Social media platform TikTok appears to be here to stay despite United States President Donald Trump signing an executive order to ban the app, which is full of meme-worthy singing and dancing clips posted by teens.
On August 7, Trump issued an executive order banning TikTok and messaging app WeChat and prohibiting US residents from doing any business with TikTok or its owner ByteDance. The order takes effect in 45 days.
Trump said TikTok may be used for disinformation campaigns that benefit the Chinese Communist Party and that the United States “must take aggressive action against the owners of TikTok to protect our national security,”
Above: A TikTok video posted before the Australian government’s decision not to ban the app.
Trump had earlier given ByteDance 45 days to sell the platform, prompting Microsoft to enter discussions to buy Tiktok in the United States and possibly its operations in Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
There were also calls to ban TikTok in Australia, but Prime Minister Scott Morrison on August 5 said the governmenthad taken a “good look” at it and similar apps and concluded there was “no reason for us to restrict those applications at this point“.
Still, Morrison warned TikTok users should be wary. “People should know that the line connects right back to China and that they should exercise their own judgement about whether they should participate in those things or not,” he said.
So what exactly is TikTok? What is the line “right back to China”? And why are politicians concerned about its use?
Above: Zachery Dereniowski has half a million followers on TikTok.
What is TikTok?
It’s a social media platform that features 15-second videos of users mostly lip syncing, dancing and performing comedic skits. These include memes, which are short videos or photos that are widely copied, often with slight variations.
The app’s popularity has soared during the COVID-19 pandemic and it has been downloaded 2 billion times globally, with an estimated 1.6 million users in Australia, most of whom are under 25.
TikTok user Zachery Dereniowski (@MDMotivator) has accrued an audience of 500,000 followers on TikTok in the past six months and says the platform is not just cute cat memes. The 27-year-old medical student uses TikTok to create posts about mental health struggles.
“It was a bit awkward when I started using it,” he says. “But I thought the platform was undersaturated and had great reach. It’s about giving mental health a voice and letting people be heard – 2020 has been a really tough year for people with mental health issues.”
TikTok has also become increasingly important in the entertainment sector, where it is used by music executives to scout for acts and is a popular platform for young political activists, who have used it in the United States variously to falsely bolster expected attendance figures at a rally for Mr Trump in Tulsa and to co-ordinate #BlackLivesMatter protests.
Above: Cute cats clips are a staple on TikTok.
What’s the problem with TikTok?
TikTok uses a highly intuitive algorithm that encourages scrolling from clip to clip for hours, however, the main concern raised by politicians and security experts is not the time-sucking nature of the app but rather its Chinese connections.
The platform is owned by Chinese company ByteDance and was launched in 2017 as a spin-off of Chinese app Douyin. The government holds concerns the platform could be used to compile a vast digital database of users that could be shared with the Chinese Communist Party.
TikTok maintains its user data is stored in the US and Singapore and says it is working to limit the number of employees who have access to user data and the scenarios under which data access is enabled.
However, Fergus Ryan, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), says China has a suite of national security laws that effectively remove any firewall between TikTok’s user data and Chinese authorities. “In the United States, a company like Apple can publicly refuse the FBI access to an iPhone. That simply wouldn’t happen in China [that a company such as TikTok would refuse] and there is no evidence it has ever happened,” he says.
Leaked documents last year showed TikTok instructed its moderators to censor videos that mentioned Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence or the religious movement Falun Gong.
A TikTok spokesperson says TikTok does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China. “We have never removed content at the request of the Chinese government, and we would not do so if asked. We are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government. The TikTok app does not operate in China, nor do we have any intention of doing so in the future.”
The Australian Defence Force has banned use of the app by its personnel and the Indian government announced in July it would ban TikTok and other well-known Chinese apps, including WeChat, saying they pose a “threat to sovereignty and integrity”.
Above: An excerpt from a TikTok promotion.
What would a sale to Microsoft mean for TikTok?
Tech giant Microsoft has confirmed it is in discussions to buy TikTok – President Trump’s insistence on a cut of the sale has added a new dimension to negotiations.
“I did say that, if you buy it, a very substantial portion of that price is going to have to come into the Treasury of the United States, because we’re making it possible for this deal to happen,” Trump has said. “The United States should be reimbursed or paid because, without the United States, they don’t have anything.”
Microsoft says discussions are continuing and are subject to a complete security review and the provision of “proper economic benefits to the United States”.
TikTok is an interesting acquisition opportunity for Microsoft, following its purchase of professional networking site LinkedIn and the owner of video game Minecraft, according to venture capital fund partner James Cameron of Airtree Ventures.
“Microsoft have generally proven themselves to be pretty good at mergers and acquisitions, they have effectively let all those brands flourish, independent of the parent company, which I think is good news for the diehard TikTok users,” he says. “It is likely that the product road map will be continued and it wouldn’t be subsumed into any other Microsoft products and the name would still be there.”
Is TikTok here to stay?
While the Prime Minister has said he will not ban TikTok, the platform continues to face two federal inquiries in Australia.
A Senate committee has asked TikTok, Facebook, Twitter and Google to give evidence on the threat of foreign interference conducted through their platforms and security agencies are separately assessing TikTok.
A spokesperson for TikTok in Australia says it is committed to providing a safe and secure platform.
“We always welcome the opportunity to meet with policymakers to talk about TikTok, including the steps we’re taking to make it an even safer and more creative place,” the spokesperson says.
Michael Keane, professor of Chinese Digital Media and Culture at Curtin University, says it is unlikely the platform will be banned and any such action would be problematic.
“In this arena, it’s a bad move to make because the internet itself was supposed to be a borderless medium and if we blacklist companies we could end up with a splintered internet very quickly with firewalls,” he says. “Overall, this is retaliatory action and TikTok has become a pawn in a larger game.”
The bigger threat to TikTok in Australia may instead be the proliferation of competitors – Instagram has launched a feature that enables short-form edited videos with audio and music, called Reels, which has been described as a “TikTok clone”. Instagram is looking to attract TikTok users in the same way it lured SnapChat users with its Stories feature.
This article has been updated to include additional comment from TikTok.
Cara is the small business editor for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald based in Melbourne