The popular video-sharing app TikTok has recently been the subject of highly contested scrutiny around American national security and internet censorship. With over two billion downloads, how did the fastest growing app in the world widely known for its popularity with Gen Z and Millennials become so controversial?
The development of TikTok traces back to September 2016. The parent company of TikTok, ByteDance, founded by Zhang Yiming in 2012, first launched TikTok in 2017 for markets outside of mainland China and it came to the U.S. after merging with Musical.ly in the summer of 2018. Users of TikTok make sixty second or less long videos and enjoy a variety of content experiences. The “For You” page is the main interface of the app that curates content in real-time based on one’s user profile. The user profile includes the videos liked, commented, or shared, the accounts followed, the length of time certain videos are watched, and content created as well as language preference, location, country, age, and device type. TikTok’s statistics-based algorithm creates a “For You” page completely individual to the user with endless scrolling potential that no two people have the same TikTok experience.
Additionally, TikTok has gained popularity for its recommendation system. Viewers are exposed to all types of content, not just viral content, that is specific to their user profile. This allows videos to gain exposure to thousands or millions of people within hours while only feeding it to those who will find it valuable. TikTok has provided promotion of otherwise undiscovered musicians, social justice causes, sports, comedy, dances, memes, science experiments, commentary, and camaraderie despite having users with vastly different interests.
Concerns over the usage of TikTok began in 2019 that TikTok is a Trojan horse for the Chinese government to collect user data of billions of people. The U.S. Commerce Department has noted suspicions of content censorship and data collection. In August 2020, President Trump signed an executive order calling for the sale of TikTok’s U.S. operations to an American company or banning new downloads and updates for American users. Walmart, Microsoft, and Oracle among other companies were in talks with ByteDance about a sale or partnership but none occurred. On September 19, 2020, ByteDance announced a new company, TikTok Global, that would be based in the U.S. and responsible for all U.S. user concerns and data management with Oracle as a security partner. President Trump’s ban would enact the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which allows a president to stop foreign transactions during a national emergency. TikTok has denied all concerns and explained that its “content and moderation policies are led by our US-based team and are not influenced by any foreign government” and that it stores US user data in Virginia and Singapore exempting it from Chinese law.
For Concord Academy students the impact varied, as described by Max Gleb ’23 who claimed to have nearly 50,000 followers on his account that started in July, exposure on other platforms does not allow account growth the same exponential way. A ban would greatly reduce his following numbers and ability to connect with viewers as the analytics-based “For You” page allows new creators to be discovered rapidly.
Sam Klein ’23 explained, “[The loss will make life] less social and almost make it so [that] we can’t interact with each other as much. We are already kind [of] isolated due to being online and not in school. Removing them will take away another resource we have for our social lives.”
Sara McKenna ’21 mentioned that a TikTok ban would make her feel disconnected from our generation. This is echoed by Emma Myers Rafferty ’21 who said, “The culture and energy [TikTok has] created connects people in some pretty awesome ways.”
On the other hand, students also described a reduction of time wasted on TikTok. Christie Burnside ’22 explained, “I would be less easily distracted moving forward.”
Laila Mooraj ’23 added, “I would be okay with the removal of TikTok because it would reduce the time I waste.” For CA many students, a ban would hurt their ability to connect with peers, but also reduce the amount of time spent passively watching videos.
Nevertheless, is there real concern about using TikTok? The answer is ultimately not completely clear. TikTok is not being any more aggressive than any other tech company, but the debate comes down to the end of American technology exceptionalism and Chinese influence in America. For years, Silicon Valley has held a monopoly on the global technology industry. As described by The Economist, data surpassed oil as the world’s most valuable commodity. With China rising as an economic, political, militaristic, and social power, it gives reason to believe that American companies may no longer hold the economic power they did in the twentieth century and early 2000s. As companies like Huawei, ByteDance, and Tencent threaten the technology monopoly of companies like Amazon, Alphabet, and Microsoft, TikTok is an important player in the game of economic and technological politics.