ULVER CITY, CALIFORNIA – As the bloody conflict in Ukraine continues to escalate, so does the online propaganda war between Russia and the West. A prime example of this is the White House directly briefing influencers on popular social media app TikTok about the war and how to cover it. As the crisis spirals out of control, Americans have turned to TikTok to view real time videos and analysis of the invasion. With the app estimated to have around 70 million U.S. users, the White House is keenly aware of its impact. “We recognize this is a critically important avenue in the way the American public is finding out about the latest … so we wanted to make sure you had the latest information from an authoritative source,” President Joe Biden’s director of digital strategy, Rob Flaherty, told 30 top TikTok influencers.
TikTok itself has taken steps to align itself with U.S. government policy, deleting more than 320,000 Russian accounts and removing at least 41,000 videos peddling misinformation about the war. In addition to this, it has placed warning labels marked “Russia state-controlled media” on 49 accounts linked to the Russian government. Like other big social media platforms, it has not done the same to Western state-owned outlets such as the BBC, RTÉ, or the CBC.
All this is a far cry from 2020, when President Donald Trump signed an order that would shut down TikTok within 45 days unless it was sold to an American buyer. The Chinese-owned platform, the U.S. government alleged, posed a severe national security threat to the United States. Although TikTok is a Chinese company, it is, ironically, completely blocked inside China, their domestic market being served by a sister app, Douyin, which functions in a similar way but is separated by the Great Firewall. Thus, there is no contact or overlap between the two. After Douyin’s success in China, its parent company ByteDance launched a global platform.
ByteDance first reached a deal to sell TikTok to Microsoft, then to Oracle and Walmart. Yet the new Biden administration, without explanation, quietly dropped the sale requirement indefinitely in early 2021, saying in a court filing that it had begun a review of security concerns cited by the Trump administration.
That decision left buyers and onlookers alike perplexed. Yet studying the backgrounds of dozens of key TikTok employees brought on since the 2020 scare suggests that, instead of destroying TikTok, perhaps the U.S. national security state has co-opted it instead.
High-placed NATO recruits
Since 2020, there has been a wave of former spooks, spies and mandarins appointed to influential positions within TikTok, particularly around content and policy – some of whom, on paper at least, appear unqualified for such roles.
For example, while simultaneously being the Content Policy Lead for TikTok Canada, Alexander Corbeil is also the vice president of the NATO Association of Canada, a NATO-funded organization chaired by former Canadian Minister of Defense David Collenette. In order to join TikTok, Corbeil left his job at the SecDev Foundation, a U.S. State Department-funded security think tank. Corbeil’s work focused on Middle Eastern security and in particular on the war in Syria and what NATO’s role should be.
Another NATO-linked new recruit is Ayse Koçak, a Global Product Policy manager at the company. Before joining TikTok last year, she spent three years at NATO. Like Corbeil, Koçak had special expertise in Middle Eastern politics, including a year’s tour in Iraq as the organization’s deputy senior civilian representative.
Foard Copeland, who works on TikTok’s trust and safety policy, is also an ex-NATO man. Copeland previously worked as a desk officer for NATO, as well as for the Department of Defense. Between 2011 and 2021, he also worked for U.S. contractor Development Alternatives Incorporated (DAI), spending much of that time in Afghanistan. DAI has long been accused of being a CIA front group, perhaps with some justification. In 2009, for example, DAI agent Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba and sentenced to 15 years in prison for spying, espionage, and his part in efforts to destabilize the government.
Perhaps the most worrying NATO alumnus, from a public perspective, is new Feature Policy Manager Greg Andersen. According to his own LinkedIn profile, until 2019, Andersen worked on “psychological operations” for NATO. This fact, according to MintPress contributor Lowkey, was removed after his tweet raising concerns about the relationship between big tech and the national security state went viral. Lowkey wrote:
Andersen’s profile continues to identify him as a former NATO employee, but there is no reference to “psychological operations” or “soldier-system lethality.” Lowkey provided MintPress with a screenshot of what he said was Andersen’s pre-tweet profile, which has been included below.
Not just NATO
NATO, however, is far from the only organization newly connected to TikTok. The company’s new Global Lead of Integrity and Authenticity, Chris Roberts, is a former senior director of Technology Policy at the Albright Stonebridge Group (ASG), a powerhouse strategy and consulting firm started by late-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The ASG has been perhaps the major staffing source for President Biden’s administration, with at least 10 ASG employees appointed to key positions in national security, state and foreign policy positions.
Before ASG, Roberts worked, in his own words, on “special projects” for the National Democratic Institute (NDI). The NDI was founded by the Reagan administration after a series of CIA scandals necessitated the creation of a network of front groups to take the heat off the agency. The NDI exists to channel U.S. government money, training and support to political and social groups around the world. This could charitably be described as “democracy promotion,” although cynics might label it “overthrowing governments.” As Roberts himself said, “The nature of democracy promotion is that the most important countries to work in are also the ones where the government may not want your ‘help.’”
At TikTok, Roberts’ role is to “Lead the Integrity and Authenticity policy team. This team covers misinformation, synthetic and manipulated media, covert influence activity, and spam and inauthentic engagement.”
One group infamous for peddling misinformation and carrying out covert operations is the CIA. Yet rather than identifying operations, they might be conducting, TikTok has instead recruited a former agent to serve in an important position. Since January, Beau Patteson has been working as a threat analyst for TikTok’s Trust and Safety Division. Between 2017 and 2020, however, Patteson was a targeting analyst for the CIA, after which he joined the State Department to become a foreign service officer. In addition to his role at TikTok, Patteson is also, according to his social media profile, a military intelligence officer in the United States Army.
One step closer to the halls of power is Victoria McCullough, who previously worked for the Department of Homeland Security and for the White House itself. Like Patteson, McCullough now works on trust and safety at TikTok. Another trust-and-safety TikTok staff member, Christian Cardona, spent nearly 13 years in senior roles at the State Department across the Middle East and Europe before seamlessly moving to the social media giant.
Virtually every former spook or state official this investigation found works in very specific (and highly politically sensitive) fields such as trust, safety and content moderation, rather than in banal areas like marketing, customer service or sales. Yet TikTok’s new recruits come from some of the least trustworthy organizations anywhere in the world – organizations that should not be anywhere near the levers of power of such a popular platform.
The national security state has been the source of some of the most outlandish and damaging fake news claims in recent years. This includes lurid allegations about so-called “Havana Syndrome” and the “BountyGate” hoax. Going further back, falsehoods about weapons of mass destruction or an immiment genocide helped push the U.S. to war in Iraq and Libya, respectively. Yet individuals from many of these institutions are now in charge of deciding what is real and what is fake, and which content to promote or suppress.
In this light, the 2020 pandemonium about TikTok being a national security threat looks increasingly like a power play from the national security state. These dire warnings, and even the threat to completely shut down its platform, subsided only after TikTok began appointing Western officials to important positions within its organization, thereby giving the state considerable influence over the content and direction of the app.
Readers who consider TikTok little more than a fun app to watch short videos of people dancing are behind the times. From a modest beginning, it has exploded in popularity, growing exponentially from 85 million global users in early 2018 to 1.2 billion by late 2021 (with a similar monstrous growth in revenue to boot).
It is exceptionally popular among the younger generations. The 2021 Reuters Institute Digital News Report found that 9% of people aged between 18 and 24 worldwide had gone to TikTok to get news over the past week, while 31% of that age group used the app in that period (and therefore likely passively consumed news to some extent). Furthermore, it has a very loyal user base, with the tens of millions of U.S. TikTok users spending an average of 68 minutes per day on the platform.
Thus, TikTok has become an enormously influential medium that reaches over one billion people worldwide. Having control over its algorithm or content moderation means the ability to set the terms of global debate and decide what people see and do not see. MintPress invited TikTok to comment on its relationship with the government, but has not received a response.
This is far from the first time the national security state has pulled this trick, however. In 2018, Facebook came under enormous pressure from the U.S. government, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself being hauled in front of both the House and the Senate to face hours of grilling over the platform’s role in privacy, content moderation and spreading Russian disinformation. Only weeks after this, Facebook announced a new partnership with the Atlantic Council, whereby the group would serve as Facebook’s “eyes and ears,” taking considerable control over its content moderation, supposedly in an effort to weed out fake news and disinformation. The Atlantic Council, however, is NATO’s think tank and serves as its brain trust, with no fewer than seven former CIA directors on its board. Since then, Facebook (or Meta, as it is officially known), appointed former NATO Press Officer and current Atlantic Council Senior Fellow Ben Nimmo to serve as its head of intelligence. In addition, Facebook’s new global director of content policy, Mark Smith, was formerly employed by NATO as an advisor to its deputy commander.
The Atlantic Council has also found its way into Reddit’s management. In 2017, Jessica Ashooh went straight from being deputy director of Middle East strategy at The Atlantic Council to director of policy at the popular news aggregation service – an unusual career move that drew few remarks at the time. Like Corbeil, Koçak and others, Ashooh was a Middle East specialist and was intimately involved in the West’s war in Syria. For years, Reddit took a free-speech absolutist position, even defending hosting clearly illegal sexual content. However, Ashooh’s arrival coincided with a new era of far more forceful moderation. Reddit recently took the decision to not only ban links from Russian state media outlets, but all websites with a Russian (.ru) domain.
Likewise, a number of key Twitter personnel raise eyebrows. Chief among them is Head of Editorial for Europe, the Middle East and Africa Gordon MacMillan, who, in addition to his duties at Twitter, is an officer in the British Army’s 77th Brigade – a notorious unit dedicated to online warfare and psychological operations. Like Facebook, Twitter has partnered with some highly questionable state-linked organizations, giving them considerable influence over its content moderation.
Meanwhile, Google’s current global head of Developer Product Policy, Ben Renda, was formerly a strategic planner and information management officer for NATO, before working for both U.S. Cyber Command and the Department of Defense.
Big Tech a big weapon
The U.S. government, it appears, refuses to allow any competition to its hegemony over the digital realm. Huawei has effectively been banned throughout much of the West, with the United States refusing to allow the Chinese giant to control the new network of 5G communications. U.S. attempts to convince other nations to block Huawei have elicited significant pushback in the Global South. “If you are ahead, I will ban you, I will send warships to your country…That is not competition, that is threatening people,” said Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, commenting on U.S. actions. Decades earlier, the U.S. government effectively destroyed the Japanese semiconductor industry, forcing Japan to sign a one-sided trade deal while imposing a 100% tariff on Japanese electronics – a power play that led to a decades-long recession from which the island nation has never recovered.
In 2020, the U.S. government even forced Chinese-owned Grindr to be sold to a U.S. company, deeming the LGBT dating app to be a “national security threat.”
In every accusation, it is said, there is a confession. That Washington considers even frivolous hookup apps to be too important to be outside of U.S. control, lest they be used to influence the public, suggests they know exactly what they are doing, infiltrating big tech companies. Indeed, this was more or less confirmed earlier this month by a letter written by a host of top natsec officials, including former CIA Directors Michael Morell and Leon Panetta, and former Assistant to the President for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security Frances Townsend (all of whom also sit on the Atlantic Council’s board of directors).
The officials advised that breaking up Silicon Valley giants, as many have advocated, would “inadvertently hamper the ability of U.S. technology platforms to … push back on the Kremlin.” “The United States will need to rely on the power of its technology sector to ensure [that] the narrative of events” globally is shaped by the U.S. and “not by foreign adversaries,” they explain, concluding that Google, Facebook, Twitter are “increasingly integral to U.S. diplomatic and national security efforts.” In other words, they see big-tech as a key weapon of the U.S. empire.
In the 1970s, the Church Committee unearthed the existence of Operation Mockingbird, a secret CIA project to infiltrate newsrooms across America and place agents masquerading as journalists inside. Investigative reporter Carl Bernstein’s work found that the CIA had cultivated a network of over 400 individuals it considered assets, including the owner of The New York Times.
Today, it appears that the links between big media and big government are, if anything, closer than they were in the 1970s. The monopolistic power of big social media platforms gives them – whether they like it or not – extraordinary influence over public opinion. And within their opaque Silicon Valley offices, a small cadre of individuals set the algorithms and decide the moderation policies that shape what billions of us see every day. With a host of former officials taking positions in these companies, the U.S. national security state is acquiring some measure of influence over the means of communication. It’s Operation Mockingbird for the 21st century – and on a global scale.
It is not normal for NATO officials or CIA agents to suddenly be put in charge of TikTok content policy. This did not happen purely by accident, just as it did not occur by chance at the other big tech platforms. One might reasonably argue that some of the only people who have the skills to highlight, spot and counter disinformation campaigns are those who have done similar work in the military or secret services. However, these organizations are the last ones that many would want in control of big-tech platforms, given their history of subterfuge and deceit.
Put another way, if these were Russian-based social media companies filled to the brim with former FSB, KGB or Kremlin officials, we would immediately recognize them as blatant government-controlled platforms. Yet many of the most popular apps are heading in the same way.
There is certainly a huge problem with fake news and disinformation online. And a fair chunk of it emanates from Russia. But while some might argue that poachers can become gamekeepers and use their skills for good, this situation feels far more like foxes being in charge of the digital henhouse.
Feature photo | MintPress News
Alan MacLeod is Senior Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent, as well as a number of academic articles. He has also contributed to FAIR.org, The Guardian, Salon, The Grayzone, Jacobin Magazine, and Common Dreams.