Parents rightfully wonder whether TikTok trends that harm American teenagers are boosted intentionally by Beijing. Lawmakers, however, should consider whether Beijing is boosting TikTok trends that are harmful to America’s political interests as well. Consider the odd case of the Willow Project.
On Feb. 20, the Alaska House passed a resolution asking for President Joe Biden’s final approval of the Willow Project, a bipartisan-supported Alaskan oil-drilling venture the president has since greenlit. Within a few days of the Alaska House approval, several op-eds from environmentalists began cropping up, urging Biden to reject the oil venture. However, with both Republican and Democrat Alaskan politicians supporting the Willow Project, there was largely limited pushback from the left-wing corporate media.
Indeed, much Willow Project outrage came from TikTok. The anti-Willow Project movement against Biden was so big on TikTok that NPR ran the headline, “Can TikTokkers sway Biden on oil drilling?” According to NPR, the Willow Project had become a “galvanizing issue for Gen Zers passionate about climate change.” There’s just one problem: Many of the mega-viral videos, and certainly the earliest ones, don’t appear to have been posted by climate-conscious Gen Zers at all.
I made a spreadsheet of 64 TikTok accounts with viral videos opposing the Willow Project. As of last Friday, each of the accounts, with videos garnering anywhere from 65,000-7.6 million views, had posted exclusively anti-Willow Project content and began first posting on Feb. 28 at the earliest. None of the videos include people’s faces. All of them use AI-generated voices or trending sounds and feature many of the same videos.
Take, for example, “Save.the.earth985,” a nameless account that first started posting on Mar. 2. The account has posted four videos all about the Willow Project, with its first post garnering 40.2k views, the second 4.1 million, the third 167.8k, and the most recent 44.4k.
So far, the “#stopwillow” TikTok hashtag has been massive, generating about 385 million views on the app. And while the opaque algorithms of social media companies make it hard to make exact comparisons, there appears to be substantially less Willow Project content and engagement on other platforms.
Instagram and Facebook both have only a few thousand posts linked to the hashtag, and on YouTube, there are only about 650 videos with the hashtag. On Twitter, one of the most popular posts with the hashtag is from Greta Thunberg and has a reach of about 522,000. There were no apparent tweets with millions in reach, like the videos on TikTok.
Between Feb. 28 and March 4, 22 of the 64 accounts posted videos that reached over a million views. After this initial wave of Willow Project-dedicated accounts garnered mass views across the platform, more clearly real Gen Z TikTokkers began posting organic (and incredibly unhinged) “Stop the Willow Project” content. Many Democrat-voting youths are now slamming Biden for, as one user said, “slapp[ing] young people in the face.”
I reached out to Federal Communications Commissioner Brenden Carr, who reviewed my findings. “This is concerning,” he said. “The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has a well documented record of using TikTok to carry out foreign influence campaigns and sway political discourse in this country. This review of Willow Project accounts fits with that disturbing pattern.”
Carr cited a highly comprehensive report submitted to the Australian Senate, which compared search results on TikTok and other social media sites. “The study produced alarming results,” Carr explained. “It showed that the average TikTok user is more likely to see content favorable to the CCP even when the same search terms are entered in Instagram and YouTube. For instance, searches on TikTok for ‘PLA’ (which is short for People’s Liberation Army) produced overwhelmingly pro-CCP content. In contrast, TikTok searches for ‘Wuhan lab’ returned almost no relevant results, which suggests content moderation.”
In response to a request for comment, TikTok directed The Federalist to its posted rules against influence operations and transparency reports. Interestingly, after sharing our research with the tech giant, several of the accounts in question either deleted all of their videos or began uploading other generic, non-Willow-related content.
Contrary to what TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew alleged at last week’s TikTok congressional hearing, ByteDance is heavily influenced by the CCP. It has been described as a “hybrid” state-private entity. The CCP has a stake in ByteDance, a seat on its company board, and its own party committee within the company.
Consider Russia’s hamfisted effort to disrupt the presidential election in 2016 by putting relatively minor sums of money behind divisive Facebook ads aimed at stoking American culture wars. With the CCP having so much control over ByteDance and so much interest in undermining U.S. supremacy, the Willow Project is one of many possible targets for influence operations that would be powerful and nearly impossible to detect.
The Willow Project is a move toward energy independence and economic strength — two things the Chinese government does not like. The project is set to produce 180,000 barrels of oil per day, generate between $8 billion and $17 billion in new tax revenue, and create more than 2,500 jobs at the start of the project and 300 permanent ones.
Thanks to sanctions on Russia’s access to U.S. currency, China has begun buying oil and gas exports using the yuan, and Saudi Arabia recently announced it is considering selling oil to China for yuan instead of dollars. The emerging alliance among Saudi Arabia, China, and Russia is deeply connected to the oil and gas market and American energy independence. The Willow Project threatens China’s new alliances and its global currency aspirations, which would give Beijing’s backers at ByteDance motivation to boost the #StopWillow trend in the U.S.
There are reportedly 150 million active American TikTok users, which amounts to nearly half the U.S. population. Furthermore, evidence suggests the app is collecting American users’ passwords, credit card and banking information, and personal health data. We also know for a fact that Chinese engineers have access to American data and that ByteDance employees spied on the physical locations of American journalists who had critically reported on TikTok.
Chew’s testimony generated a flurry of headlines last week for his inability to convince Congress ByteDance had any meaningful firewall between the CCP and TikTok. There’s basically no way to know whether the 64-odd accounts I analyzed, with little prior activity, were boosted by ByteDance or the CCP. They could have been the creations of an American environmental group, then boosted by our enemies. Or it could all just be a coincidence.
But that’s the point: We don’t know if our discourse and our children are being dramatically manipulated because the government is simply allowing TikTok to go about its business.