Maybe it is a generational thing, but I don’t get TikTok. The social media app allows users to share brief (15-second) videos — as if I need more opportunities to shorten my attention span. I must be an outlier, though: It is one of the most popular apps of the last two years, with a reported 2 billion downloads, and has 10 million users in Japan, 110 million in the United States and 200 million in India (before it was banned in that country). That extraordinary growth has turned its parent, ByteDance, which acquired the app in 2017, into one of the world’s most valuable startup companies, with a value approximating $150 billion.
Its popularity reflects the creativity it nurtures — and a user’s ability to monetize his or her audience. Followers can send money to video creators they like: Tens of millions of dollars have been “gifted” in the U.S. alone in the last two years.
While many consider TikTok a frivolous distraction, it originated in China and in today’s supercharged politics, that means it is suspect. The U.S. government has warned that TikTok constitutes a security threat and President Donald Trump has said that he will ban the app as a result. He announced last weekend that he would order the company to stop doing business in the U.S. by Sept. 15, although it could continue to operate if it was sold to a U.S. company. (Microsoft is reportedly in negotiations to acquire the company’s U.S. operations.)
Peter Navarro, one of the administration’s leading China hawks and an economic adviser to the president, made plain the suspicions surrounding the company when he charged that “given China’s civil-military infusion … can we trust any company that operates in China, has servers in China, has software in China, to protect your children?”
In theory, TikTok poses three distinct risks. The first is that the app is a Trojan horse that can surveil users. That theoretical concern became real a few months ago when researchers discovered that the app accessed users’ clipboards, which could expose sensitive data, including passwords. The company blamed anti-spam features in the software and quickly disabled them. Strike 1.
The second concern is one now raised with every piece of Chinese information technology, whether it’s hardware or software: Because the company is subject to Chinese law, Beijing can and will gain access to all user information it has. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that people should download the app only if they want their “private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.” Again, researchers examined the app and concluded that TikTok’s data collection is consistent with that of similar applications. Will Strafach, an iOS security researcher, was cited in Wired magazine saying that “in context, TikTok appears to be pretty tame compared to other apps.”
(There has to be something there, at least potentially. One reason Microsoft is interested in buying TikTok is the data it generates on user interests, which could be used for training artificial intelligence or sharpening its own marketing.)
It is hard to see how information from TikTok’s target audience — teenagers — is of much value. China is reportedly behind other, much more significant, and ultimately more valuable, hacks of personal data. Still, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission earlier this year fined TikTok $5.7 million for allegedly violating rules to protect children’s privacy — by collecting names, email addresses and other data — by its predecessor, the karaoke app Musical.ly. Strike 2.
The age of TikTok’s target audience, however, validates the third concern, that contents on the app can be manipulated to convey particular messages and shape users’ perceptions at a formative age. While the app is still relatively new, it could develop into a content and news ecosystem like Facebook. In that world, censoring messages and popularizing images could go a long way to promote the Chinese government’s view of the world and its narrative, especially among users that have not yet developed their critical faculties. TikTok’s potential as the thin wedge of an influence operation must be taken seriously.
The record is worrisome. Popular hashtags on social media platforms like Twitter but which might be controversial or might anger the Chinese government — such as those related to Hong Kong politics or protests — are practically nonexistent on TikTok. Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok and available only in China, bans topics that Beijing deems subversive or that might cause “discomfort.”
Two years ago, Zhang Yiming, founder of ByteDance, issued a self-criticism for content on Douyin that he said was “in deviation of socialist core values” and promised that his company would work to ensure party “voices are broadcast to strength.” That reach extends beyond China’s borders: In 2019, a U.S. user was banned after posting a video about China’s treatment of its Uighur population.
ByteDance counters those charges by noting that user data is stored in the country it is generated and that content and moderation policies in the U.S. are led by a U.S.-based team. Additional details about policy have not been forthcoming, however. When media reports revealed guidance to censor topics that might anger Beijing, company officials said it was outdated. Strike 3.
Other governments are casting a similarly skeptical eye at TikTok — sometimes as a result of their own concerns and in other causes because of U.S. prompting. After a clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers on their contested border earlier this year, New Delhi banned TikTok (along with 50 other Chinese apps). Indonesia banned TikTok in 2018 for inappropriate content (it has since been reinstated) and Pakistan has threatened to do the same.
Japan is contemplating an official ban as well. A Liberal Democratic Party study group has called for greater controls on TikTok to protect user data and to ensure that Tokyo’s policies are in sync with those of Washington. Saitama Prefecture and the city of Kobe have suspended information services that use the TikTok platform, and Osaka and Hiroshima may do the same.
Banning TikTok makes some sense, but it also risks promoting the internet censorship and segregation that is traditionally associated with authoritarian governments. The readiness of Western governments to aggressively manage social media platforms validates the autocrats approach. Those governments must make their case better, providing actual examples, not hypotheticals and devising the least intrusive responses. TikTok could help by constructing more firewalls and by being more transparent with its algorithms and its guidance.
Western governments have every incentive to work with TikTok and not just because most parents seek distractions for their teenagers. The engineers and entrepreneurs who developed TikTok are more worldly and open-minded than their elders. They appreciate the need for connections to the outside world and the dangers of insularity. That mindset should be nurtured and cultivated. Along with longer attention spans.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”