It’s a tough time to be a TikToker. The video-sharing platform owned by the Chinese technology giant ByteDance has been censured in India, accused of “spying” by the president of the United States, and has provoked the ire of former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith in the UK. Listen to the prognostications of some politicians or visit certain corners of the internet and you’d think TikTok was a deep-state plot to capture your data so it can be mined by Chinese spies.
The truth is more complicated. We happily hand over just as much data to plenty of other apps, including many based in Silicon Valley, and much of the same data we produce when using apps such as TikTok is also posted on YouTube and shared through Facebook. If we’re worried about Chinese snooping, then it’s worth remembering the revelations first aired seven years ago about the US National Security Agency eavesdropping on all our communications. While TikTok may have been described as a “data-collection service”, the same could also be said of Facebook or any other popular social media platform.
Arguments against TikTok have been amplified by supposed evidence of its wrongdoings. The amount of data the app collects was used as proof that something was awry – despite the fact that multiple experts have said TikTok is no different in this regard from Facebook (TikTok’s head of public policy recently stressed that the company is incorporated in the US, where its data is stored). That the app until recently accessed a user’s mobile phone clipboard has been cited as definitive proof of a deep-state conspiracy, but LinkedIn and Reddit have also only just stopped doing the same. One post by a pseudonymous Reddit user sparked anger after they alleged that TikTok is “a data-collection service … thinly veiled as a social network”, but the user lost evidence for their claims because of a motherboard failure – the digital equivalent of your dog eating your homework.
So why is TikTok suddenly in the spotlight? Much of the anger currently directed against the app hinges on geopolitical tensions, an attempt to rightly raise objections about systematic, ongoing human rights abuses in China, and a deeper fear about what TikTok represents: the eastwards migration of technological supremacy away from the US and towards China.
For what feels like the internet’s entire history, the apps and services we use have been controlled by a small coterie of companies based in Silicon Valley. The likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have become integral to our lives. But in TikTok, we’re starting to see this balance shift. For the first time, an app with its roots in China is starting to make significant inroads into western society.
The tech giants see TikTok as a threat to their control over key parts of our digital lives. “For a while, the internet landscape was kind of a bunch of internet companies that were primarily American companies,” Mark Zuckerberg told his employees in a company-wide meeting held a year ago this month, the audio of which was leaked to reporters. TikTok is “really the first consumer internet product built by one of the Chinese tech giants that is doing quite well around the world”, the Facebook founder added, before later calling the app a threat to democracy. If TikTok is banned from western countries, Zuckerberg stands to win: Reels, an app developed by Instagram, which he has owned since 2012, is waiting in the wings to replace TikTok on users’ phones.
For politicians, fears about TikTok are useful cover for stymieing China’s ascendance. Republicans who remember the effect that blue jeans, pop music and McDonald’s had on the Soviet Union recognise the potential impact of TikTok’s soft power. Whether some actually believe the app siphons data for the use of Communist party apparatchiks (claims that TikTok has vehemently denied) is less certain. Nonetheless, denouncing the app is a useful weapon in a far bigger fight against Chinese power. For Donald Trump, TikTok is a useful opponent in the run-up to the 2020 election (Trump’s campaign has posted 379 adverts on Facebook and Instagram in the last three days targeting the app.)
The Indian government has banned TikTok after a deadly skirmish at a disputed Himalayan border involving Indian and Chinese soldiers. What was a political issue has spooled into broader unease about China, with politicians censuring TikTok as a result. Likewise in Australia, a war of words with China over the origins of the novel coronavirus has morphed into anti-TikTok sentiment, with politicians voicing concerns about the app. TikTok has recently taken out adverts in Australian print media declaring that it’s “fun, safe and independent”.
TikTok’s founder, Zhang Yiming, seems to aspire to be a citizen of the world, not of the controlling communist state where he was born. Zhang imagines his app “as borderless as Google”, and spent two-thirds of 2019 travelling around the world, ducking into museums and watching West End musicals in London, in what he told reporters was an attempt to “understand more context”. He will know all too well that the many issues associated with the Chinese government make TikTok’s context all the more complicated.
To tackle this, TikTok has tried to demonstrate its independence. The company is casting around for a global headquarters that proves it’s not under the thumb of China, and has hired the former head of streaming at Disney as its new CEO, a move that serves the twin purposes of providing a non-Chinese face in its upper ranks, while implicitly suggesting that if the app is good enough for Mickey Mouse, it’s good enough for the average American.
But the political tensions that TikTok is caught between are firmly entrenched. Separating the streaming platform from horrific Chinese human rights violations may be too difficult for some users to countenance. Politicians who see the west locked into a new cold war with China are unlikely to back down. Zhang will have to hope that this thinking doesn’t spread as quickly as his app has done.