The landscape of social networks is changing rapidly. Facebook and Twitter proved that the public has a voracious appetite for social media, but youth always gravitate toward the next shiny object, especially when legacy platforms like those mentioned above stagnate in their development. Along came Instagram, which was quickly gobbled up by Facebook. For a while, when Facebook and Twitter use flattened out, Instagram became the next “it” app. Now Instagram use has also flattened and the vacuum has now been decisively filled by TikTok.
You know by now that TikTok, formerly known as Music.ly, is a brief video platform that has become the driving force behind memes, lip synchers, and political activists. Chinese tech firm ByteDance acquired Music.ly in 2017 and TikTok was born. It now boasts 500 million active monthly users. The strength of the app has rocketed ByteDance’s value up above $75 billion. The success is staggering.
But all is not well for the new leader in social media. The most salient issue is TikTok’s ownership and control by a company that is based in China. Why is this an issue? Because businesses are only permitted to operate in China if they agree to assist with intelligence gathering when requested by the government to do so. And TikTok is collecting a lot of data from a lot of people. All of that data is literally available to the intelligence apparatus of the Chinese government.
Is this anything to worry about? Well, here’s what we know so far. TikTok appears to be censoring users who express political points of view that are contrary to China’s ‘party line.’ Mentions of the Hong Kong protests are completely absent from the platform. This is especially disturbing because it applies to a version of TikTok that is not even available in China. ByteDance maintains an even more restrictive version of TikTok, called Douyin, where no deviation from the opinions of the Chinese government are tolerated. But even in the version that is not permitted to be seen by those in China, the Chinese government is flexing its considerable muscle to make sure that the foreign view of China conforms to what China wants, even if that means wholesale censorship.
TikTok’s popularity is troubling at best. A platform that unabashedly removes politically inconvenient videos, including posts that do nothing more than provide facts, is bad enough. When you add to that the risk of private data being utilized, and perhaps even weaponized, in the service of the Chinese government, the situation is downright scary.