TikTok: China’s First Western Social Media Stronghold

Lockdown antidote for millions

By: Joyce Chen

One winner from the coronavirus pandemic is ByteDance, the Chinese AI-driven entertainment giant that owns TikTok, the phenomenally popular short-form video-sharing app. It is currently the world’s highest-value unlisted unicorn and is raising the hackles of western intelligence agencies, with the US Department of Defense warning its employees not to download it over suspicions about its Chinese antecedents.

Nonetheless, downloads of the app have soared into the hundreds of millions since the coronavirus locked down much of the world, second only to Zoom in the UK. Like many other social media platforms, TikTok is bringing people some social relief during a time of isolation. It has been designed to be extremely addictive, with a very low barrier to entry: users don’t need to create an account to view videos, search up specific users or find more videos with the same hashtag – currently trending tags include #stayathome and #comedinewithus.

An even slicker feature is that videos (tailored to your interests by AI processing) start playing automatically as soon as you enter the app, and from there all the user needs to do is swipe.

Although there is definite value in light-hearted entertainment, given that more than 80 percent of users on TikTok are aged between 16 and 34, there are also concerns that such an addictive platform may distract from education or job-hunting. Not only is this due to the sheer, rising volume of time spent on the app by its 800 million active users, but also because the apparent fame of thousands of “influencers”’ may encourage other young people to pursue video-making as a career path, despite its instability.

TikTok has a far greater allure for new content-creators than other Western social media platforms, posing a major threat to YouTube, which is preparing to release its own rival spinoff, Shorts. Thanks to its skyrocketing user base and brevity of videos, TikTok exposes videos made by nobodies to thousands every minute, so an unknown user can rack up millions of likes (let alone views) in a day. With the ability to perform a fun and easy TikTok dance, create a comedy video with only captions rather than your own voice, or simply recreate a successful TikTok by lip-syncing to another creator’s sound, the platform is extremely friendly to new and inexperienced content-creators.

The greatest exposure feature is the For You Page. Unique to TikTok, it features both hugely popular videos from user-tailored categories and new videos with no likes, thus platforming unknown users’ content while keeping the user engaged with familiar names and formats. TikTok’s algorithms work like YouTube’s by gauging how long a user watches a video and what content they like or comment on, then pumps their FYP full of those categories and favorite creators. Unlike YouTube, though, TikTok barely shows ads – and when it does, they can be skipped within a few seconds, whereas YouTube now plays up to four unskippable – and annoying – ads in a 10-minute long video.

After messaging apps, TikTok is fast becoming the most popular social media app among Western teenagers. In terms of content-creation by young people, it has surpassed YouTube which is daunting with its longer videos, more serious user interface and copyright politics. This is dangerous.

TikTok is not just an incredibly well-designed, lucrative and successful start-up. It is also potentially a security threat, especially as China seeks to extend its power while Western nations, particularly the US, are paralyzed by continued lockdowns. TikTok is a Chinese company, and under China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, “All organizations… shall cooperate with national intelligence efforts in accordance with the law.” By becoming so popular in America, the UK, Europe, Canada and beyond, the app can collect metadata on tens of millions of Western citizens which could then be used for illegal surveillance and to weaponize cyber-attacks.

Furthermore, the app could – and already has been – easily used for propaganda or censorship. Famously, they initially removed a video by a young woman using the guise of a makeup tutorial to talk about the Uighur concentration camps, and it is widely suspected that China-friendly videos are more likely to feature on the FYP - the app has confusedly promoted videos of Chinese Americans standing in front of a Chinese flag, ironically lavishing praise on Xi Jin Ping.

It is also worth noting that TikTok, however astutely designed it may be, does nothing new. Its short-video format and appeal are stolen from the hugely popular but now canceled Twitter-owned platform Vine, while its user interface is similar to Instagram. Furthermore, it initially gained traction by placing ads on popular Western social media. Silicon Valley should be nervous and learn from TikTok’s looming success to make the next big hit independent of the CCP.

Joyce Chen is an Asia Sentinel intern. She is a student in London.