Shortcuts / 11 April 2024

The push to ban TikTok

If you know somebody under 18yo there’s a strong chance that they’re on TikTok, the massively popular social media app for making and sharing short videos. But as popular as TikTok is, many governments are worried about it being owned by a Chinese company… and the US House of Reps recently went as far as passing a bill that could ban TikTok from their country.

Are we about to get some old people talking about TikTok?
Look out kids, it’s gonna get cheugy! But also, hopefully not – we’re not really here to talk about the latest TikTok trends or memes, thank goodness… Instead, this Shortcut is about the way that governments around the world are grappling with the success of this hugely popular app.

Just how popular is it?
According to media reports, TikTok hit 1.9 billion users worldwide last year and is predicted to grow to over 2 billion users this year. Facebook had 2.7 billion users back in 2019, so TikTok still isn’t the biggest social media app… but it is certainly growing quickly.

Why are some people concerned about that growth?
It all boils down to the fact that TikTok is owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance, which has its headquarters in Beijing. Geopolitically speaking, China is in tension with Western countries like Australia and the United States… and, to put it in a nutshell, the worry is that China’s government could use TikTok to undermine democracies…

That’s a big, bold claim. Let’s unpack…
Good idea. There are 2 main fears about exactly how China could undermine other countries using TikTok. The first is by accessing the data of TikTok users – some people worry that Chinese intelligence could gain a tactical advantage by accessing the TikTok data of people it wants to track or blackmail.

How does TikTok respond to that concern?
TikTok says it “has not provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we if asked”. But that hasn’t reassured people, because of a couple of specific reasons…

Uh oh, what reasons?
Well, in 2017 China passed a national security law that lays out a vague requirement for all Chinese companies or citizens to “support” the country’s intelligence operations… Which some people say means that TikTok would have to hand over user data if asked by China’s government. But also, people don’t trust TikTok’s handling of user data because they’ve used the app to spy on journalists in the past…

Wait, they have?
Back in 2022, the company was trying to find out which of its employees was leaking to journalists, and so they accessed data from the accounts of the journalists. The journalists found out, of course, and the incident was a huge own goal for TikTok… To be clear, TikTok did fire the team that spied on the journalists, but the incident really brought home that first major fear about TikTok.

What about the second big fear, what’s that?
The second major concern around TikTok is that the Chinese government could use the app to secretly influence the beliefs and politics of other countries, via the content on the app.

How exactly would that work?
The way TikTok functions is that you basically just scroll through an infinite feed of videos that TikTok chooses for you using an algorithm… And the worry here is that the app could be manipulated to choose videos that China wants people to see. For example, anti-democratic propaganda…

That sounds like a James Bond plot…
Look, this does sound very shadowy, but we know that internal company algorithms are hard to monitor, and that the kinds of messages people see online do affect their worldview… So, a lot of people really do worry about covert TikTok influence campaigns.

Well then, what are governments doing about it?
Let’s start in 2020, with the then-president of the United States, Donald Trump… At the time he was not a fan of TikTok, and he signed an executive order in August 2020 that said TikTok had 45 days to be sold to an American owner or be banned.

Dramatic! What happened?
Trump’s order started a scramble amongst American tech companies to try and buy TikTok. The names in the mix were Microsoft, as well as a joint bid by Walmart and a tech company called Oracle. Meanwhile, TikTok was saying that any data about US citizens was kept in US data centres… But in the end, none of the above really mattered.

Why not?
The executive order faced legal challenges that meant a ban was never implemented, and then when Trump lost the election the new president, Joe Biden, dropped the plan. So that was the United States in 2020… But in India, in that same year, it was a very different story…

What happened in India?
For context, China and India share a border, and they have had tensions over that border in the past. Then, in early June 2020, those tensions turned into full-on combat between Indian and Chinese soldiers, with deaths on both sides.

What does that have to do with TikTok?
In response to the border clash, India’s government made a snap decision to ban TikTok entirely, which came into effect on June 29, 2020… and that’s pretty much the whole story. For a country of 1.4 billion, TikTok just disappeared overnight.

Other social media companies tried to fill the void – YouTube launched its Shorts videos in India, and Instagram launched Reels… But a lot of former Indian TikTok creators say that those platforms just weren’t the same.

What about other countries?
Here in Australia, we haven’t contemplated an outright ban, but as of April last year, TikTok has been banned on the work phones of government employees. That includes public servants, as well as politicians. And it turns out that this type of ban is relatively common…

What do you mean?
Many other countries have also banned public officials from having TikTok on their devices. For example: The Netherlands, Ireland, France, Denmark, Austria, Belgium, and the UK. Taiwan, which also has tensions with China, has banned TikTok from government devices, and so has the United States… But that’s not all the US is trying to do…

You’re talking about the potential blanket ban?
Exactly. In mid-March of this year, the US House of Representatives suddenly passed a bill that could force TikTok to sell to a US company, or else, it would be banned. Sounds familiar?

That’s a lot like Trump’s 2020 plan…
It is, but an important thing to note here is the current plan is in a bit of limbo. For a bill to become law in the US, it has to pass both the House of Representatives and the Senate. So far, we don’t have a date for the Senate to discuss the law, so for now TikTok just has the threat of the law hanging over it…

Not a great position for TikTok to be in…
No, and for the 170 million Americans using TikTok, the threat of a ban is pretty unpleasant. There were stories going around about members of Congress getting calls from kids in classrooms saying, ‘Please don’t ban TikTok, I really like it…’ It’s also clear that a TikTok ban would wipe out a lot of small businesses that rely on the platform to reach customers.

Sounds like a ban would be huge news…
It would certainly have a massive effect on Americans and ripple effects around the world.

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