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The narrative to ban TikTok has momentum
The calls to ban TikTok are increasing. The latest government to ban the app from official mobiles is France. Although it’s worth saying that France has taken the more obvious route, which is to ban all personal/recreational apps from government devices, which is bleeding obvious anyway, right? Why should tax payers pay?
France joins the USA, Canada, the UK and the European Union in banning the app from government issued/funded mobiles. But none of these nations have gone as far as India, who banned the app in 2019, along with 56 other Chinese apps, on the fear and suspicion that the apps were secret surveillance tools for the Chinese Communist Party.
Last week, the US Congress had a 5 hour hearing with the boss of TikTok. CEO Shou Chew is from Singapore. He was educated in the UK before moving to the US to work and meet his American wife. When the TikTok CEO appeared before the US congress committee, it was the opportunity for America’s lawmakers to set the record straight. get to the bottom of the big questions about TikTok:
- Is TikTok working for the Chinese Communist Party?
- Are the CCP spying on American citizens?
- How much of American behaviour is influenced by the CCP’s control of TikTok?
- Is TikTok manipulating teenage minds with pro-China, anti-American content
Genuine questions that are worth asking of the social media app that’s, frankly, eating America’s lunch.
But here’s the thing, the US lawmakers used their time for grandstanding and political posturing. Instead of using their 5 minutes of allocated time to ask a forensic question and listen to the answer, America’s lawmakers made dicks of themselves yet again. It’s a scene we’ve witnessed before, when out of touch politicians ask inane and ignorant questions without giving the witness any time to answer the question. “Yes or not, what is it?”
My takeaway from watching the hearing: the quality of the questioning left a lot of be desired. “Does TikTok access my home wifi?” “Sir, how do you think the app connects to the Internet when you’re in your home?” But we’ve been here before when it comes to US lawmakers demonstrating their lack of understanding of the tech industry. “Senator, we run ads.”
Here’s The Thing: for all the huff and puff, the US won’t ban TikTok IMHO. 150 million American’s use it. The crimes TikTok are accused of are perpetrated by the whole of the digital advertising fuelled tech sector. There’s more harm and loss of life from guns than the entire social media sector put together. And remember TikTok didn’t create the problems of social media.
Origins of TikTok
Douyin is the Chinese version of the short-form video app called TikTok. Douyin boasts a staggering 600 million daily users (compared to 150 million monthly American users). Launched in 2016, Douyin was the primary revenue generator for parent company ByteDance for years, earning money through in-app tipping and live-streaming.
ByteDance was founded by former Microsoft employee Zhang Yiming and gained notoriety through its news app called Jinri Toutiao, or "Today's Headlines." Toutiao launched in 2012 and provided individualised news feeds for each user. It was a hit, with people spending more than 70 minutes daily on the platform. This was the genesis of the video based app Douyin.
Then, in 2017, the privately-owned Bytedance bought a US-based video startup and released TikTok as Douyin's overseas version. ByteDance also acquired popular lip syncing app musical.ly and migrated its users to TikTok in 2018. Since then, the app's popularity has skyrocketed, reaching over 1 billion monthly active users worldwide, outside of China.
The same but also different
The TikTok and Douyin interfaces look similar. On the surface they are the same app but in a different language. But the differences run deep and you have to look under the hood to understand how TikTok and Douyin are the same but also so different.
Take filters. Douyin has an automatic beauty filter, which smooths out skin and often changes the shape of a person’s face. See this example here where CNN's Selina Wang takes a photo using TikTok (left) and Douyin (right). You can see how Douyin has automatically applied a so-called beauty filter.
By contrast, TikTok users have to turn these filters on if they want to use them. They’re in both apps, but in China they’re turned on automatically, for the RoW, they’re a manual option.
Another of the main differences between TikTok and Douyin can be seen in China's extensive online shopping market. Social Commerce, or the live-streaming of product promotions and sale is a multibillion-dollar industry in mainland China, which has been boosted through the pandemic. Douyin is a major platform for live-streamers, along with Taobao, which is an eBay-like online marketplace owned by Alibaba. In-app shopping is made easy: Products and discounts are displayed on-screen during livestreams, with purchases just a swipe or a click away.
As per the Academy of China Council for the Promotion of International Trade, a body affiliated with Beijing's commerce ministry, there were over 460 million live-streaming e-commerce users in mainland China as of June 2020.
China’s tech laws make censorship rampant on Douyin
China has one of the world's strictest censorship regimes, and Douyin must abide by these rules. Internet watchdogs regularly crack down on online dissent and block politically sensitive information. A search for "Tiananmen 1989" on Douyin yields no results. The Tiananmen massacre, in which Chinese troops violently suppressed pro-democracy protesters in Beijing, has been erased from China's history books. Discussion of the event is strictly censored and controlled. But go onto TikTok and you’ll find lots of videos and discussions about Tiananmen.
That’s because TikTok can.
The contrast between ByteDance's two platforms is striking. "It's so interesting to see this contradiction in this one company [ByteDance] with these two faces," said Duncan Clark, chairman and founder of investment advisory BDA China. TikTok couldn’t exist in China because it simply wouldn’t be allowed to run.
China’s attitude towards protecting the Under-18s is very different to the West
China’s tough tech laws place stricter rules on Douyin for younger users than any other nation places on TikTok. In China, young people under the age of 14 can only access child-safe content. Their use the app is also limited to just 40 minutes a day. They are also prohibited from using the app from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
This is not targeted at Douyin specifically. China has long attempted to address online addiction and other unhealthy online habits. In 2019, it imposed a curfew on online gaming for minors, and recently banned minors from playing during weekdays. Even on weekends, users under 18 are only allowed to play for three hours.
The point is that the Chinese government has taken a much more hands on role in curtailing the growth and use of social media amongst youngsters. They’ve seen what’s happened in the West and said “not happening here!” By contrast, the USA in particular has been very hands-off when it comes to regulating social media.
Over the last fifteen years, as social media has become a big business, the US has hardly taken any action to interfere with its unprecedented growth. The last major piece of American legislation was the 1996 Section 230 Act, introduced long before social media existed. It is long over due an overhaul, IMHO.
The focus is on TikTok, but China apps are everywhere
TikTok is not the only Chinese-owned platform to achieve viral success in the US. Four of the top 10 most popular free apps on Apple's US app store were developed with Chinese technology, including shopping app Temu, fast fashion retailer Shein, and video editing app CapCut, which is also owned by ByteDance. Although TikTok remains hugely popular in the US, with over 150 million monthly users (almost half of the country's population), it remains to be seen if it can convince US lawmakers that it poses no threat. The showdown in Washington has brought up larger questions about security and data privacy that could affect other apps.
US hypocrisy over TikTok
So, what a perfect opportunity for the US Government to get answers from the CEO of TikTok, under oath! You’d have thought! I watched the hearing and there were several recurring themes that stood out to me from the line of questioning by the committee: teenage harm, free speech and data privacy.
1. TikTok is not alone when it comes to teenage harm
The hearing heard examples of teenage harm linked to viral content on TikTok. As though it was a problem unique to TikTok. Which was a narrow definition in the extreme. The whole social media industry is infected by its inability to protect young minds from harmful content. The type of content that leads them down a dangerous, sometimes fatal path.
The committee made the point that this doesn’t happen in China. And concluded that this is proof the CCP are manipulating Western minds. But the reason it doesn’t happen in China is because the CCP have tough laws to prevent it. The reason for there being a completely separate version of TikTok, called Douyin, in China is because China has strict tech laws in place to protect young people.
The reality is that the very same examples put before the TikTok CEO also happen in Facebook, Instagram, YouTube et al. This is a social media issue, not a TikTok issue. The committee overlooked, either deliberately or through ignorance, that teenage harm is a consequence of how social media works. And they’ve done nothing about it.
In the last fifteen years, the US Government, regulators and lawmakers have sat on their hands as BigTech spent $10s of millions lobbying Washington and American tech companies hide behind Section 230. “It’s not my fault guv!” Meanwhile, guns continue to be the number 1 harm to young people in the US. (Note: More than 300 under 11s were killed in 2022 by gunshot, and over 1300 aged between 12 and 17 years old killed by guns. There have already been over 400 children killed by gunshot in 2023!) If the US is serious about protecting young people from harm, they’re looking in the wrong place.
2. Free speech is a matter of opinion
Another line of questioning related to free speech, or the domain of content moderation. A TikTok video of an animated gun and a threat to shoot the Chair of the committee was shown during the hearing. It had been posted 41 days earlier on TikTok and was still on the platform. Why hadn’t TikTok taken this down? Was this further evidence of CCP manipulation of content, endorsed by TikTok? The answer of course is “no”.
That’s because this is an issue of “content moderation,” the process of deciding if a video breaks policy guidelines. In other words, someone/something has to look at each one of the billions of videos on social media and decide if it is harmful, threatening, illegal, and so on. TikTok employs around 40,000 people to work on content moderation, but the majority of the work is done by AI. Which means that not everything, all of the time, will be found and taken down, even if it should be. And remember, the content creator have many tricks to get around the automated detection systems. For example, “seggs” is often used as the spelling for “sex” to avoid being detected.
The issue here is the sheer scale of the content being posted every second across all of social media. Remember, there are 150 million Americans using TikTok every month, and they spend more time on TikTok than all the other social media platforms put together! That’s a lot of content to analysis and decide if it is against the guidelines of the social media platform.
Here’s the thing: content moderation is hard. whilst I might think a piece of content should be taken down, you might disagree. We might both agree that it’s distasteful, but disagree on the principle of whether the user has the right to say it or not. Again, like teenage harm, this is a matter for the whole of social media. A matter that lawmakers can decide on how to define the boundaries of what content should and should not be allowed.
And remember, it’s an issue that the US has never legislated against specifically for the social media industry. Which means that each platform as a private company, not the US Government, decides on what it thinks is acceptable content or not. Take Twitter. Since Elon Musk took over, he has dismissed almost all of the content moderation and ethics teams, and relaxed the rules on what anyone can say or do on Twitter. It always was a sewer, now it’s a cesspit with increased levels of hate speach and offensive content, in the name of free speach.
3. Data privacy is not a rule for one
At the heart of the “ban-TikTok” narrative is the notion that TikTok collects a ton of personal data that the CCP uses to spy on the 150 million American citizens that use TikTok. Whilst it is true that TikTok does collect a ton of personal data, at least as much as many other social media platforms, there are no laws in place that protect that data.
In the European Union, there’s GDPR, regulations that place restrictions on what companies can collect and do with the data, and rights and provisions to users to give their permission to use the data. In the United States, no such laws are in place. As a result, social media and telephone companies, collect masses of data which they harvest and sell onto third parties, to do with as they will. The tech companies that collect the data often have no idea where it ends up, who is using it or how it is being used.
The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story examplifies this in its extreme, with well supported accusations that Trump and Brexit would not have happened in 2016 without Cambridge Analytica’s use of data surruptiuosly harvested from Facebook, without their knoweldge or the consent of users.
Here’s The Thing: Who knows if the CCP is secretly tapping into the TikTok database? We’ll never know, anymore than we’ll ever know the extent of the FBI’s surveillance on American citizens or the CIA’s operations overseas. But, if the US was seriously concerned about data privacy, which they’re apparently not, then the starting point has to be universal laws that govern all companies that collect any data. The issue is that this would be a series obligation on the tech industry that would face massive resistance.
As a result, the US Government would need to provide evidence that China and TikTok was doing what they said they were. Up until now, the US Gov, or any other nation state for that matter, including India that banned TikTok along with 58 other Chinese apps in 2020, has not produced any actual evidence of this. The FBI has been asked about TikTok as a threat to national security and has never offered any evidence.
The TikTok ban is bluff and bluster, it won’t happen
The ban-TikTok, anti-China narrative has momentum, there's no denying that. The fact that the European Union, UK, Canada and France have followed the US lead and banned it from government issue phones adds weight to the narrative. (Although frankly, I don’t understand why any publicly funded mobile phone is allowed to be used for personal use given the amount of data collection and intrusion that comes with EVERY apps, let alone a purely personla use app like TikTok!)
But banning the app for the entire nation is a different ball game to banning it from government mobiles. And what about the other apps, like Bytedance owned CapCut? This is a video editing app that’s popular with Instagram users. Is that going to be banned too?
The US has never banned a social media app before, which makes this unprecedented territory. If they explicitly ban TikTok because of data collection and surveillance concerns, then the US is going also have to ban Facebook and Google, who collect as much data as TikTok. If the reason is more about concerns over harm and content manipulation, then the US is going to have to ban Instagram and YouTube too, because the same content is on Reels and Shorts as well as TikTok.
Here’s The Thing: The US has never put any data protection laws in place. In fact it is the only nation in the developed world to be without ANY protections for US citizens when it comes to technology companies that collect, harvest and sell the private information of American citizens. Pointing the finger at TikTok when they don’t have the most basic provisions in place sums up the hypocrasy at the heart of this “ban-TikTok” narrative.
The real motivation behind this is Silicon Valley
After watching the hearing and the endless clips of US congress representatives make fools of themselves, I found myself asking the question, “what’s really behind this?” Is it really just anti-China politics? Is it a case US nationalism beating its chest and waving the start-spangled banner? Or is there something else? Because I’m sure of one thing…this is not about teenage harm, data protection, or protecting free speech.
My conclusion is that this more about TikTok eating Silicon Valley’s lunch.
Since 2020, TikTok has enjoyed unprecedented growth, at the expense of American’s finest tech companies. TikTok has redefined the attention economy with the shift from “network of friends” (the Facebook model since 2007) to “personalised interests” (the For You Page model on TikTok.)
As a result everyone has gone TikTok, changing their algorithms to feed content based on what they think you’re interested in rather than what your network is talking about. The overwhelming conclusion has to be that the ban-TikTok movement has more to do with TikTok eating American's than it does with China spying on everyday Americans.
I may be wrong and naive in this, I accept that. But until someone shows me hard evidence, I'm not going down the conspiracy route. Time will tell who got that right!
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