.S. The bill is currently under consideration in the Senate, whose members are being lobbied ferociously by the company. Earlier this month, Pirate Wires’ own Mike Solana documented how Trump’s 180 on TikTok — a company he had previously tried to force divestiture on — seemingly came after a meeting with billionaire GOP donor and ByteDance investor Jeff Yass. But Trump isn’t the only one whose concerns about Chinese espionage seem to have been assuaged by the almighty dollar. Another is TikTok’s head of public policy, Michael Beckerman, the company's arch-defender in both Congress and the media. He's a slick-talking company man whose carefully calculated statements denying TikTok’s China connections reveal more than they conceal, at least to those who are willing to squint at them. 

Beckerman started his career as a legislative assistant to former Michigan Rep. Fred Upton in 2001. As a hill rat, he worked through several positions in Washington before eventually becoming deputy staff director at the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees U.S. internet policy, in 2011. A year later, he founded the Internet Association, a lobbying group representing numerous tech behemoths such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. While at the Internet Association, Beckerman took a hard line against China. He was especially critical of China’s longstanding refusal to allow American tech companies access to its markets, telling the Wall Street Journal in 2015 that “Global Internet companies born in the United States must have the opportunity to compete on a level playing field in China.” They can’t, and it’s particularly ironic that he now finds himself advocating for this off-balance status quo. China’s ongoing “fair trade for thee but not for me” tech policy would be reason enough to shut down the app in the U.S., even if Chinese espionage wasn’t a lingering threat. And yet, the threat of Chinese spying (among other misdeeds) was in fact a great concern to Beckerman — so much so that in 2019, he wrote an entire op-ed about it in The Hill. Here are some excerpts:

"The U.S. is in a race against China to develop cutting-edge artificial intelligence technology, and it’s a race we can’t afford to lose. . . ."

"The prospect of China leading the world in AI should concern every American. Greater Chinese AI capabilities — if left unchecked by U.S. capabilities — could pose serious economic and national security threats. Existing Chinese policies already permit the theft of our intellectual property through industrial espionage and other means, which costs American businesses hundreds of billions of dollars each year. There’s also potential for other nations and bad actors around the globe to buy AI technology from China, leaving the U.S. and its allies at even greater risk."

A year later, he joined TikTok — a Chinese AI company — and began to change his tune. By 2022 he was unwilling to answer softball questions from CNN’s Jake Tapper about China’s treatment of its muslim minorities.

“Do you acknowledge that the Chinese government has Uyghurs and others in concentration camps?” Tapper asked.

“That’s not what I focus on,” Beckerman replied. Tapper repeatedly followed up on the question, and each time Beckerman refused to acknowledge the issue directly.

Beckerman’s strange non-response to the Uyghur question is what you would expect from someone who doesn’t want to risk irking the Chinese government. One could almost brush it aside as a best business practice if Beckerman hadn’t spent the last several years claiming that TikTok has only incidental connections to China and no connections to its government whatsoever.

In a recent letter to House Select Committee on the CCP Chairman Mike Gallagher (R., Wis.) and ranking member Raja Krishnamoorthi (D., Ill.), Beckerman asserted that TikTok’s parent company, Bytedance Ltd., was established in the Cayman Islands and that three of its five board members are Americans. Left unsaid is the fact that the most important member of the board is Liang Rubo, the Chinese cofounder and CEO of Bytedance, TikTok’s owner. TikTok's parent company is headquartered in Beijing, regardless of which Caribbean country it launders money through. “We’re tax cheats, not spies!” is a hilarious defense, though.

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This combination of strategic wording and selective omission forms the cornerstone of Beckerman’s defense of TikTok. For example, in a 2022 interview, CNN’s Brian Stelter asked Beckerman, “Has any CCP member ever seen non-public TikTok user data? Can you say yes or no to that question?”

“Absolutely,” Beckerman said before launching into a statement that contained neither a yes or a no. “The answer is that we have never shared information with the Chinese government, nor would we.”

But this statement means nothing because no one has accused TikTok of dropping off flash drives full of user data at a Chinese embassy as a matter of official corporate policy. Beckerman never denies that Chinese Communist Party members have seen American user data. By answering a different question than the one Stelter asked, Beckerman in fact seemed to tacitly confirm that members of the CCP have seen non-public TikTok user data, but that it was handed over or seized in some officially unauthorized or indirect manner. This is the actual accusation made against TikTok, and Stelter should have pushed for a yes or no response to his question — especially considering that just weeks earlier, Buzzfeed had obtained leaked audio from company meetings which revealed that American user data had been repeatedly accessed from China. 

Unlike Stelter, Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) did follow up. In a 2021 hearing, the Texas senator repeatedly asked Beckerman whether or not Beijing Bytedance Technology, a subsidiary of Bytedance whose board includes a former propagandist for the Chinese Communist Party, was considered an “other affiliate” of TikTok’s corporate group, as defined under the app’s privacy policy. This designation would allow the company and the CCP members who work at it to access TikTok’s user data. Beckerman repeatedly refused to answer the question with a simple yes or no response. Instead, he repeatedly told Cruz that Beijing Bytedance Technology “is not connected or affiliated with TikTok,” refusing to answer the Senator’s question directly four times. Why? Because the words “affiliated” and “connected” are vague, while the term “other affiliate” is clearly defined under TikTok’s privacy policy. If the answer to Cruz’s question were no, Beckerman would have said so, which means the answer is almost certainly “yes.” 

So far as I can tell, the only time Beckerman has ever answered a question directly was in 2023, when he confirmed in a letter to the House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mark Green (R., Tenn.) that Chinese engineers had access to TikTok’s source code. Using Chinese engineers undermines “Project Texas,” an ongoing purported effort by the company to keep American data out of China — a problem U.S.-based TikTok employees confirmed to the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. Beckerman answered the question about Chinese engineers honestly because their existence can’t be hidden. But on seemingly every other question, he has deployed carefully calculated obfuscation and evasion. 

Tanned, white-toothed, and silver-tongued, with stubble so perfect in pictures that it might as well be AI-generated, Beckerman is a swamp creature straight from central casting and plays the part well. He’s exactly who you’d imagine he’d be, so I don’t suspect that his flip-flopping on the threat posed by Chinese technological espionage or his rhetorical tomfoolery will come as any great shock to anyone. Lobbyists spin, water is wet, and principles in Washington cost less than the drinks. Everybody knows U.S. politics work this way, and nobody likes it, so pointing it out becomes banal, complaining about it is trite, and advocating against it is pedestrian political idealism. 

What Beckerman represents is the same thing that Trump’s flip-flop on TikTok and the Senate’s foot-dragging on the divestiture bill represents — an auction block. It’s a daily, open-air operation that demoralizes Americans who feel powerless and ultimately indifferent. Beckerman’s egregious auctioning of his principles just has the added weight of directly enabling Chinese espionage — something that, in his own words “should concern every American.”

– River Page

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