Is the clock ticking for TikTok or for western society as we know it? The question sounds melodramatic, but then the narrative surrounding TikTok tends to be expressed in heightened tones.
That this might be appropriate, even too laid-back given the stakes involved, only accentuates the curiously divergent reception now meted out to the social video app.
There is only one TikTok and it is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance. And yet anybody would be forgiven for thinking there must be two.
The first TikTok is the app cherished by young users and adored by eyeball-chasing advertisers and audience-seeking media companies.
This TikTok is a cornucopia of crazes and fads, tips and hacks, mishaps and bloopers. It makes hits out of old songs, experts out of grifters, and turns almost anything you can think of into one never-ending feed of content.
This same version of TikTok can lead vulnerable people to dark places, too, but in similar ways to how the social platforms that predate it can lead vulnerable people to dark places.
The starkest, grimmest way this happens is when somebody who consumes depression-themed content – perhaps only once, perhaps fleetingly – finds that the algorithm then amplifies this content, serving up a doom-loop of material that exacerbates their sense of hopelessness rather than offering the solace and empathy they were seeking.
[ In the News podcast: Security concerns and creeping influence - the West is worried about TikTok, should Ireland be? ]
TikTok’s rapid rise makes it logical for policymakers and regulators – including Coimisiún na Meán’s new online safety commissioner Niamh Hodnett – to pay it special attention in the discussion about online harms. TikTok is said to be hypnotically effective. The algorithm – or “the algo”, to use the contemporary slang – is allegedly so sophisticated, so sensitive to the cues its users provide, that it is termed its “secret sauce”. In 2020, Forbes magazine described TikTok as “digital crack cocaine”.
The capacity of TikTok to inflict “emotional distress” on its young users was raised by American politicians last week as TikTok’s Singaporean chief executive Shou Zi Chew appeared before them at a long-awaited congressional hearing.
But that the hearing was happening was a consequence of the “other” TikTok – the TikTok that isn’t quite like all the social media apps we have loved and hated before. This TikTok, merely by existing on people’s phones, has been deemed both an unacceptable security risk and China’s Trojan horse in a chaotic new era of cognitive warfare.
This TikTok isn’t just a time-sucking weapon of mass distraction, it is a weapon full stop, capable of vast data-gathering and susceptible to nefarious content manipulation by China.
This is the app that has been banned from government devices in Finland, Canada, the UK and France. It has been deleted from the phones of staff working for various European Union institutions. And its opaqueness is a hot topic on Capitol Hill, where US lawmakers have proposed an outright India-style block.
At the hearing, both Democrats and Republicans seemed underwhelmed by Chew’s claim that Project Texas, its plan to store US data on US soil through a partnership with Austin-based Oracle, would render it impossible for China-based employees of ByteDance to access the data of US users. In December, ByteDance fired four employees who used the app to spy on several US users, including journalists – Chew’s confirmation that some US data can still, theoretically, be accessed in China won’t have helped.
Closer to home, the Data Protection Commission is carrying out two investigations into TikTok, one relating to the processing of children’s data and the other examining the transfer of personal data by TikTok to China.
Like Chew, Theo Bertram, TikTok’s vice-president of government relations and public policy for Europe, has been busy advancing the “nothing to see here” line, telling RTÉ that the Chinese government has “never asked for data from our users in Europe” and it would never give it to them anyway.
Smoking-gun evidence for widescale data improprieties, if it exists, has not been made public. Ultimately, however, the idea that TikTok has no ties to China’s ruling Communist Party won’t wash.
If an official spokesman from China’s commerce ministry declaring last Thursday that Beijing will “firmly oppose” a US push to force a sale of TikTok is not convincing in its own right, then consider the Chinese government’s tech crackdown, which demonstrated with frightening efficiency from late 2020 onwards how all Chinese tech companies are subject to the will of authoritarian control. How can ByteDance be any exception?
[ Video: TikTok CEO faces grilling from Congress ]
France, on Monday, took the precaution of banning all “recreational” apps from government-managed phones, not just TikTok. But elsewhere, the origin of the company is of paramount relevance, marrying familiar alarm about data surveillance and algorithmic curation to geopolitical anxiety of the highest order.
US-China tensions remain elevated after Washington’s accusations that a balloon shot down by the US Air Force was a Chinese spy satellite. Bubbling under the surface are warnings that the Chinese military is among those on the cusp of neurotechnology advances that would facilitate the development of mind-control weaponry. By this point, TikTok will be the least of any of our problems.
This is wild, incredible stuff, of course, and if TikTok’s young users, who idly play around with the app’s data-harvesting features, find it too abstract to properly contemplate, they’re not alone.
Because the TikTok brand is everywhere. It is the title sponsor of the Women’s Six Nations, it is the official entertainment partner of Eurovision. It is beloved of book publishers and booksellers, who toast the marketing prowess of “BookTok”. In the IFPI’s global music industry report for 2022, published last week, the power of TikTok is cited in all four profiles of rising stars. News outlets that report on the banning of TikTok, including The Irish Times, also post content on it.
Indeed, the app’s double life is maybe best exemplified by the current two-pronged approach by the BBC, which has recruited journalists specifically to make videos for the app but also recently urged staff to delete it from corporate devices unless they need it for “business reasons”.
How much longer can these “business reasons” remain compatible with the broader backdrop? There is so much that remains unknown and unknowable about TikTok, and that in itself should give responsible people pause for thought.