TikTok is a Chinese-owned social video-sharing app that’s used for creating, sharing, and discovering music videos. Think of TikTok as Karaoke for the digital age, except users can shoot, edit, and share 15-second videos laced with filters, music, special effects, etc., and, of course, follow, like, and comment on the content. It’s like Snapchat and Vine gave birth to a kid that films itself lip syncing.
Currently, TikTok is the fastest-growing social media app, and, with about 500 million regular users, has been downloaded more than a billion times. Throughout 2018 and 2019, the platform’s growth rate was phenomenal, mirroring the early user base explosions of such giants as Facebook or LinkedIn, and making it the pride of the company ByteDance’s stable.
Led by Zhang Yiming, one of China’s richest men, ByteDance owns a collection of news and entertainment apps worldwide, including the popular U.S. news aggregation app TopBuzz. At $75 billion, ByteDance is more valuable than Uber and Snapchat combined, and in 2017 the company purchased a domestically popular karaoke app named Musical.ly. The platform was merged into ByteDance’s network and when its growth rate skyrocketed, rebranded into the standalone app TikTok in August 2018. Combined with a massive advertising push, downloads of the app doubled worldwide.
The bulk of TikTok’s users skew ages 24 years old and younger. In other words, the app’s appealing to the Millennial and Zoomer demographics, particularly those aged between eight and fourteen.
Savvy social media celebrities have pounced on the new app. Cardi B, for example, used the platform to lip-sync her own songs, and Post Malone did one using Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel like A Woman.”
The controversy surrounding TikTok is related to two key points – one more complex than the other. We’ll take on the simple one first: average age of the user. With millions of children flocking to the app, parental concerns include explicit language in the musical compilations and a potentially toxic environment that allows for negative and inappropriate comments. The app’s got solid privacy controls though, and the general rule, “keep an eye on whatever the hell your kid’s up to on social media” will go a long way.
The second point is more problematic. As we noted earlier, TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance is Chinese owned. Headquartered in Beijing, ByteDance is a media corporation that’s thriving under the rule of a government that suppresses freedom of expression, censor’s internet content, and criminalized VPN’s.
A set of internal guidelines, published by the Guardian, instructed TikTok moderators to ban content in line with Chinese-government censorship policies, including the “distortion” of historic events, e.g. Tiananmen Square, the criticism/attack of social rules, such as the “socialism system,” and discussion of “controversial topics,” e.g. the independence of Tibet and Taiwan.
The Washington Post interviewed former US employees from TikTok’s American branch and learned that following the guidelines often sparked clashes within the organization. American workers, accustomed to unrestrained expression, bristled at commands to restrict videos that Beijing-based teams deemed subversive, which included content that involved, heavy kissing, heated debates and the typical political discourse seen throughout the internet.
Following the publication of these stories, TikTok stated its U.S. operation doesn’t censor political content, or take instructions from either Beijing or its parent company, ByteDance. Company leaders argued that one of the platforms strength’s is its lack of contentious content that characterizes its competitors, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, added that no “foreign government” makes decisions about censoring content, and insisted none of their moderators are based in China.
There’s a number of worrisome facets to the TikTok problem. The app uses facial recognition to customize a user’s feed, for example, and the company’s data practices are… questionable at best, but at its heart, this is a clash of ideologies. Everything published or created by a significant Chinese company whose product relates to the exchange of information on the internet is shaped by government policy. For the moment, this isn’t a world-ending threat to the American approach that allows freedom of expression but consider recent events.
Houston Rockets General Manager Darryl Morey tweeted his support for protesters in Hong Kong, and according to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, China asked for the league to fire Morey. Blizzard Entertainment, publishers of World of Warcraft, found itself in the middle of a public relations nightmare after a popular gamer, known as Blitzchung, showed support for the Hong Kong protests during a live streamed post-game interview. Two days later, Blizzard went on punishment spree, taking away prize monies Blitzchung won in the Grandmasters second 2019 season and banning him for a year. Furthermore, the company announced they were cutting ties with the two streamers who were interviewing Blitzchung.
DC comics pulled an image from Instagram and Twitter after mainland Chinese complained that the picture was designed with tacit support of the Hong Kong protesters in mind, despite the fact that both accounts are blocked are China.
How do these events relate to TikTok? They’re all part of the same ideological clash, and because of the size of the Chinese market, American companies are backing down, thereby allowing China to control the narrative on the internet. The same narrative that’s built into apps like TikTok.
When the NBA didn’t fire Morey, the league ran into all sorts of problems in the Chinese market, e.g. games cancelled, broadcasting disputes, etc. Blizzard is heavily invested in the Chinese sector, so much so that when Blitzchung made his statement, the company compromised one of its eight “core values” enshrined at the front entrance’s monument — the one stating “every voice matters.” DC is dependent on China for movie revenues, and not angering a government with the power of censorship is more important to them than what a character from a nearly century old property stands for.
The controversy surrounding TikTok isn’t about the app, it’s about the force shaping it, and should enough similar products gain a foothold in the American and Western European markets, you can rest assured that the principles of free speech won’t be included.