OTTAWA — The Canadian Armed Forces have resisted joining TikTok, one of the fastest growing social-media sites, over apparent concerns about the company’s Chinese ownership and unclear censorship rules.
"TikTok has huge security risks — and does not have a government seal of approval," a military communications manager wrote in an August 2020 email, which the Free Press obtained through a freedom-of-information request.
TikTok is an app where users make short videos, originally focused on lip-syncing and responding to other users’ videos. Its popularity has exploded among North Americans aged 15 to 25, particularly during COVID-19 lockdowns.
But the app has come under scrutiny for censoring content critical of China, where its parent company is based. It has also banned videos with LGBTTQ+ themes in the past.
TikTok insists it operates independently and respects user privacy, but investigations into its code suggest the company records reams of metadata about its users.
That prompted the United States Army in January 2020 to ban all soldiers from using the app.
Canadian officials have resisted a similar ban, but are cautious about publishing content on any emerging platforms, the Forces said.
"Currently, we still do not use TikTok, nor do we have an institutional policy on the matter," military spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande wrote Friday. "Until such time, we will continue to adhere to broader government of Canada policies on social media use, and follow those best practices."
Internal records show the military is worried about its perception among younger Canadians, and trying to find ways to connect with them, including online.
"For recruiting, it is good to plant a good seed young," a navy recruitment planning officer wrote to his colleagues in October 2019, arguing the military branch out into TikTok.
That month, the social-media team lead for all branches of the CAF had a younger staffer look into the merits of using TikTok. The manager noted NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s success in connecting with younger voters through the app.
A month later, this manager suggested steering away from the app.
"In sum, we do not recommend using TikTok, first because it hasn’t ironed out its community-standard policies," reads the start of a sentence that is partially redacted under the Access to Information Act.
The message appears in a chain that had portions removed under exemptions for information that could harm international affairs or Canada’s defence.
The emails show various branches of the Armed Forces reaching out to their communications teams about promoting their local base or team on TikTok, similar to existing Facebook pages.
An August 2020 request generated some surprise, with a manager suggesting her colleague use the short-video feature available on the Instagram app instead.
"Wow, tell him to play with the Reels feature on Instagram, he can get his TikTok fix there," the manager wrote. "Sorry to be a Mrs. Party Pooper…"
Still, an undated assessment of the military’s social media presence noted the app’s potential.
"TikTok is very popular with the younger demographic," reads a report to the Department of National Defence’s communications head.
"The CAF has a wide assortment of video content that could be shared via TikTok. We can explore the benefit this platform could have for our content."
That report also noted what images already get traction on the military’s Twitter and Facebook accounts.
"Content showing strong men with guns work best on the CAF channels."