- Political interference in both China and the US threatens to derail the video app phenomenon.
- TikTok is caught between the old era and the new — too Chinese for America, too American for China, finds a report in the New York Times.
- US politicians are ordered to delete the Chinese-owned social video app that House has said represents “high risk to users”
- This article charts the app’s astronomic rise from launch in 2012 and considers the possibility of an outright ban in the US.
READ MORE: How TikTok Became a Diplomatic Crisis
TikTok has just been banned from all devices issued by the House of Representatives, as political pressure continues to build on the Chinese-owned social video app. Are its days numbered?
The app has become a political issue… not just in the US, but in China too.
In the West, TikTok’s Chinese ownership has stoked persistent and longstanding worries about its vulnerability to exploitation and manipulation by the Chinese government.
But in China, its success is considered a threat to the Communist party by offering alternate news and communication that the state there has taken considerable steps to control.
In a New York Times article “How TikTok Became a Diplomatic Crisis,” Alex Palmer profiles the fortunes of the Bytedance-owned phenomenon. “The company is caught in the middle between the old era and the new — too Chinese for America, too American for China,” he finds.
“Despite decades of trying, no Chinese company has ever conquered American society like TikTok,” Palmer adds. “It’s difficult to imagine a Russian or Iranian company — or, increasingly, even another Chinese company — pulling off a similar feat.
“TikTok is considered a Trojan horse — for Chinese influence, for spying, or possibly both. In China, meanwhile, a broad crackdown has sought to rein in high-flying tech companies and their founders, out of fear that, with their influence, independence and popularity, they were becoming alternative power bases to the Chinese Communist Party.”
How It Started, How It’s Going
ByteDance was founded in 2012 by 27-year-old Chinese programmer Zhang Yiming. It launched with an AI-driven news app that, in Zhang’s words, “let every user, at every moment, see their own front news page.”
Called “Toutiao,” it also contained the seeds of the algorithmic model that TikTok would later ride to global dominance. While other content platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, required users to manually accumulate friends and connections, whose posts then populated the user’s feed.
Toutiao, didn’t care whom you knew, only what you liked. Based on how a user reacted to a piece of content — reading the whole article or just a few sentences, pausing on a particular paragraph, swiping back up to read something again, leaving a comment — Toutiao’s underlying technology began to generate a picture of who the user was and what they wanted.
The app hit one million daily average users only four months after it started. By mid-2017, it had passed one million daily average users. Zhang had saturated the Chinese domestic market and sought international expansion by acquiring Musical.ly, which was already on the phones of millions of American teenagers. The $1bn deal in November 2017 also led to a rebranding to the more internationally friendly and neutral TikTok.
Ironically, TikTok’s success led to the first signs of Chinese government clampdown. In late 2017 ByteDance announced that it would hire 2,000 new “content reviewers,” with preference given to Communist party members. The company also shut down the gossipy Society section of its apps and created a new vertical called New Era, featuring state media coverage.
Data Security and Diplomacy
As detailed by Palmer, a new 2017 Cybersecurity Law and National Intelligence Law, required “Any organization or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with state intelligence work in accordance with the law,”… and to “maintain the secrecy of all knowledge of state intelligence work.”
In 2021, two new laws on data security asserted the extraterritorial reach of the Chinese state over any data on Chinese citizens anywhere in the world.
“At the end of the day, the Chinese state holds all the cards,” Jordan Schneider, China analyst at the Rhodium Group, tells the paper. “Firms and their leadership have learned that pushing back too much on government demands can have severe consequences.”
TikTok itself is not available in China — users there must access a different ByteDance app, which follows Chinese government directives on censorship and propaganda.
US social media firms weren’t worried – at first. Palmer says, “Musical.ly had swept up a preteen audience and then stagnated; there was little reason to think TikTok would fare any differently. Besides, TikTok was not really a social network at all. The reason people wanted to be on Facebook, Snap or Instagram was because their friends were on it.”
ByteDance was also spending billions of dollars advertising TikTok on Facebook, Instagram, Snap and other social media platforms.
The Villain Era?
By mid-2019, TikTok had eclipsed 100 million daily average users worldwide, and minted its first bona fide superstar in the artist Lil Nas X, establishing TikTok as a launching pad for musical fame.
The pandemic drove the app’s popularity into overdrive. According to reporting in the Chinese business press, TikTok gained 110 million daily average users between March and April 2020 alone.
READ IT ON AMPLIFY: How TikTok Is Targeting Its Next Two Billion Users (Hint: With Your TV)
That success which shows no sign of slowing has prompted calls for the app to be banned.
According to a memo obtained by NBC News, reported in The Guardian, all lawmakers and staffers with House-issued mobile phones have been ordered to remove TikTok.
“House staff are NOT allowed to download the TikTok app on any House mobile devices,” NBC quoted the memo as saying. “If you have the TikTok app on your House mobile device, you will be contacted to remove it.”
In August the government issued a “cyber advisory” labelling TikTok a high-risk app due to its “lack of transparency in how it protects customer data”. It said TikTok, “actively harvests content for identifiable data” and stores some user data in China.
According to Reuters, at least 19 US states including Maryland, South Dakota, South Carolina, Nebraska, Texas, Alabama and Utah have partially blocked the app from state-managed devices over security concerns.
There are also concerns that TikTok could be used to funnel Chinese government propaganda, whether promoting content favorable to Beijing or by suppressing views deemed objectionable.
A half-way house agreement whereby US-based Oracle would oversee the app’s data, ensuring that the personal information of American users was stored only in the United States, has done little to assuage concerns.
Banning TikTok is not without precedent. The Indian government has banned it and dozens of other Chinese apps on national security grounds, following border clashes with China.
“Few lawmakers or regulators even understand TikTok. The app’s opacity has also offered a shield. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, TikTok does not share data with researchers or allow outsiders to study the platform.”ALEX PALMER
In the US, any similar move “would require a strong and well-developed legal theory, taking into account First Amendment concerns and the distinction between objectionable publishers, which cannot be banned, and a foreign-owned platform,” says Palmer. “An outright ban, especially one targeting Chinese companies writ large, risks looking like Sinophobia.”
Washington also has Meta in its ears. According to emails viewed by The Washington Post, Mark Zuckerberg’s company has hired one of the biggest Republican consulting firms in the country to lead a nationwide public relations campaign against TikTok. The firm, Targeted Victory, has placed opinion columns and letters to the editor in regional newspapers, encouraged journalists and politicians to dig into TikTok and helped spread damaging news stories.
The overall aim is to “get the message out that while Meta is the current punching bag, TikTok is the real threat, especially as a foreign-owned app that is #1 in sharing data that young teens are using,” a director for the firm wrote in a February email.
If TikTok has escaped the scrutiny faced by other Chinese companies (or even other American social media giants), it is in part because the user base skews so young. According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of 13-to-17-year-olds in the US use TikTok.
Palmer says, “Few lawmakers or regulators even understand TikTok. The app’s opacity has also offered a shield. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, TikTok does not share data with researchers or allow outsiders to study the platform.”
READ IT ON AMPLIFY: Culture Is Being Atomized by TikTok. Is That a Bad Thing?
Any element of “reds under the beds” paranoia has not been assuaged by the app itself. Forbes found that Chinese state media accounts were flourishing on TikTok, often by promoting attacks on specific US politicians and the state of American institutions in general. Forbes also reported that a team at ByteDance headquarters planned to use TikTok to track the location of specific American users — exactly the nightmare scenario that critics had warned about.
Over the summer, BuzzFeed reported on leaked audio from dozens of internal company meetings revealing that, contrary to TikTok’s public assertions, data on American users was still routinely accessed by China-based employees.
“Taken together, these stories have only amplified concerns that TikTok cannot be trusted with its power over American data and attention spans,” writes Palmer.
TikTok says its data is not held in China, but in the US and Singapore.
READ IT ON AMPLIFY: What You Need to Know About TikTok’s User Data
In a statement released after the Congress ban, TikTok said the move was a “political gesture that will do nothing to advance national security interests”.
Zhang Yiming himself has taken a back seat from his role of CEO, and reported to have spent most of his year in Singapore.
The Chinese government has also recently taken a stake in a ByteDance subsidiary. According to the NYT, though the size of the stake was small — just 1 percent, divided between the China Internet Investment Fund; China Media Group, controlled by the Communist Party’s propaganda department; and the Beijing municipal government’s investment arm — the implications were unavoidable.
“The Chinese government took one of three seats on the subsidiary’s board, wielding a level of influence incommensurate with its nominal stake. To turn a blind eye to the potential risks posed by a company like TikTok is to ignore the political, economic and social infrastructure of control that the Chinese government under Xi has spent more than a decade constructing.”
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