President Donald Trump has warned he will ban TikTok unless a US company purchases its US operations. So how did an app attract millions of users but become viewed as a national security risk in just two years?
Alone, he stands, a gummy red bear atop a dimly lit stage, and Adele’s unmistakable voice singing. Then, as the unseen crowd joins the next line, the camera moves to reveal hundreds of other gummy bears singing along with Someone Like You.
It’s silly and cute and extremely observable. And for the fledgling video app TikTok, it did more in 15 seconds than multi-million marketing budgets.
Released in December 2018, it quickly racked up millions of views on the app but – more importantly – was picked up by thousands of copiers on other social networks.
The world was alerted by the app and TikTok has since drawn a vibrant, creative and young audience of hundreds of millions of people.
The origins of TikTok are different from the story of the fairytale start-up that we’ve heard before. It’s not an empire built by a couple of friends with a great idea in their mom’s garage.
He actually started his life with three different apps.
The first was an American app called Musical.ly, which launched in 2014 and brought healthy customers to the country.
In 2016, Chinese tech giant ByteDance launched a similar service in China called Douyin. It attracted 100 million users in China and Thailand within a year.
ByteDance decided it was something and wanted to expand under another brand – TikTok. So, in 2018, he bought Musical.ly, integrated it, and began TikTok’s global expansion.
The secret of TikTok is its use of music and an extraordinarily powerful algorithm, which learns what users like to see much faster than many other apps.
Users can choose from a huge database of songs, filters, and video clips for lip syncing.
It has inspired huge trends like Old Town Road by Lil Nas X or Bored in the House by Curtis Roach. Even the BBC News thematic theme went viral as Brits shed light on daily coronavirus briefings.
Many people will spend most of their time on the For You page. This is where the algorithm puts content in front of users, anticipating what they will enjoy based on the content they have already engaged with.
This is also where the content he thinks could go viral. The idea is that if the content is good, it will travel, regardless of how many followers the creator has.
Many TikTok communities have sprung up, brought together by the types of content they enjoy.
Other users, including LGBT and non-influential creators, are on the platform to create informative or entertaining content for like-minded people.
The growth of TikTok and its sister app Douyin has been rapid.
As of July of last year, apps had already recorded one billion downloads worldwide, including 500 million active users. A year later, they were over two billion downloads and around 800 million active users.
The app’s rapid growth has also put TikTok at the forefront of politicians’ concerns. What does it mean to have a Chinese app so quickly become a big part of modern life?
Although the accusations are vague, India and the United States are concerned that TikTok is collecting sensitive user data that could be used by the Chinese government for espionage. It has been alleged that every large Chinese company has an internal “cell” responsible to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, with a large number of its agents tasked with collecting secrets.
India initially banned TikTok in April 2019, after a court ordered its removal from app stores while it was being used to distribute pornography. This decision was overturned on appeal.
When it banned TikTok again, along with dozens of other Chinese-owned apps in June 2020, the Indian government said it received complaints about apps “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting user data.”
The US government opened a national security review of the platform in late 2019, after a Democrat and Republican lawmaker suggested it posed a risk.
More recently, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that TikTok was one of a number of Chinese apps “providing data directly to the Chinese Communist Party.”
The UK Information Commissioner’s Office and Australian intelligence agencies are currently reviewing the app but have not revealed what they are looking for.
Interestingly, of course, relations between these countries are strained, with the United States at odds with China on trade, Indian and Chinese forces involved in border clashes, and the United Kingdom opposing the new security laws in Hong Kong.
What exactly TikTok does with the data is disputed.
- What videos are watched and commented on
- Location data
- Phone model and operating system
- Typing rhythms when people type
It has also been revealed to read users’ cut-and-paste clipboards, but so do dozens of other apps, including Reddit, LinkedIn, and the BBC News app, and nothing bad is there. was discovered.
Most of the evidence indicates that TikTok’s data collection is comparable to other data-hungry social networks such as Facebook.
However, unlike its US-based rivals, TikTok says it is ready to offer an unprecedented level of transparency in order to alleviate some of the fears about its data collection and flow.
TikTok’s new CEO Kevin Mayer, a former US executive at Disney, has said he will allow experts to examine the code behind his algorithms. This is extremely important in an industry where data and code are closely watched.
However, the concerns are not just about the data collected, they are also more theoretical – could the Chinese government force ByteDance to transmit data?
The same concerns have been raised about Huawei.
China’s National Security Law of 2017 requires any organization or citizen to “support, assist and cooperate with state intelligence work.”
However, like Chinese telecom giant Huawei, TikTok bosses have repeatedly said that if that happens, “we would definitely say no to any data request.”
Another concern is the possibility of censorship or the use of the app to influence public debates.
TikTok is one of the first platforms that many young people will come to share social activism content.
In May, he promoted #BlackLivesMatter as a trend. But even as the hashtag has attracted billions of views, there have been criticisms that black creator content is being removed and hashtags related to the protests hidden.
This isn’t the first time that TikTok’s algorithm has come under fire for the way content is chosen.
A report from The Intercept suggested that moderators were encouraged to lower the priority of content from anyone deemed too “ugly” or poor.
Last year, the Guardian reported that TikTok had censored material deemed politically sensitive, including footage of the Tiananmen Square protests and Tibet’s demands for independence.
Other reports from the Washington Post suggest that moderators in China have the final say on the approval of the videos.
ByteDance said those guidelines have since been phased out and any moderation is independent of Beijing.
Still, ongoing discussions with Microsoft over whether to buy TikTok’s U.S. operations show that it has been one of the most important tech products for years.
TikTok has become a hangout for those under 25, while apps like Twitter and Instagram are often seen as aimed at older users.
But for those who use TikTok to make their voices heard, the possibility of a ban feels like a waste.
Downloads from short-lived video app competitors Byte and Triller have increased in the United States as users prepare to jump.
But many, it seems, will hold on to TikTok until the very last moment – if that moment comes.