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Matt Pottinger: Former Donald Trump deputy national security adviser slams TikTok as ‘arsenic’ for democracies

Latika M Bourke
The Nightly
5 Min Read
Donald Trump’s former deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger says all Five Eyes countries should ban TikTok.
Donald Trump’s former deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger says all Five Eyes countries should ban TikTok. Credit: The Nightly

Donald Trump’s former national security adviser Matt Pottinger says the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok is like ‘arsenic’ for democracies and should be banned by all Five Eyes countries — and not just the United States.

In an exclusive interview with The Nightly, Matthew Pottinger — who served as US deputy national security adviser from 2019 until his resignation over the January 6 riots in 2021 — said Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom should also force TikTok to part ways with its parent company ByteDance.

He said the Chinese-owned company was beholden to the Chinese Communist Party.

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Mr Pottinger helped craft the bill that was signed by US President Joe Biden and passed through Congress with bipartisan support to force TikTok to divest from ByteDance’s ownership or else face a ban in the United States from 2025.

TikTok is challenging the lawsuit claiming it violates free speech.

But Mr Pottinger said the First Amendment was about protecting US citizens from US censorship — not foreign interference.

“TikTok is clearly arsenic for our democracies,” Mr Pottinger said in an interview with The Nightly.

He said the fact that US Democrats and Republicans were willing to join forces showed the seriousness of the threat posed by the app, which has been used to track journalists and promote content favourable to the Chinese Communist Party.

“That’s telling you something,” he said. “In America today you can’t even get Democrats and Republicans to agree what time of day it is.

“But they agreed on this — and that’s a signal to Australia and New Zealand and Canada and the United Kingdom — but really to every free society in the world that they need to be acting with a sense of heightened urgency and concern.”

The Five Eyes is the elite intelligence-sharing club comprising Australia, the United States, the UK, Canada and New Zealand.

The five countries have barred Chinese telecoms vendor Huawei from building their 5G mobile networks over security concerns.

Supporters of the TikTok ban argue that it is even more important than Huawei as the social media application, used by one-fifth of the world’s 4.8 billion internet users, is used to manipulate foreign audiences for Beijing’s advantage.

Mr Pottinger said John Garnaut’s 2023 report presented to the Australian Senate’s inquiry into Foreign Interference through Social Media drove him to devote his time to trying to separate TikTok from PRC ownership.

Mr Pottinger is also a colleague of Mr Garnaut’s, the former foreign correspondent in Beijing and adviser to former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who authored the original foreign interference that led to Australia’s pioneering response aimed at safeguarding the electoral system from malign influence.

Mr Garnaut’s Senate report said: “The concern is not just that an app with TikTok’s data harvesting and targeted recommendation capabilities could be used as a platform for disseminating propaganda, disinformation, and other messages designed to influence democratic societies.”

“Rather, it is that TikTok has the potential to sway elections, corrode people’s faith in democracy, and undermine the will of open societies to compete against China’s authoritarian model globally.”

Experts are doubtful the TikTok ban will be enforceable by next year and believe it will likely be tied up in legal challenges for some time.

Another hurdle to the TikTok ban could be Pottinger’s former boss’ potential re-election.

While Mr Trump led the US to more hawkish positions on China and previously tried to ban the Chinese-owned social media app as president, he has changed his tune in the run-up to his November rematch with Mr Biden.

This week Mr Trump’s official campaign joined Mr Biden’s in signing on to to the app to boost his ability to reach voters.

He has said the latest proposed ban would hurt younger voters and only benefit rival Meta, the American-owned rival that owns Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram.

US media has speculated that one reason for Mr Trump’s newfound reluctance to go after TikTok is because it would negatively harm one of his major donors and TikTok investor Jeff Yass.

Mr Pottinger said he hoped, although did not know for sure, that Trump was playing a double game.

“I’m hoping that President Trump is merely using Jeff Yass to milk him for as much money as he can and then will go with his original instinct which was to ban the thing,” he said.

Donald Trump has joined TikTok, a move one of his former security advisers hopes is a double game.
Donald Trump has joined TikTok, a move one of his former security advisers hopes is a double game. Credit: James Devaney/GC Images

Last month, the head of Canada’s Intelligence Agency told CBC that people should not use TikTok because the CCP was using the app to spy on users.

“There is a very clear strategy on the part of the Government of China ... to be able to acquire ... personal information from anyone around the world,” said David Vigneault, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

“As an individual, I would say that I would absolutely not recommend someone have TikTok.”

The head of the FBI, Christopher Wray recently told the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that TikTok’s parent company is, “for all intents and purposes, beholden to the CCP”.

Mr Wray said that meant that if the CCP ordered ByteDance to spread videos that encouraged Americans to fight with each other, those in charge at TikTok would have to comply.

“That kind of influence operation, or the different kinds of influence operations you’re describing, are extraordinarily difficult to detect, which is part of what makes the national security concerns represented by TikTok so significant,” Wray said.

The app is wildly popular amongst younger voters in particular, and Pew estimates around one-third of Americans under 30 get their news from the video-sharing app.

Mr Pottinger said young people who enjoyed using the app posed a headache for vote-conscious politicians ahead of elections in the US, UK and Australia.

“We’re not going to let the Chinese Communist Party control the public square in America — it’s ridiculous,” he said.

“Kids need to remember that they have a responsibility, as they grow into adults, to protect our system of government.”

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