Why is TikTok so controversial? It’s the first Chinese technology company that has reached a billion users outside of China. Its main demographic is Generation Z—teens and twenty-somethings. If you take a look at TikTok videos, most are goofy and irreverent. They’re frenetic shorts of everything from fashion tips to pranks and, of course, (bad) dancing. TikTok’s stated mission is to “inspire creativity and bring joy.” What could go wrong?
Here’s what. Working with China, as Disney and the NBA can attest, comes with certain strings attached, including acquiescing to the Chinese Communist Party’s rules for acceptable speech. Because ByteDance, which owns TikTok, is a Chinese company (although partly owned by investors from the U.S. and Japan), the Chinese Communist Party essentially has jurisdiction over the company. Thus , in the United States, TikTok has become a test case.
India, where TikTok was downloaded over 118 million times, by far the highest number of downloads of any country, banned the app last June. Japan is considering doing the same. Australia decided not to ban TikTok after an investigation. In the U.S., as per an executive order signed at the beginning of August, ByteDance has until September 20 to sell TikTok to an American-based company or it will also be banned in the U.S.
TikTok, for its part, has tried to clean up its image by hiring, among other American tech specialists, Kevin Mayer from Disney. Meanwhile, ByteDance has been in negotiations to sell TikTok to Microsoft.
But now ByteDance announced that it is suing the U.S. government for pressuring the company to sell TikTok to an American company. ByteDance has little ground for complaint on the basis of unfairness because China continues to ban U.S. internet companies. As a reslt, TikTok competitor Facebook (owner of Instagram), which is banned in China, has been vocal about TikTok as a potential national security risk.
Although TikTok’s position is portrayed sympathetically in a number of media outlets, it is not really an innocent pawn in a global internet market. Here are three reasons why the concerns of the countries that have taken action or are contemplating it are not wholly unfounded:
1. TikTok could be used for surveillance and data collection
Parents want to know: Is TikTok spying on my teen? The answer is yes, but… TikTok collects data on its users in the same way that other apps, such Facebook, Instagram, and Google, do. That isn’t very reassuring because many people find the level of data collection and use by these other apps disconcerting. However TikTok differs from American companies because of its relationship to the government of China.
TikTok denies the allegations. But lawyers representing the parents and teens report that technology experts have found that large amounts of data, including user location and the presence of other apps on teens’ phones, are being sent to Chinese servers via third-party groups that cooperate with the Chinese government. TikTok defends itself by saying that it collects only as much data as any other social media app and gives it to third-parties, as other apps that are free to the user do. That’s true but many citizens and sovereign states fear that, because ByteDance is headquartered in Beijing, the Chinese Communist Party can ask for TikTok’s data at any time and the company must comply, as must any public or private Chinese company.
Zhang Yiming, founder and chief executive of ByteDance, assures users that the company does not give data to the CCP and keeps TikTok separate from its Chinese counterpart version, Douyin. But is that simply because it has not yet been asked to? Michael Schuman, a long-time China reporter, writing in The Atlantic, asks, “What would stop a government that tortures dissidents and locks up hundreds of thousands of Muslims in gulags from one day pressuring Zhang into doing its bidding?”
This is why countries are hesitant to allow a Chinese tech company, especially one with user-generated video content, within their borders. If China is capable of bulldozing over human rights in the name of stability and prosperity among its own citizens, there is no reason to believe it will respect international business norms, let alone user data privacy. Furthermore, hostilities between the U.S. and China (as well as growing hostilities with other countries, such as India) underline the threat:
…Beijing, thanks to its growing technological might, may be amassing an immense storehouse of information that could be used to identify or blackmail American citizens—or for purposes we haven’t yet thought of. The worry is that TikTok could be a powerful vacuum, sucking up images of and details on unsuspecting Americans to feed Beijing’s voracious appetite.Michael Schuman, “Why America Is Afraid of TikTok” at The Atlantic (July 30, 2020)
The legal situation is a little more complicated than at first sight. Because American content is saved on servers in Virginia and Singapore, ByteDance is not necessarily obligated to give the CCP its content. but the legal boundaries are hazy, as Schuman explains:
The fact that there is no agreement on what should be a rather simple legal point illustrates the real problem: Chinese laws are written in a loosey-goosey fashion to allow officials the wiggle room to more or less do as they please. More than that, the Communist Party doesn’t always abide by the niceties of legal processes.Michael Schuman, “Why America Is Afraid of TikTok” at The Atlantic (July 30, 2020)
If TikTok is deemed a national security risk, then any Chinese-based company is a security risk. And that is why the TikTok case is closely scrutinized. It is a test case for other Chinese companies that want to compete with Silicon Valley. Unfortunately, Chinese entrepreneurs and business owners who just want to compete in a conventional way lose out because the CCP wants to have it both ways: a free market that promotes entrepreneurialism but one that is also controlled by the government.
2. Virtual eugenics: TikTok censors “ugly” people
Whether or not TikTok sends user data to the Chinese government, there is clear evidence that it censors content in a way that most people would find discriminatory. In March, The Intercept disclosed internal documents from ByteDance instructing TikTok moderators to curate the user experience. The moderators were to delete or downplay content (by not placing it in the “For You” feed) if it depicted people with “abnormal body shape,” “ugly facial looks,” dwarfism, and “obvious beer belly,” “too many wrinkles,” “eye disorders,” and many other “low quality” features. Content depicting poverty, slums, or even a crack in the wall was also hidden from new users.
The mere appearance of residential disrepair or crooked teeth in the frame, the document shows, could mean the difference between worldwide distribution and relative invisibility.Sam Biddle, Paulo Victor Ribeiro, and Tatiana Dias, “Invisible Censorship” at The Intercept (March 15, 2020)
The impetus behind this kind of virtual eugenics is to make the videos more appealing so that they attract and keep new users.
Wired Magazine recently featured testimonials that the app censors or downgrades Black users for seemingly innocuous content. When users whose content was deleted or profile suspended reached out to TikTok for answers, they weren’t given any reasons for the ban. Additionally, a German newspaper found that TikTok “artificially suppressed access to videos created by disabled, overweight, and LGBT users,” ostensibly to prevent bullying. But nothing in the documents obtained by The Intercept or by the German newspaper mentioned bullying as an issue for users.
In another initiative to attract new users, TikTok employees apparently searched Instagram for videos of “nice-looking” people, mainly women, using subjects such as #BeachGirls, to post on TikTok via shadow accounts. While that’s not illegal, perhaps, it shows little regard for consent.
3. TikTok censors politically sensitive content
Not only does TikTok censor content by “unattractive” users, it also manipulates content. We know from the Associated Press and Politico’s investigations into fake Twitter accounts that the CCP uses social media platforms to sway public opinion abroad. There is little reason to believe the Chinese government would ignore the billions of people it can reach through TikTok.
In 2019, The Guardian, reported obtaining documents that told TikTok moderators to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or Falun Gong. TikTok told The Guardian that those guidelines have been retired. More recently, however, two U.S. teen girls had videos removed or their accounts suspended for posting content critical of the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang (Uyghur Autonomous Region). Hana Hassan has had multiple videos removed and her account temporarily suspended multiple times. The only reason given was that she violated guidelines on terrorism-related content. Feroza Aziz appeared to be doing a three-part video about beauty tips but she also criticized the Chinese government. She was told her video was taken down in error because other content she had posted violated community guidelines.
The Intercept tells us that TikTok’s censorship guidelines come from ByteDance in Beijing and are then disseminated to the company’s regional offices. According to anonymous sources, the result is “a muddle of Beijing authoritarianism crossed with the usual Silicon Valley prudishness.”
While TikTok is in itself a fairly innocuous idea—silly sixty-second videos— it has the potential to amass data and surveil people in the U.S. and other countries. At The Atlantic, Sherman observes that “TikTok shows the best and worst of modern China—both its boundless potential to generate wealth and ideas that can benefit everybody and the fear and conflict caused by its expansive and expanding authoritarianism.”
Unfortunately, China-based entrepreneurs have no recourse if they do not want to work with the Chinese government or if they wish to protect user data. Hence many countries are growing more hesitant to work with Chinese companies. The CCP has proven through its actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, as well as among its own citizens, that it has no problem sacrificing rights and freedoms for security and control.
Note: Kevin Mayer, formerly Walt Disney’s top streaming executive, has resigned after three months as CEO at TikTok and COO for ByteDance (Reuters, August 26, 2020). In other news, WalMart stated that it is bidding on the U.S. assets.
You may also find these articles by Heather Zeiger on China and the manipulation of social media and culture helpful:
The Dragon’s Deception: Conspiracy theories and false numbers: China’s global attempt to rewrite the history of coronavirus (COVID-19) is running up against incriminating evidence “An investigation by ProPublica and the UN shows that China has used thousands of Twitterbots, as well as hacked accounts, to applaud the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the heroes who stopped the coronavirus in China. Twitterbots, along with Chinese state-controlled media, are also spreading conspiracy theories about the “real” origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”
The Age of the Wolf Warrior: China’s post-pandemic strategy The younger diplomats take their cue from a Chinese Rambo-style movie and the rewritten history they learned at school.