Unless you’re part of that uncontacted tribe on North Sentinel Island that keeps killing everyone who tries to visit (pandemic goals), you’ve heard of TikTok. Maybe you’re addicted to it, or maybe new tech just scares and confuses you. Whatever the case, TikTok is part of the cultural landscape at this point. It’s a thing.
But there are still a ton of questions surrounding this social media app. Questions you probably haven’t had the time nor the wherewithal to get answered. The headlines have probably permeated its way into your psyche: TikTok is getting banned, You should delete TikTok, Trump is banning TikTok, TikTok is a security threat – or variations of that. So what’s actually going on here? And is TikTok safe to use?
How TikTok began…
Well, to get a proper grip on all this, we gotta go back, way back to the beginning – back to a time when Pharrell wore big hats, idiots were throwing ice water over their heads and people actually liked Ellen. That’s right. Get in loser, we’re going to 2014.
So it’s 2014, and young Chinese entrepreneurs and long-time mates Alex Zhu and Luyu Yang are in the US, and things aren’t amazing. According to reports by various outlets, the two had raised US$250,000 and spent half of 2013 working on a short-form video-based educational app, called “Cicada,” and well, it was a flop. So, with just 8% of their budget remaining, they were faced with two options: return to investors with the remaining funds and their tails between their legs, or take one last gamble – an idea that would take off and make it all worth it.
They went with the gamble. And then, from the most innocuous of circumstances, the idea came. On a train ride from San Francisco to California, Zhu (as he tells it) noticed a bunch of teenagers passing around their phones to each other, some listening to music, some taking photos and editing them with emojis and the like. Zhu thought, if he could combine these features into an app, it might have legs.
And so he did just that. In July 2014 – in just 30 days – the team behind the failed Cicada brought Zhu’s idea to fruition in the form of Musical.ly; an app that would allow users to create 15-second long lip-syncing music videos they could edit and share with their friends. Things were slow initially, but after a few updates that allowed users to follow each other, “favourite” posts, and collaborate with other users remotely via the new “duets” feature, downloads skyrocketed. By July 2015, the app had hit the fabled number one position on iTunes. With the US conquered, Zhu headed back to China, linking up with co-founder Yang, to begin building the company out of Shanghai.
For a while, things kept trucking along pretty nicely for Musical.ly. The app continued to grow in popularity thanks in no small part to the untimely death of Vine (rip), which resulted in a tidal wave of Vine celebs and their fans surging over to Musical.ly. But it’s not until late 2017 that shit would really explode.
Enter ByteDance – a huge Chinese conglomerate with deep pockets (a reported US$20 billion at the time), an even deeper desire for growth, and their targets firmly set on acquiring Musical.ly, which they did, for a cool US$1 billion. To be clear here, by huge conglomerate, we mean fucken ‘UGE. Although you may not have heard of them in the west, given the west and China basically has a separate internet (but we’ll get into that later). Basically, think of them like the Chinese equivalent of Facebook; big scary-corporation-with-awkward-young-billionaire-at-the-helm-hoarding-all-of-your-data vibes.
Less than a year after taking over, ByteDance began to execute the masterplan of growth: combining the huge foreign user base of Musical.ly with their own domestically popular video-sharing app Douyin – which was already operating in Japan and Thailand under the name (you guessed it) TikTok – into one entity. Musical.ly was dead, long live TikTok.
And here enters TikTok as we know it. TikTok’s popularity soars both in China and abroad. In September 2018, it surpasses Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat in monthly installs in the App Store. By 2019, ByteDance is valued at a whopping US$75 billion. Essentially, things are pretty fucking sweet for TikTok. Money keeps pouring in, hundreds of millions of social users across the planet are using the app, the sun is shining, birds are chirping, what could possibly go wrong?
Whatever you do, don’t say the president of China looks like Winnie-the-Pooh
Back in 2013, Chinese president Xi Jinping visited the US to meet with then-president Barack Obama, during which a picture of the two leaders walking side by side was taken. The picture seemed ordinary enough, until this started making the rounds on the internet:
Then, during a 2014 meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a picture was taken of an uncomfortable handshake between the two leaders. Before long, this image was being widely shared:
And you can see why, I mean, he kind of does look like Winnie-the-pooh. But the thing is, China’s great leader Xi Jinping didn’t seem to much like the comparison. So Chinese government censors reportedly began wiping the internet of any material that drew comparisons between the great and powerful leader and the adorable little honey-loving bear.
This widespread censoring of Pooh was actually carried out to great effect thanks to the fact that China essentially has its own internet. A huge number of apps and sites that are staple across most of the planet aren’t accessible in China thanks to a bunch of legislative actions and technologies known colloquially as The Great Firewall of China. Google? Banned. Facebook? Banned. YouTube? You bet your sweet ass that’s banned. In this way, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) controls the internet, and therefore controls the populace.
With this power, the Chinese government can ensure that any negative opinions or less-than-favourable portrayals of the CCP and its leaders are quickly scrubbed from the internet. Here’s where things get messy for TikTok, which is owned by ByteDance, which is a Chinese company. See where this is going?
TikTok’s official stance is that it does not censor any videos on the grounds of being anti-China or anti-CCP, but leaked documents obtained by The Guardian reveal otherwise. The documents reveal instructions for TikTok’s moderators to “censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong.”
Late last year, US teenager and TikTok user Feroza Aziz posted a 40-second video on the platform in which she talked about the detention and mistreatment of Uighur Muslims in China. Knowing that such content would likely be taken down by TikTok, she disguised the video as a short make-up tutorial. The video had 1.4 million views and nearly 500k likes on the app before it was finally banned.
These video removals and shadow bannings are apparently so common on the app that it has become a widespread meme for teenagers who are shadowbanned to post videos of themselves singing the praises of China and the CCP. Most of these videos are jokes, but there’s an element of truth to the humour.
It’s because of this evident censorship, and therefore apparent bowing down to the CCP on the part of TikTok, that some feathers in the US government were beginning to rustle. If TikTok was censoring videos, what else was it doing? With TikTok so firmly entrenched in pop culture, and growing more popular by the day, America’s youth was now in danger of being propagandised, indoctrinated by the CCP; their data smuggled out of the country back to Beijing servers – so went the claims.
That’s some nice looking data you got there, kid, mind if I take it?
Ok here’s the thing yeah, before we go any further: let’s not pretend Facebook and Google are innocent little bunny rabbits. Social media and privacy don’t exactly go hand in hand, you are compromising your data and privacy every time you use any social media app. So this begs the question: what’s so different about TikTok?
Honestly, on a person-to-person level, not so much. But it’s when you zoom out and begin grouping datasets into valuable information that the whole threat-to-national-security thing comes into play. Basically, the fear is, if China was to get a hand on the data collected by TikTok, that would essentially give them a huge (and continually growing) dataset for which to profile an entire country, city by city, demographic by demographic, an almost endless stream of information sorted by population; likes or dislikes, political leanings, the power to track the location of an entire population thanks to location pings. And as far as governments like the US are concerned, it’s fine if Facebook or Google does this (which, they do, obvs) because they’re good ol’ American companies. But TikTok? Oh no, can’t be giving that info to “the enemy”.
Essentially, no one is saying TikTok is after your data specifically. Relax, you’re not that interesting. The Chinese government couldn’t give half a shit what you had for breakfast. However, a detailed dataset profiling the whole of the US population? Mmm now there’s some tasty data – some nice, delicious, potential-election-tampering knowledge right there. To be clear, this isn’t really a specifically anti-China stance by the US. If TikTok was owned by Russia, or any other foreign “threat”, the outcry would be the same.
Musical.ly founder Zhu, who still plays a big role at ByteDance, addressed these fears in a late 2019 interview with The New York Times, in which he reassured that TikTok did not censor videos that “displease China,” or share user data with China, or even ByteDance for that matter. All TikTok user data was stored in Virginia, he assured, with a backup server located in Singapore. When asked what he would do if Xi Jinping asked him personally to turn over user data or take down a video, Zhu reportedly responded without hesitation: “I would turn him down.”
But the issue is, Zhu, well-intentioned as he may be, wouldn’t really have much of a choice if Xi Jinping came knocking. According to China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, “any organization or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work in accordance with the law.” While Article 7 of the 2014 Counter-Espionage Law states: “When the state security organ investigates and understands the situation of espionage and collects relevant evidence, the relevant organizations and individuals shall provide it truthfully and may not refuse.”
Basically, if the CCP wants data from a Chinese company, it’s almost certainly going to get that data. With TikTok’s at-present more than 2 billion all-time downloads, and up to 80 million daily users in the US alone, that’s a lot of data.
So what happens if TikTok does get banned in Australia?
For that, we can look to India, who isn’t exactly on the best of terms with China. In June of this year, India bit the bullet and announced it would be banning 60 Chinese mobile apps, including TikTok, citing national security concerns. The move came after rising tensions between the two nations came to a head in a border clash in the remote Galwan Valley, high up in the Himalayas, which resulted in 20 Indian troop casualties and a further dozen believed to have been captured.
Before the ban, hundreds of millions of users in India had the app installed, making it TikTok’s biggest market – the loss of which reportedly cost ByteDance US$6 billion. A few weeks after the ban, the Mumbai Mirror said Indians were still “feeling a deep sense of withdrawal,” in a story titled Life after Tik-Tok. Deepak Ghubade, a 33-year-old sugarcane farmer from western India who had amassed 75,000 followers on TikTok before the government ban froze the app on his phone, went so far as to create something of a support group on WhatsApp comprising of 15 other “star TikTokers.”
“The chatter is about which app to join,” he said in an interview with Technode. “We decided that if we join another app, we should do so together” out of solidarity. One potential alternative that has emerged as a frontrunner amid the commotion is Instagram’s new “Reels” feature, which launched in India last month – the fourth nation to get the feature after Brazil, Germany, and France.
So what’s Reels? Glad you asked! Basically, it lets users create short videos, add music and creative filters, and share with people beyond their regular followers! Let’s cut the crap, Reels is basically a rip-off of TikTok. Facebook has done this before with the Snapchat-killing Instagram Stories feature, and it’s probs gonna do it again with some other schmuck app in the future. Circle of life man.
So far, the reception to Reels has been mixed, and only time will tell if it will be crowned the new king of short-form videos in India – or the rest of the world for that matter, if all this talk of TikTok bans from the US and the like come to fruition.
So will Scott Morrison ban TikTok in Australia? Not yet...
Shortly after India’s ban was announced, TikTok began facing global backlash over security concerns, including from Australia, a country with more than 1.6 million users on the app regularly. Last week, Trump gave ByteDance a September 15 deadline for which to organise the sale of TikTok’s US operations to American giant Microsoft – “a very big, secure, and American company,” as Trump described them. Trump also said the US Government should get a "substantial portion" of the sale price, a comment that has reportedly not gone down well in Beijing.
Meanwhile, here in Australia, TikTok looks safe. At least for now. After stating last month that the Australian government was looking into a potential ban over national security reasons, Scott Morrison ruled out the TikTok ban last week. “There's nothing at this point that would suggest to us that security interests are being compromised, or Australian citizens are being compromised,” said Morrison at the Aspen Security Forum.
Although Morrison’s comments weren’t entirely without concern. “People need to understand where the extension cord goes back to,” he said. “People should know that the line connects right back to China and they should exercise their own judgment about whether they should participate in those things or not.”
Should you delete TikTok?
The main event, the question you’ve all been asking, The Big Kahuna, ok I’ll stop. Look, as I said earlier, on a personal level, TikTok isn’t any worse than any other social media app on your phone. So as long as you exercise the same caution you would with any other app like FB or Insta, then it's cool to keep it.
However, given what we know about China’s approach to individual freedom, data collection, and privacy in general, you could be forgiven for feeling a little iffy about TikTok. Basically, as with most things, the answer isn’t so black and white.
And soon enough, if Australia eventually follows the path of India and seemingly the US, that question could well be taken out of your hands. So whatever man, if you wanna make a dumb video and share it on TikTok, go ahead, it won’t be the end of the world.
But whatever you do, don’t compare Xi Jinping to Winnie-the-Pooh.
Main Image Credit: Unsplash