TikTok, the video-based social media platform was already immensely popular in China, and has now taken the North American market by storm. While the majority of users are young, gen-z-ers (60 percent are under the age of 24), millennials and even a few people from older generations have tried their hand at creating their own videos . Now, some are looking to delete TikTok, and there are some pretty compelling reasons why you should consider doing so.
During COVID-19 lockdowns, millions of people around the world picked up new hobbies to keep themselves busy while they were stuck at home. Some tried baking bread for the first time, others began practicing yoga, and millions more dedicated hours of their day to curating fifteen-second videos to share with the world in hopes of becoming famous.
In the last few weeks, however, TikTok has become a viral sensation in its own right- not because of its popularity, but over concerns for international security. Governments around the world are becoming increasingly wary of the Chinese-owned app, which is causing many users to ask the question: “Should I delete TikTok?”
At the beginning of July, the government of India stunned video makers across the country when it announced a ban on several Chinese apps, including the messaging platform WeChat, the mobile browser UC browser, and TikTok, among others.
The government justified the ban, saying that the apps “pose a threat to sovereignty and integrity” . A New Delhi-based digital industry analyst explained that because India is an open democracy, deep penetration of Chinese platforms makes future elections vulnerable to outside manipulation .
This is a significant setback for TikTok, since India is the app’s largest international user base. The United States government is applauding India’s decision, and is now considering following suit.
“We’re taking this very seriously,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “We’re certainly looking at it. We’ve worked on this very issue for a long time… With respect to Chinese apps, I can assure you the U.S. will get that one right… I don’t want to get out in front of the president, but it’s something we’re looking at,” .
Back in December, the United States Army and Navy banned TikTok from all government-issued phones, and in March the Air Force, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, TSA, and Department of Homeland security have all done the same. They have also strongly encouraged employees to delete the app from their personal devices as well .
TikTok: A Threat to Democracy?
The US government regards many Chinese-owned apps as appendages to the Chinese Communist Party. For this reason, they view any of these platforms as possible threats to democracy.
But how does TikTok pose such a threat?
There are two main issues with TikTok: data extraction, and censorship. US government officials are concerned with data extraction because they are worried about the possibility that ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company) will give US data information to the Chinese government .
Does this mean TikTok is spying on you? Not any more than any other US social media platform. The difference, however, is that TikTok is Chinese. The data being captured on your device does not pose much risk to you as an individual, it does provide a dataset over time, categorized by country, city, and demographic of user. In the hands of a foriegn government, this poses a very serious risk .
In China, new intelligence laws state that companies have to hand over company data to the Chinese government if they are asked for it. With the amount of human and technical reach that these Chinese companies now have, this provides an opportunity for Chinese intelligence services direct access to many governments around the world.
The US government is concerned about the Chinese government having access to US citizen’s data, particularly for military personnel, and believe that this could pose a major threat to national security .
TikTok and ByteDance have since stated that all user data from the United States is handled by US-based employees, and stored in US servers with a backup in Singapore, which would make none of that data subject to Chinese laws.
Misty Hong, a student in California, however, has recently sued the company on the claim that they stole some of her data which ended up on Chinese servers. If this is proven to be true, user have reason to be concerned with where their personal data ends up .
“The more insidious view,” says Cyjax CISO Ian Thornton-Trump, “is that TikTok and other apps present a danger of mass manipulation and social control and disinformation. The danger may be minimal to the individual but serious for society and democracy” .
This leads us to the second issue with TikTok: censorship, and its potential political influence. Many people now use social media platforms as their main source of news, and so these apps are often used to push propaganda to its users.
In 2016, social media was a major tool to promote political messages. The fear is that with hundreds of millions of users, this application, which is not owned by the United States, is hard to control. This fear is based off of Facebook, which already has difficulty controlling its data, making the risk with TikTok very high .
Concerns over censorship began in 2019, when community guidelines allowed for “controversial content” to be taken down or “shadowbanned”. This content could include anything that mentioned specific events, political leaders, or any content that criticised policies and political or social systems of a nation. “Demonization or distortion” of historical events like the Cambodian genocide or Tiananmen Square were also banned, as well as topics considered to be controversial like such as religious or racial conflicts .
These rules have now been retired, but TikTok can still delete content from the platform without giving any advanced notice or reason to the user. Many LGBTQ+ and Muslim users have complained about having their content marginalized, and many others have spoken up about their videos being deleted for no apparent reason.
It is still uncertain whether this is a direct attempt to silence specific groups, or if it’s simply a flaw in TikTok’s algorithm .
Should You Delete TikTok?
The answer to that question is not quite so simple. On one hand, your risk as an individual is relatively low. At least, it’s no greater than with other social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. That being said, if you use the app, it’s important to understand that your data may not be as secure or private as you think it is.
As a citizen, however, the risk changes. You have to ask yourself the question: do you feel comfortable using a Chinese-owned app? TikTok is actually the international version of another Chinese-owned app, Douyin, which is censored and restricted, and is suspected of monitoring its users.
Take Hong Kong, for example. Until the end of June, Hong Kong was a TikTok market, not a Douyin market. As the political situation there has shifted, however, ByteDance can no longer guarantee that Hong Kong user information will not be shared with the Chinese government, even though it remains a TikTok market .
The problem here is that while Facebook and Google can refuse to cooperate with Hong Kong’s new national security laws, ByteDance cannot, because it is a Chinese-owned company. This is what is the most concerning to the US government .
So the question really has nothing to do with you as a user, but more so with the politics between the US and China. Should you delete the app for the greater good, or keep it because you are under no personal threat?
That answer, as we will find out in the coming weeks and months, might be made for you.