For anyone with shared passions like dance madness, sea shanties, knitting patterns, or Excel spreadsheets, TikTok is the place to be. Born in China, the short-form video app has grown into an accessible and gamified global platform where 1 billion users can indulge their obsessions, find an audience of like-minded followers, and sometimes even make money.
For those with a more conspiratorial mindset, however, the entertainment platform is an electronic Manchurian candidate, offering the Chinese Communist Party an opportunity to manipulate public opinion, subvert democracies and peek into teenagers’ bedrooms. In June 2020, India banned TikTok following a border dispute with China, cutting off 200 million local users from the service. The following month, then-US President Donald Trump also threatened to ban TikTok over national security concerns — but lost the election before he could push through the plan. This month, the UK Parliament shut down its own TikTok account over fears of data leaks. “The prospect of Xi Jinping’s government having access to personal data on our children’s cellphones should be a matter of grave concern,” MPs warned.
While there are arguments about whether TikTok is too trivial or too threatening, TikTok has undoubtedly become an extraordinary cultural and business phenomenon in more than 150 countries. The latest report from the Pew Research Center revealed that TikTok has gained popularity among American teenagers. About 67 percent of respondents said they use TikTok, compared to just 32 percent for the once-dominant Facebook. “TikTok is not only in the zeitgeist. It’s the zeitgeist,” wrote Jessica Lessin, founder of The Information Tech Site.
As the coolest app for younger users, TikTok has left the west coast’s best and fastest in the dust. Before the platform emerged, Twitter had failed to leverage Vine, its own short videos. Facebook, Instagram, and Snap have also stumbled as they staked claims on the digital territory that TikTok has now conquered. According to Cloudflare’s global traffic report, TikTok.com overtook Google.com last year to become the most popular internet domain. In Silicon Valley, TikTok has outperformed the lightning scalers.
There are perhaps two reasons for this great popularity. First, the platform is extremely easy to use and addictive. With its tools and filters, TikTok’s app allows users to create short videos ranging in length from 15 seconds to 10 minutes and helps them monetize their content by directing advertisements in their direction. Even a former FT entrepreneur who looks uncannily like actor Benedict Cumberbatch has gained 4.5 million TikTok followers by calling Dr. Strange (@cumbermatch) is playing.
Second, TikTok promotes videos through a content chart and not a social chart as is commonly used by other platforms. In other words, AI-trained algorithms promote content with similar interests on the platform instead of spreading it primarily through networks of followers. In theory, at least, the app allows more “nobody” to become “anybody.”
However, TikTok is increasingly suffering from some of the same pathologies as the US platforms. He has been accused of spreading disinformation that harms democracy in Colombia, Kenya, France, the US and elsewhere, particularly during the war in Ukraine. TikTok says it uses AI tools and employs “thousands” of moderators around the world to enforce strict content policies, particularly in Ukraine.
The company has also shown signs of an aggressive tech bro culture, with a senior executive in London claiming he “don’t believe” in maternity leave.
What about possible Chinese government influence? TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, a private company valued at $180 billion as of December 2020, has differentiated its international operations by creating a separate corporate structure based in Singapore. According to TikTok, all data of its international users will be stored in the US and Singapore and – from 2023 – also in Ireland. The company insists that no personal data will be transferred to the Chinese government and Beijing would not be given access to such data even if requested.
In his well-researched book TikTok boom, Chris Stokel-Walker investigated these claims. He found no evidence of systematic leakage of personal data. However, engineers in China have accessed some data, for example to test algorithms or detect bot attacks. “TikTok is not a social media sleeper cell waiting to be remotely activated on millions of phones in the west,” he concluded. “The reality here is that there is no big hoax, just a little white lie.”
Even if this conclusion is correct, it may not help. Some US senators are still attacking TikTok as an instrument of Chinese soft power. There is a risk that the company could suffer the same fate as Huawei, the Chinese telecom equipment maker blacklisted by the US.
But if TikTok can avoid becoming a geopolitical sandbag, it could symbolize a moment in the evolution of cyberspace: what tech analyst Ben Thompson calls the sinicization of the global internet. In this digital world, the centralized control of Chinese-style content through recommendation algorithms becomes a feature, not a bug. For several decades, the US has dominated the norms, values and practices of the consumer internet. The rise of TikTok points to a more competitive future.