Federal officials warned law enforcement agencies that TikTok was playing a key role in organizing extremist and criminal activity, including the Jan. 6 riots, but the social media platform remains under the radar as a potential threat.
The Department of Homeland Security's Office of Intelligence and Analysis briefed law enforcement agencies nationwide on April 19, according to documents reviewed by Politico, showing that American extremists were using the Chinese-owned platform to recruit new members and share "tactical guidance" -- including the promotion of bringing weapons to Washington, D.C., for the U.S. Capitol insurrection.
"The extremism research field itself is pretty slow on TikTok," said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. "There's something to be said about the demographics of researchers — they tend to skew older. Very few can hear the first five seconds of a TikTok video and know what song that's referencing."
Hughes, whose organization receives some DHS funding, said TikTok is particularly efficient at delivering extremist content, saying it remains "awash" in QAnon videos despite the company announcing a ban last year.
"The TikTok algorithm is so good that before you know it," Hughs said, "you're on a domestic violent extremism spiral."
The DHS report made a similar point about the platform's algorithm.
"TikTok's application layout and algorithms can unintentionally aid individuals' efforts to promote violent extremist content," the report says. "A user's account may have zero followers but could have substantial viewership on some videos, which could aid violent extremist TikTok users in evading TikTok's content moderation efforts."
The DHS report noted several cases where extremists promoted violence throughout last year and ahead of the deadly insurrection, which some TikTok users promoted with 2020 election conspiracy theories and by encouraging others to bring firearms and interfere with the U.S. National Guard during riots.
"There is absolutely no place for violent extremism or hate speech on TikTok," company spokesperson Jamie Favazza said in an email, "and we work aggressively to remove any such content and ban individuals that violate our Community Guidelines."