Shortcuts / 15 July 2020


It’s a hugely popular, Chinese-founded, social media app but many countries, including Australia, have concerns about TikTok’s ties to China. Here we step through how TikTok became the sensation it is now, what those concerns are, and the steps being taken to address them.

What is TikTok?
TikTok is a social media app. It has been downloaded 2 billion times and it’s particularly popular with teens and those in their early 20s.

How does it work?
The medium is known for the viral, short-form videos its users create. We’re talking dance challenges, people sharing DIY fashion and home renovation projects. Anyone can sign up for for free, not unlike Facebook or Instagram. And from there you can share short videos up to a minute long with whatever your version of fun is on TikTok and other platforms. What sets it apart from other social media platforms is that it is largely full of positive, uplifting content.

When was it launched?
The first iteration of TikTok, then called Douyin, was launched by Chinese tech company ByteDance back in 2016. Despite just taking 200 days to develop the app, within a year Douyin had 100 million users with an average of 1 billion videos views per day.

How did it find international success?
After finding success in China, ByteDance decided to launch into the international market, which they did under the name TikTok in September 2017. The launch went well in many Asian markets, but it wasn’t until ByteDance purchased US-based app in 2017 that they really cracked the US market. was already fairly well established in the US, it was a similar concept, short form lip syncing music videos, ByteDance snapped that up for a cool US $1 billion and for a while ran TikTok and separately before shutting down and merging it, and all its users, across to TikTok in August 2018. From there, it took off. By October 2018 it became the most downloaded app in the US. And by the end of 2018, the app had become available in over 150 markets and in 75 languages. And just to give a sense of just how widespread its popularity is, the Chinese version of TikTok has about 500 million monthly active users, India had nearly 190 million downloads of the app, followed by the US, with 41 million users, Turkey, with 23 million, and Russia with nearly 20 million. Australia has an estimated 1.6 million users.

TikTok’s success has brought it to the attention of lawmakers around the world. What are their concerns?
TikTok really is the first Chinese social media app to make it big in English-speaking countries, so with that comes heavy scrutiny, particularly around the use of data. Like many other apps including Facebook and Instagram, TikTok collects users’ data – including personal details such as your name, age, phone and social-media contacts, location, as well as the content you post, such as photos and videos. But the concerns are less about the kind of data being collected by TikTok, and more about who is accessing that data. And that’s becuase TikTok is owned by a Chinese company with reports it has links to the Chinese Communist Party. And the claim is that users’ data can be accessed by the Chinese government. Even though ByteDance has said that TikTok is unavailable in China and its data is stored outside of China, its privacy policy reserves the company’s right to share any information with Chinese authorities. And that’s a red flag because the law in China says that Chinese companies are obligated to share data with the Chinese government if requested, although TikTok has continued to deny it would do so. To try and smooth the way, TikTok hired Kevin Mayer as CEO – he has deep connections to Disney. And that move was seen as a step to win over those who think the platform is a threat to America’s national security.

What could China potentially do with users’ data?
While many Facebook users give away their data every day, it’s to companies that are accountable to shareholders, investors and governments where there’s more transparency about how data is managed. And the concern expressed by many is that in the hands of the Chinese, who have an opaque legal and government system, that data can be weaponised, potentially against the West.

What about censorship concerns?
American lawmakers and others have have expressed concern that TikTok censors material that the Chinese government does not like. TikTok has denied the accusation. So for example, some have accused TikTok of censoring things like references to the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibetan independence, and persecuted groups including the Muslim Uyghurs. And this is what has experts worried, as it could start to impact the way people understand world events.

How has the US reacted?
It was December 2019 when the U.S. Army announced a TikTok ban on military devices. Suspicious of Chinese technology, several branches of the United States military barred personnel from having the app on government-issued smartphones. The Trump administration is also making noises about banning TikTok in the US. Politicians are worried the Chinese government could use it to spy on US citizens. President Donald Trump has also suggested it could be a retaliatory measure after the coronavirus spread from China to the world.

What about Australia?
Australia has largely followed the US on TikTok, and at the start of the year we banned TikTok from the devices of Defence personnel. And now there are calls for greater scrutiny of the app, particularly how it collects and stores data, and there’s also a push for TikTok to appear before an Australian senate inquiry over those security and privacy concerns. And on the flipside, there are a number of Australian politicians, the most high-profile of whom is Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, who use the app and say they have ‘no concerns’ about it. But in light of the direction the US is heading, a ban has been suggested here as well. And our Attorney-General Christian Porter has said that the government was working to combat disinformation through social media.

And India?
India is the only country so far to have banned TikTok altogether. It was the world’s biggest user of the app, accounting for more than 30% of downloads. The government there says the ban is due to “credible” evidence that India’s national sovereignty and citizens’ privacy was under threat, particularly as tensions rose between India and China during the recent border skirmishes.

Squiz recommends:
Forbes profile on TikTok founder Zhang Yiming 
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