TikTok: The story of a social media giant
President Donald Trump has warned that he will ban TikTok unless an American company purchases its operations in the United States. How has an app attracted millions of users but became a national security risk in just two years?
He stands alone, a red gummy bear atop a dimly lit stage, and Adele’s unmistakable voice singing. Then, as the invisible crowd joins the next line, the camera moves to reveal hundreds of other gummy bears singing along with Someone Like You.
He is silly, cute and extremely watchable. And for the fledgling video app TikTok, it did more in 15 seconds than marketing budgets in the millions.
Released in December 2018, it quickly garnered millions of views on the app but more importantly, it was garnered by thousands of impersonators on other social networks.
The world was alerted to the app, and since then TikTok has attracted a vibrant, creative and young audience of hundreds of millions.
The origins of TikTok are different from the start-up fairy tale we heard earlier. This isn’t an empire built by a couple of friends with a great idea in mom’s garage.
It actually started out as three different apps.
The first was an app called Musical.ly, which launched in Shanghai in 2014 but had strong commercial ties in the US and a healthy audience in that key market.
In 2016, Chinese tech giant ByteDance launched a similar service in China called Douyin. It attracted 100 million users in China and Thailand in the space of one year.
ByteDance decided it was on something and wanted to expand under a different brand: TikTok. Then, in 2018 he bought Musical.ly, closed it, and started the global expansion of TikTok.
TikTok’s secret lies in its use of music and an extraordinarily powerful algorithm, which learns what content users love to see much faster than many other apps.
Users can choose from a huge database of songs, filters and movie clips to sync to.
It has inspired some huge trends like Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road or Curtis Roach’s Bored in the House. The BBC News theme tune also went viral as Brits shed light on daily coronavirus briefings.
Many people 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 like based on the content they have already engaged with.
It is also where it displays content it thinks might go viral. The idea is that if the content is good it will travel, regardless of the creator’s follower count.
Many TikTok communities have emerged, united by the types of content they enjoy or their sense of identity.
Communities such as “Alt” or “Deep” often feature creators who are not necessarily looking to fill their wallets but who are simply on the platform to create fun or informative content. For them, it’s not about winning the attention of big brands, it’s about finding like-minded people.
The growth of TikTok and its sister app Douyin has been rapid.
As of July last year, the apps already had a billion downloads worldwide, of which 500 million were active users. A year later they were over two billion downloads and about 800 million active users.
The rapid growth of the app has also put TikTok at the forefront of the minds of politicians. What does it mean to have a Chinese app that so quickly becomes an important part of modern life?
Although the allegations are vague, India and the US fear that TikTok is collecting sensitive data from users that could be used by the Chinese government for espionage. It has been claimed that every large Chinese enterprise has an internal “cell” that is accountable to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, with many of its agents tasked with collecting secrets.
India initially banned TikTok in April 2019 after a court ordered its removal from app stores claiming it was being used to spread 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 had received complaints about apps that “steal and covert user data.”
The U.S. government opened a review of the national security platform in late 2019 after both a Democratic and a Republican lawmaker suggested it posed a risk.
More recently, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said TikTok was among 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 disclosed what they are looking for.
It is obviously worth noting that relations between these countries are strained, with the US disagreeing with China over trade, Indian and Chinese forces involved in border clashes, and the UK opposing new security laws to Hong Kong.
Exactly what TikTok does with the data is disputed.
- Which videos are watched and commented on
- Location data
- Phone model and operating system
- Typing rhythms when people type
It was also revealed that it was reading users’ copy and paste notes, but also dozens of other apps including Reddit, LinkedIn and the BBC News app, and nothing sinister was discovered.
Most evidence indicates that TikTok’s data collection is comparable to other data-hungry social networks like Facebook.
However, unlike its US-based rivals, TikTok says it is willing to offer an unprecedented level of transparency in order to alleviate some of the concerns about data collection and flow.
New TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer, a former American Disney executive, said he will allow experts to examine the code behind his algorithms. This is hugely significant in an industry where data and code are tightly protected.
However, the concerns are not only about the collected data, but also more theoretical: could the Chinese government force ByteDance to hand over the data?
The same concerns have been raised for Huawei.
China’s 2017 National Security Act obliges any organization or citizen to “support, assist and cooperate with the work of state intelligence.”
However, like Chinese telecom giant Huawei, the heads of TikTok have repeatedly said that if that happens, “we would definitely say no to any data requests.”
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 though the hashtag attracted billions of views, there was criticism that black creator content was suppressed and protest-related hashtags hidden.
This isn’t the first time TikTok’s algorithm has been criticized for the way content is chosen.
A report from The Intercept suggested that moderators were being encouraged to take content off priority from anyone deemed too “ugly” or poor.
Last year, the Guardian reported that TikTok censored material deemed politically sensitive, including footage of the Tiananmen Square protests and Tibetan independence demands.
Further reports from the Washington Post suggested that moderators in China had the final say on approving videos.
ByteDance said those guidelines have since been dropped and that all moderation was independent of Beijing.
Yet ongoing discussions with Microsoft over whether to buy TikTok’s US assets show that it is one of the most significant technology products of recent years.
TikTok has emerged as a meeting point for under 25s, while apps like Twitter and Instagram are often seen as being for older users.
But for those who use TikTok to make their voices heard, the possibility of a ban seems like a loss.
Competitors’ downloads of shortform video apps Byte and Triller have surged in the US as users prepare to jump ship.
But many, it seems, will cling to TikTok until the very last moment, if that time comes.