Social distancing, face masks, quarantines, multiple local and national lockdowns, and a growing tier system are just some of the things that 2020 is going to be remembered for. However, it is the entrance of TikTok, which completely side-swept other social media platforms, that might become the most significant creation to impact the younger generation during this decade.
While all forms of social media offer a habitual experience and have demonstrated an insurmountable presence online, TikTok has seemingly tapped into something that other western platforms have been unable to achieve within this digital age. It has had the propensity to generate an enormous wealth of diverse viewers that traditional social media platforms, which are based on a model of followers, have been incapable of accomplishing.
This unprecedented emergence should leave us questioning what the potential motives and consequences of this new app are, however, many have continued to use this product despite several red flags that all is not what it seems.
There has been an increasing number of inquisitions surrounding TikTok’s data and privacy policies, but is this founded on paranoia for the unknown or is there some truth to the accusations that TikTok is merely a front for the agendas of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)?
Issues surrounding TikTok have ranged from notable coincidences, to real data privacy concerns, and full-blown conspiracy theories rooted in the anti-Chinese sentiment that the CCP is using TikTok to mobilize the masses online.
CCP Links To TikTok?
The link between TikTok and the CCP is transparent. TikTok was developed by ByteDance – one of the most competitive tech-giants in China. The CCP has a variety of laws and legislation, that requires Chinese companies to have an internal CCP committee. Whereby a group of board members that uphold, and potentially dictate, both company policy and what the public image of an organization, such as TikTok, should be for both its domestic and foreign audiences.
There are staff at ByteDance that simultaneously sit on its internal committee. Feng Kaixu, deputy editor-in-chief of ByteDance is also deputy secretary of the CCP committee. There is also photographic evidence of top ByteDance executives posing with CCP members and the communist flag. The close relationship between ByteDance and the Chinese Communist Party is undeniable.
Coincidentally (or not) less than a year after TikTok was released on the app store in 2016,the Chinese government passed a very particular piece of intelligence legislation that required Chinese companies to hand over any information and data should the CCP request it.
Chinese companies are bound to adhere to this law. Therefore, through ByteDance, the CCP has the capability to access any data gathered from TikTok, even if it completely disregards any legal international requirements. ByteDance would later release a statement of intent promising to:
Yet, China doesn’t even have TikTok; it’s unavailable to download or access as they have their own version in Douyin. ByteDance attempted to identically brand them (by using the same logo) but investigations discovered that searching the same terms on both apps resulted in different content results.
This suggests that foreign media and social networks aren’t accessible to citizens within China and that information from within China remains difficult to access outside its borders, which has been commonly referred to as, ‘The Great Firewall of China’. So, should we be concerned that the Chinese government has access to our data? For most of us, probably not, unless you are posting governmental secrets in the form of dance.
There is some scope to suggest that these are just paranoia’s rooted in anti-Chinese sentiments. There was an outpouring from the likes of Trump and head Republican senators to ban TikTok in America. Under Trump’s presidency, TikTok was banned in the US Army, Navy and amongst senate employees. Even Biden instructed its 2020 campaign staff to delete TikTok from their phones. While some may disregard these events as simply a cold war-esque concern of communist states, it is worth noting that these same worries were publicized by ProtonMail, a Swiss company which provides mail encryption.
While they noted that there was no proof that TikTok sends any data to China, it did heed strong warnings and anxieties surrounding TikTok’s privacy policies and the potential for data to be pulled from user devices. The wave of apprehension displayed by multiple outlets, all with different motives and allegiances, is certainly interesting, especially if one is to consider the lack of concern for the practices of western social platforms within many of the same media groups and political institutes.
TikTok vs Western Platforms:
There is no doubt that social media has increasingly provided opportunities for political motives, often acting as an internet battlefield for the modern age. Within Great Britain, the 77th Brigade has been an active department of the British Armed Forces which was established to ‘challenge the difficulties of modern warfare’.
One branch of the 77th Brigade is the Digital Operations Group and its Production Team, which is described as an operation for creating content to influence the behavior of its audience. As outlined by the Chief of the Defence Staff General, Nick Carter, this is currently being put to use in tackling the fight against the spread of coronavirus misinformation. Carter describes using social media as a form of psychological warfare i.e., ‘online operations‘. With an online battleground firmly established, should we not be questioning whether TikTok is a Chinese extension of this, especially when considering their political ties?
Most social media platforms have recognized their own importance in providing health information on the pandemic. However, TikTok has some notable differences to western media sources in this regard. Upon searching ‘coronavirus’ on Twitter and Facebook it directs you to links from the WHO and NHS. However, doing the same on TikTok doesn’t wield the same results. Instead, its link to ‘learn more about coronavirus’, takes you to a further TikTok page which is largely comprised of fun and distracting content. There is a section at the top for ‘official sources’ but that doesn’t include any information provided by the NHS or WHO, despite UK content supposedly being controlled by the UK branch.
Is it possible that TikTok, as a platform developed by a Chinese company, is an active agent in dispelling negative sentiments or conspiracies surrounding China and a ‘plandemic’? Searches related to coronavirus don’t highlight any outside websites, therefore, it is not unreasonable to suggest that this has been done in an attempt to control the narrative of the pandemic or distract from its severity.
China has a track record of redirecting the narrative on social media in relation to coronavirus. A study was conducted that highlighted how, on Facebook, they aim to avoid controversial issues.
‘A theory consistent with these patterns is that the strategic objective of the regime is to distract and redirect public attention from discussions or events with collective action potential.’
As mentioned, TikTok has its content controlled on a basis of geographies. UK-based content is controlled by its UK headquarters, as is its U.S content and so on, so it’s highly likely that these ‘official sources’ are decided by content leaders. But are these country-specific sections of TikTok independent from Chinese influence? It’s unlikely that the CCP is in direct contact with TikTok directors for each country, pressuring them into promoting/suppressing content regarding China’s public image.
However, something that arises suspicion is that until recently the CEO of TikTok was Kevin A. Mayer, who was simultaneously the COO of TikTok’s parent company ByteDance. As previously outlined, ByteDance is fully under the CCP’s sphere of influence in regard to accessing user’s data and information. While, of course, this direct link could simply be an intricacy that has little impact upon how user data is handled, however, it is certainly suggestive that TikTok might have an agenda outside of business.
Tiktok – A Modern Form Of Propaganda?
Propaganda has been historically utilized in politics to influence and distract its audiences. Is this what we are seeing on TikTok as the political battleground moves online to social media? Propaganda scholar L. John Martin makes a clear distinction between facilitative and persuasive communication. While persuasive communication intends to achieve a direct objective, there is arguably more scope for discussion, specifically in relation to TikTok’s practices, on facilitative communication which is designed to: ‘keep lines open and to maintain contacts against the day when they will be needed for propaganda purposes.” Martin notes that facilitative communication ‘is effective if and when it opens up channels of communication with a potential audience’.
However, TikTok is not simply problematic due to its use of facilitative communication but the methods by which it has established and maintains its usership. China’s use of ‘click-farms’, in which phones are programmed to watch view content, has created its own ethical dilemmas, through which users are conned into believing that their viewership is larger than it really is.
According to the South China Morning Post, 1/3 of all traffic generated is from click-farms in China, whether this is from pre-programmed phones or more recently human activity where people are paid to click. Could these click-farms be linked to the viral success and staggering view counts that TikTok content has been able to reach? After all, despite China having its separate platform, Douyin, it was discovered by Penetrum ‘that over one-third of the IP addresses the TikTok APK connects to are based in China’.
Perhaps the motive to increase the attractiveness of viral success on TikTok is rooted in President Xi Jinping’s dream of Chinese dominance. It’s possible that, encouraged by these click-farms as a form of facilitative communication propaganda, TikTok is marketing a positive perception of the CCP to establish virtual footholds across the globe.
Memetic warfare embodies these questions in an environment where social media is spreading information, fake news, and influencing narratives. Jeff Giesa has written substantially on memetic warfare and its guerilla-style, aggressive tactics which he has come to label as a digital version of propaganda. This links back to the establishment of the Britain’s 77th Brigade in which social media is being utilized for strategic information communication. This is still a new tactic within both the political and military landscape. Perhaps CCP intelligence and the data laws of 2017 are a response to this movement of propaganda being placed into the online arena?
TikTok has come under scrutiny for shadow banning anti-CCP sentiments and promoting pro-Beijing content. Multiple sources have recognized a lack of content on TikTok regarding Hong Kong protests against the CCP in 2019 and the blocking of content related to the Chinese-Indian territorial conflicts.
Also of significant interest are the accusations in 2019 that TikTok removed content regarding the human rights violations of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China. TikTok did release an apologetic statement, citing human error for the cause, but the same thing happened again in 2020. While TikTok has a track record with blocking content, its algorithm also seems to purposefully promote pro-Beijing content, in which users have been utilized to gain views; a clear bias rooted in the motives of the CCP. Yet even outside of TikTok, China has historically been the champion of memetic warfare:
Memes have long been used as ‘units of culture’, in which the internet has enabled the acceleration of meme distribution globally in a matter of hours and even minutes. Memes are increasingly being used for political/military purposes. Social media and the internet don’t recognize borders; the ability to influence anyone, for any motive is only a few clicks away. Whether that’s through the use of influencers to promote products or politicians to promote agendas and spread propaganda – there is seemingly no limit to what is possible.
TikTok has responded directly to ‘conspiracy’ claims that the Chinese government started coronavirus, yet no statements were released by any other social media platforms despite supposed misinformation being prevalent across the internet. The extent to which the party has control or influence on TikTok is open to debate, but it’s clear that there is an opportunity to access data and control Chinese-related narratives, if they are not already.
This purely could be a full-blown conspiracy rooted in anti-Chinese sentiments, spear-headed by the likes of Trump. However, there are accusations ranging in anxiety that come from all sectors of people regarding the concerns for privacy and the security of data on TikTok. As of today, there is no proof (and while it would be surprising if there was) the internet is a deep and dark place. Whichever way you align with these questions, it’s a discussion worth having as we push ever deeper into the digital age.
Written by Lizzie Shaw | Illustrated by Hermione Ross