Tech Censorship

Who’s afraid of TikTok?

The Signal

Who’s afraid of TikTok? Aynne Kokas on the growing divide between U.S. authorities and U.S society over the hit social-media platform.
Solen Feyissa
One of the most popular social apps in America is getting hit with increasing government restrictions. In late December, President Joe Biden signed legislation prohibiting the use of the Chinese-owned social-media platform TikTok on devices owned by the U.S. federal government, with a few exceptions in the interest of law enforcement and national security. Across the country, 14 states recently barred the video-sharing app from their state-owned devices, as well, and some members of the U.S. Congress want to go further—with an outright ban nationally.

The thinking behind these initiatives is that TikTok—which casual observers might associate with viral clips of people dancing, talking about books, or demonstrating skincare routines—could represent a national security threat, given that the Chinese state influences and extracts data from the Chinese company that owns it.

But with more than a billion monthly users worldwide, TikTok is meanwhile only gaining popularity, especially among younger people. Over the past two years, the share of American adults who claimed to regularly get news from TikTok effectively tripled, rising from 3 percent in 2020 to 10 percent in 2022. About a quarter of people in the U.S. under the age of 30 do now. And fully two-thirds of teenagers use or have used it. All of which would suggest a lot of tension between governments and the public. What’s happening with the politics of TikTok in America?

Aynne Kokas is the C.K. Yen Professor at the Miller Center and an associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and the author of Trafficking Data: How China Is Winning the Battle for Digital Sovereignty. There’s a general consensus, Kokas says, among U.S. political elites to guard against national-security threats from TikTok—a general consensus that belongs to a broad, bipartisan commitment to challenging China—but the Republican and Democratic parties have taken different approaches to the issue.

Republicans, who’ve made attacks on Big Tech companies central to their politics in recent years, have been bolder in their public rhetoric against TikTok—while Democrats may have to tread more carefully, not least because they get more political donations from the tech sector than Republicans do. The challenge, as Kokas sees it, is that the fundamental problems with TikTok can’t really be addressed by clamping down on it directly—because they’re ultimately problems with the “digital ecosystem” as a whole.

Graham Vyse: Let’s start with thing itself: There are a lot of social-media platforms, including popular incumbents like Instagram. Why has TikTok surged to such popularity over the past few years?

Aynne Kokas: It first emerged in China as Douyin, a short-video social app, which is still the Chinese version of the platform. Douyin’s parent company, ByteDance, then acquired an American video lip-syncing app for middle-schoolers called Musical.ly, integrated it into Douyin, and launched TikTok in the United States.

So TikTok was originally made for teenagers. But during the pandemic, with so many people of different ages stuck at home and looking for new kinds of entertainment, it started rapidly moving out of its original demographic and became wildly popular. Now it’s a key news source for more than 25 percent of people under the age of 30.

The story of TikTok also has to do with U.S.-China relations: The American government has forced the sale of a number of different foreign-owned social apps that engage in different types of data gathering. For example, Grindr, the LGBTQ social-and-hookup platform, was acquired by a Chinese firm, but then the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Committee on Foreign investment in the United States forced them to divest from it. TikTok’s relatively wholesome origins have in some ways protected it from that fate—though now TikTok is under investigation by the Committee on Foreign Investment too.

Vyse: Critics of TikTok raise a number of issues—about its addictiveness, its spread of misinformation, its effect on teenagers’ mental health, and whether it sufficiently protects users’ privacy. What do you make of these concerns?

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Kokas: I think most of them are really with social media more broadly. We’re living now in a digital ecosystem where not just TikTok but Facebook and Instagram—and any number of other platforms your friends and family might use—are deeply data-extractive. There’s very little oversight of the type of user data these platforms gather. And there’s very little transparency about how their algorithms gather it. TikTok just happens to represent one of the most successful versions of this phenomenon at the moment.

That said, one of the reasons for its success was TikTok’s acquisition of Musical.ly, which gave it massive data-gathering capabilities, allowing it to build an algorithm that drew on huge pools of user data. So this is where TikTok differs from other social platforms with respect to privacy and security concerns—and where we see the relationship between ByteDance and the Chinese government taking center stage.

Because TikTok’s parent company is based in China, the company faces pressures from the Chinese government to share its data as part of Beijing’s national-security audits. It also faces pressures in something called civil-military fusion—pressures from the Chinese government to allow the use of any commercially developed products for military purposes.

Beijing meanwhile keeps a very close watch on all social-media platforms and the type of content they distribute. Even as it’s operating in the United States, there’ve been indications of censorship on TikTok on topics considered sensitive in China—like the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province, or the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, or Taiwan. WeChat—another platform run by a Chinese firm, Tencent—has a similarly documented history of censoring content in the United States and other countries.

So when we’re thinking about the issues of privacy and security, it becomes extremely important to think not just about the general extractive nature of social media—which is a vital social issue—but also about the specific context of data extraction as it relates to China and the Chinese government.

Markus Spiske
More from Aynne Kokas at The Signal:

It’s definitely an issue the Republicans are speaking out more publicly on—across America. But you’ll hear almost the exact same language from Democrats more privately—and even from people working in the tech sector. So I think the difference comes down mostly to the extent to which the Republican Party has been able to gain politically by taking up the issue aggressively in a way the Democratic Party hasn’t.”

One of the things that really strikes me, teaching a class called “The Data Ethics of TikTok” at the University of Virginia, is that when we read the app’s Terms of Service, my students are appalled by the data it’s gathering on them and how little control they have over it—but they also feel deeply resigned, because it’s the main way they interact with their peers..”

Even if people are able to take a step back from their delight in using the platform and consider its implications, TikTok’s deep integration into their lives—and the U.S. communications infrastructure they’re connected to—makes it really difficult at this point to enact legislation that would control it. Which is one of the reasons why I’d advocate for an approach that addresses the entire communications ecosystem rather than just individual platforms.”

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