What’s The Deal With TikTok? A Politics-Free Dive
What is TikTok?
Per their About page, “TikTok is the leading destination for short form mobile video. Our mission is to inspire creativity and bring joy.”
What is TikTok really?
TikTok is a mobile social media app, available on every major mobile platform (Apple/Android/Amazon), used to make videos up to 60 seconds in length. App users are given a variety of tools to make their videos interesting, including colored overlays, the ability to add text to the video, image enhancements to slim the face or remove wrinkles, and a plethora of other tools that make a person look funny in some way or add something funny to the image.
Once the video is shot, users can then upload the video to TikTok and share it with the community of users. The TikTok community consists of, as of August, 700 million international users, and that includes 100 million U.S. users. Once Users have selected a video to watch, they view the next one by swiping up, and up again to view the next video. And so on, and so on. As a rough comparison, TikTok is the Gen Z equivalent of channel surfing cable TV.
Users can like a video, leave comments, and share videos with their friends. There is a community there. Additionally, they can search for specific videos based on keywords, and videos can also be served at “random” based on a proprietary algorithm developed by TikTok. The algorithm is a heavily guarded secret, but it assuredly factors in the content of previously viewed videos, stated interests of the user, time spent viewing portions of other videos, as well as geographic location and other demographic factors.
Why are we talking about TikTok?
Because TikTok is the latest big thing™. It’s new—relatively speaking, it’s trendy, and it’s popular with tweens and teenagers. And like anything unfamiliar to parents and popular with younger kids, it has inspired endless amounts of hand-wringing about what kids are really seeing and talking about. Similarly, a year ago, parents were worried about YouTube. A decade ago, parents were worried about jelly bracelets. Twenty years ago, parents were worried about the Internet. Thirty years ago, parents were worried about MTV and Dungeons & Dragons.
Are there concerns with TikTok?
Early on, there were concerns specifically about young girls using TikTok. Because the app was loose in its sign-up guidelines, and because one of its original features was to sync dance moves to prerecorded music, it became popular with young girls who… filmed themselves dancing. But because those videos were then released to an international audience of all ages, there were initial concerns about this userbase of young girls unknowingly being viewed by older adults who may do illicit things, or wish to do those girls harm.
And while that is a valid worry (I’m writing this as the father of an 8-year-old girl with friends on the app, but who herself doesn’t even have a phone), the latest concerns are about the app’s access to personal information and about privacy overall.
TikTok is owned by ByteDance Ltd., a company headquartered in China. While users can participate in and on TikTok without creating a personal profile, a lot of personal information can still be gleaned by the app through the behavior of its users. And since the company is so guarded in its disclosures, what exactly it is doing with that information is a question that concerns privacy advocates.
Then there is the string of privacy invasions performed by the app itself. In the past year, it was discovered that the TikTok app was accessing iPhone users’ clipboards for any data that happened to be copied into them (the “clipboard” is the name for the temporary storage area used by devices performing cut, copy, and paste actions). In 2019, the company settled with the FTC after illegally collecting the personal information of underage users with its Musical.ly app, which later became TikTok. Finally, dedicated research teams looked for digital exploits of the service, and found that a determined malicious user could gain quite a bit of access, including the ability to access accounts, delete content, make a user’s private data public, and upload unauthorized content.
None of these issues, on their own, are unique to TikTok or parent company ByteDance. Numerous apps and companies, large and small, famous and forgotten, have had similar issues or worse. But the situation is complicated by the fact that ByteDance is headquartered in China.
The Chinese government has a history of encouraging intellectual property violations, and exposing vast amounts of a nation’s personal information to a foreign government is never on the top of any country’s to-do list. TikTok has said that it hasn’t provided the Chinese government with any data, personal or otherwise, but they also do not produce any transparency reports that would reveal any information to the contrary. There’s no reason to believe the Chinese government has its hands in TikTok data, but given that government’s established record of information violations, there’s no reason to believe they don’t, either.
Could the U.S. government ban TikTok?
There are privacy concerns for American citizens, no doubt, but an outright ban coming from a government agency would likely raise 1st Amendment issues. While there are recognized exceptions to the 1st Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, an outright ban on a method of exercising that speech does not, at first glance, fall into any of the recognized exceptions. It would very likely create a legal quagmire. It’s one thing to prohibit the distribution of child pornography on the Internet. It’s another thing entirely to ban the Internet itself.
To continue the conversation any further here would likely break our “no politics” promise. But it is worth noting that several branches of the armed forces have prohibited users from downloading TikTok onto government devices and that several large corporations have banned their employees from downloading the app onto company devices or using the app on company property.
What should I do?
If you have any concerns about TikTok, the simplest thing to do is not use the app. If it’s not on your phone, they can’t access your data.