TikTok really has become the Marmite of Silicon Valley: you either love it, or you hate it. Or, more accurately, you either love it, or think it’s a data sucking accomplice of the Chinese Communist Party working to take down America from within.
Unluckily for TikTok, The President of the United States, Mr Donald Trump, is the latter. After a number of companies, political campaigns and even countries banned the app, America appears to be next in line as President Trump issued an executive order to ban the app by September 20th. Though it’s unclear how this will affect any potential sales of the US portion of the company to Microsoft or Twitter and completely contradicts the recently announced Creator Fund, which pledges to spend $1 billion on supporting TikTok’s creators over the next three years, there is a certain group of people who will be adversely affected by the ban: TikTokers.
“TikTok is the only platform I actually enjoy using”
TikTokers are an extremely diverse, extremely creative bunch who offer a lot more than a means to doomscrolling. Sage, 27, a tech reporter from NYC, says she’d be devastated if TikTok was banned, noting that it’s the only social media app she actually finds fun. She’s been using the app just about daily for over a year, and even saw one of her videos go viral last month.
“There used to be so many places to socialize and entertain ourselves online, but now most of us just mindlessly click between Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, not particularly enjoying any of them,” she tells PC Guide over a direct message. “While I’m on those platforms out of what feels like necessity, TikTok is the only one I actually enjoy using. I love how the platform feels casual and creative, and that it promotes discovering content from people you don’t know or follow”.
Ted, 21 shares the same sentiment. “I’m sad,” they say. “I like making content on there, interacting with people, and learning random quick stuff”. But for Ted, it’s difficult to separate the personal from the political. They feel as though the president is being “petty,” because “he started pushing for the ban right after all these kids reserved seats at his rally and never came”.
“Trump is upset that a bunch of little kids on TikTok trolled him by buying out seats at his rally and then not showing up”
Trump has had a rocky relationship with Big Tech during his presidency, believing they have a bias against conservative accounts; particularly his. It’s not uncommon for platforms like Twitter and Facebook to take down Trump’s posts, especially when they involve the spread of disinformation. Trump sees this as a personal attack and a purposeful attempt to repress his reach, although the social media giants maintain they are merely following their own guidelines.
When a group of TikTokers scheming to register what seemed to be hundreds of thousands of tickets for a Trump rally in Tulsa became a viral trend with millions of views, the turnout was much lower than anticipated. Many people agree with Ted that this is one of the main accelerators for Trump’s fixation on TikTok, including Jadyn, 25, who said: “Personally I think the ban is ridiculous and Trump is upset that a bunch of little kids on TikTok trolled him by buying out seats at his rally and then not showing up”.
“I’m angry at my government for doing this as a way to distract from major issues”
Moreso, though, Ted believes that Trump is using the TikTok ban as a distraction. “Honestly, it’s just frustrating and seems to just be a way to distract people, you know?
“Our country has some incredibly serious problems, police brutality, anti-LGBTQ+ laws, the postal service collapsing”.
“Ultimately,” they add, “I’m sad because I’m losing a community, and angry at my government for doing this as a way to distract from major issues and silence a form of communication”.
Writing for Wired, Louis Matsakis notes that one of the major concerns surrounding TikTok is China’s handling of human rights, including “its oppression of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and its treatment of Hong Kong”. However, he writes, “the US government has come under fire for failing to adequately address these abuses—and taking action on a social media app would do nothing to change that”.
Although he says he wouldn’t give Trump “sufficient strategic credit for being able to cook this up as a distraction,” Peter T Charles, an academic researching Chinese politics, does believe that, “it is a “distraction” insofar as it’s a bunch of public sound and fury that is largely beside the point for the larger US-China strategic relationship”.
“The damage that could come from TikTok is more in the realm of the possible, rather than the actualized”
The biggest fear, of course, is that the Chinese Communist Party could force ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company) to hand over the data it has stored on American users.
The biggest hole in this argument, though, is that if the real concern is datamining and selling, TikTok is only a minor link in a very long, very troubling chain. This is one of the things that annoys Ted the most – that Trump has chosen to “[focus] his energy on a video platform that steals a lot less information than others, like Facebook”.
Sage agrees, stating, “Data privacy and security are some of our most pressing issues, but this issue isn’t even close to being specific to TikTok, and action against TikTok won’t solve it”.
According to Gizmodo, the data stored by TikTok likely won’t be used to identify any individual user, but it might be used to come up with a profile of a larger group that uses TikTok, which could then be used to target certain groups with advertisements or, more sinisterly, disinformation and propaganda campaigns. But, again, this is no different to any other app being used by the majority of Americans.
Facebook came under fire in one of the largest reports on datamining in recent years when it carelessly allowed political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica to access the personal information of thousands of Facebook users and their friends by paying them to take a survey. The scandal is cited as a huge influence on the result of the UK’s Brexit referendum as well as the Trump campaign in 2016.
It is difficult to compare the two social media platforms though, Charles tells PC Guice, “Facebook’s danger derives from its absolutely titanic scale, and its ability to push falsehoods… and it’s a risk that has already manifested.
The risk with TikTok is more a latent risk, a hidden or potential risk, and lies with the potential malign strategic intent of the CCP”.
He adds: “Facebook is already dangerous, and has already done a lot of damage. The damage that could come from TikTok is more in the realm of the possible, rather than the actualized”. Just this week, Instagram (owned by Facebook) was sued for allegedly harvesting and storing users’ biometric data without consent.
Still, TikTok adamantly protests that it has not, and most definitely will not, hand any information over to the CCP. However, Ray Walsh, a privacy expert at ProPrivacy, tells PC Guide that ByteDance “must abide by Article 7 of the Chinese National Intelligence Law; meaning that it must share data with the Communist Party if it is asked to do so”.
“We should remain vigilant about security and ties to China”
Even TikTok’s advocates agree that we can’t discount the real threat that the CCP could and might use their data for the wrong reasons. Sage tells me, “I don’t want to come across as saying TikTok is safe or secure… we should remain vigilant about security and ties to China,” but, she maintains, “that’s not what this [ban] is [about]”.
Charles agrees: “Is it dangerous that tens of millions of American children use an app that is, on some level, beholden to the whims of the CCP? Yes. Should something be done about this? Yes. But in standard Trumpian style, rather than think through the potential ways to put pressure here or there, or change data privacy laws… or try to get any cooperation from Congress or the Allies… he just takes the most ham-handed possible route… the one that makes him look like the big tough guy, while doing basically nothing about the underlying problem”.
“I actually find Chinese tech really scary because of their national control”
For a lot of users, this – among other things – was enough to turn them off the app completely.
Georgie, 20, used to love TikTok: “It was the perfect time waster and I found the videos so hilarious, and because I miss Vine it was the perfect substitute,” she tells PC Guide. But, she first deleted the app because of the exclusivity she saw on there: “It was banning people who didn’t look a specific way and basically only putting slim girls on the For You Page (FYP),” she says – the privacy issues were the cherry on top. “Then, I saw a post about their use of data and how people’s drafts had sometimes ended up in adverts for the app [and deleted it]”.
Mollie, 22, first started using the app because her younger siblings (aged 6 and 9) loved it. As soon as she heard about the privacy issues, she deleted it. “[I deleted it] merely because I don’t know how many videos my sisters record that they never upload, or ways they play around, and it really frightened me”. While she does worry about the influencer economy and does find the ban “a bit extreme and controlling,” she admits that she does actually find Chinese tech “really scary because of their national control” and thinks that “people need to know what’s going on”.
Georgie, however, wholeheartedly agrees with the ban, stating, “there are other apps that are not as damaging and just as funny in my opinion”. Instagram recently introduced Reels, a direct competitor to TikTok. Although we heard about Reels a year ago, it seems it was launched now as a response to the potential ban, giving influencers and TikTok lovers an alternative, maybe to squash any potential opposition.
But, Sage made it clear that she will not be switching to Reels. “I don’t want (and certainly don’t need) a new way to post to Instagram,” she says. “The video capabilities aren’t the allure of TikTok, but rather the unique environment and user experience it offers”.
“The video capabilities aren’t the allure of TikTok, but rather the unique environment and user experience it offers”
Clearly, TikTok has found a place in the lives of many young people, making an impression far greater than Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. To them, the ban marks a huge loss and appears to be nothing more than a petty distraction tactic, or the usual mishandling of situations by President Trump, especially when much of the US-owned social media sites are just as guilty of harvesting their users’ data.
However, that’s not to say that TikTok is any better than the others – at least in terms of privacy and security – and it’s important to understand that there is a real threat in the way our data is mined and used in the crazy web that is targeted ads.
It’s still unclear what the future holds for TikTok, but hopefully, there’s a way to keep the app around for a little longer, while getting a handle on the way it harvests, stores and uses data in the long run.