Attorney General Knudsen launches investigation into TikTok

Attorney General Knudsen launches investigation into TikTok

HELENA — Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen today announced an investigation into Chinese-owned social media company TikTok for possible violations of the Montana Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Act. The civil investigative demand includes substantial evidence of dozens of past and current potential violations of Montana law including TikTok intentionally distributing a dangerous product without adequate warning and by publicly misrepresenting the dangers its product poses to Montana consumers.

Attorney General Knudsen’s investigation demands TikTok answer questions and provide documents surrounding the social media platform’s safety features; algorithms; content; whether the company has researched the platform’s impact on children under 18 including mental health issues, eating disorders, self-harm, and pornography problems; advertising and data procedures regarding children under 18; and whether the platform is used by border cartels for human trafficking.

“This is a critical investigation to protect Montana children and assist Montana parents. The media reports about TikTok potentially aiding Mexican drug cartels, turning a blind eye to sexual predators, and enabling its recommendation engine to promote pornographic materials, drug use, eating disorders, violent ‘challenges,’ and suicidal ideation among teens and preteens are beyond troubling,” Attorney General Knudsen said. “Montana is happy to take the lead at looking into potential violations of state law by this Chinese social media goliath to help parents keep their children safe online and crack down on platforms which potentially misrepresent their safety features for financial gain.”

TikTok’s potential consumer harm is magnified by the platform’s exponential growth. Over the past year, TikTok has become the number one app in the world, despite the fact it has been banned in India and other countries. While American teens and pre-teens spend an average of 105 minutes per day on the platform, TikTok’s home nation, China, limits its youth to 40 minutes per day on the platform.

Attorney General Knudsen’s investigation of TikTok was predicated by numerous public examples of the company potentially misleading Montanans about the safety of the product for children. The company has said it “has taken industry-first steps to promote a safe and age-appropriate experience for teens” and has rated itself on app stores as age appropriate for children as young as 12.

However, while communicating to the public that its platform is safe for children, it allows those who state their age to be as young as 13 to create profiles but does not differentiate between these children and adults when promoting content through its algorithm.

As a result, TikTok has served dangerous content to children, including “endless spools of content about sex and drugs,” videos recommending paid pornography, and posts that encourage eating disorders. It has also allowed adults to solicit nude images from minors. Alarmingly, because of the way TikTok’s algorithm works, users who seek one type of content can easily and quickly be pushed toward more dangerous content. For example, users seeking diet content received “full-blown eating disorder promotion in less than 24 hours.”

Dangerous trends and threats on TikTok have caused vandalism in schools and have forced Montana schools to increase security and even close to avoid the risk of harm to students. Students at a Billings school vandalized bathrooms and stole school property as a part of a TikTok “challenge” last fall. In December, some Montana schools closed due to threats posted on TikTok.

Attorney General Knudsen’s investigation is also seeking information on TikTok’s third party data tracking; corporate policies and procedures surrounding how the company’s US entity shares data with its Chinese corporate family; and censorship of political viewpoints.

Read the CID letter here.

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