TikTok: What actually is the app that Trump wants to ban, and how does it work?

Viral video app TikTok has been making headlines as it moves from social media software to geopolitical issue.

On the app, teenagers, millennials and celebrities engage with trends, perform dances, lip-sync with songs, and create memes.

The app is very popular with young people but has become a concern of the Trump administration due to its Chinese origins.

Questions have been raised about how data gathered by the app can be used, especially in the wake of other well-known data outrages such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

President Trump has suggested banning the app, or having it purchased from its Chinese parent company by an American company – most likely Microsoft.

With communities and businesses built on TikTok by young people, however, many teens have fought back against the president.

What is TikTok?

TikTok is a video sharing social network, where users upload 15-second videos usually synced to music.

The app reportedly has over one billion active users, 100 million of whom are in the United States.

Some of the most popular users on the app have millions of followers. These include new influencers such as Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae – both of whom are dancers and social media personalities – as well as more conventional celebrities such as Will Smith and Jason Derulo.

Cameron Diaz, Jack Black, and Anthony Hopkins have all joined the platform and uploaded videos.

TikTok is also a popular platform for viral campaigns and trends, such as the “check your privilege” and “flip the switch” challenges.

What can I do on it?

Much like other social media apps like Facebook and Instagram, there is a vertically-scrolling feed of content that can be liked, commented on, and shared. There is also a messaging service built into it.

Videos can have filters, beauty modes, effects, and can be sped up or slowed down.

TikTok is particularly popular for dances. A viral dance created on the platform was performed by the user who invented the routine in front of thousands at an NBA All-Star game.

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It has become significantly more popular as young people use it to upload memes with teenagers building meme brands from the ground up.

Some of these can be very profitable. The UK’s first “TikTok House” – where influencers move into one building together with the hopes to collaborate on content – was created during the coronavirus pandemic.

Tiktok stars with more than two million followers in the UK can reportedly earn as much as £25,000 per year.

Compared to other social media apps TikTok has been more open about its algorithm, showing how videos are recommended and how watched videos influence what it suggests.

Where did it come from?

TikTok’s origins come from China, and its parent company Bytedance.

Bytedance developed a version of TikTok which still operates exclusively in China called Doyuin in September 2016.

TikTok was launched in international markets in 2017, but only found a base worldwide when it merged with another lip-syncing app Musical.ly in 2018

TikTok is now available in 150 markets and in 75 languages. It has become the world’s most downloaded iOS app.

What other apps are like it?

Short-form video apps have come in many forms, such as Vine (owned by Twitter). It shuttered but was then relaunched in January 2020 as Byte.

Alternative apps to TikTok, such as Zynn, exist, but has been removed from the iOS and Android app stores because of allegations of plagiarism and a questionable pay-to-watch scheme.

Facebook is currently developing its own TikTok-esque product called Reels in Brazil. Reels will be available through Instagram and allows users to create 15-second videos – the same length of time as those on TikTok. It is expected that, if it proves popular, it will be rolled out for global release.

In response to the recent interviews between the US congress and the CEOs of America’s largest technology companies, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook was a “proudly American company”.

TikTok, and its US CEO Kevin Mayer – who was previously the Chairman of the Direct-to-Consumer & International division at Disney – said that Facebook was “maligning attacks … disguised as patriotism and designed to put an end to [TikTok’s] very presence in the US.”

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”Facebook is even launching another copycat product, Reels (tied to Instagram), after their other copycat Lasso failed quickly”, TikTok also said.

However, TikTok itself has been accused of copying features from other apps and is facing a lawsuit from another short-form video app called Thriller.

TikTok fights to hang on as Trump threatens to ban video app: ‘We’re here for the long run’How concerned should you be about TikTok

Is TikTok a security concern?

Research from Protonmail – an end-to-end encrypted email service – suggests that TikTok can indeed collect data that could be shared.

Data gathered by TikTok, per its terms of service, include IP address, browsing history, and location data as well as information about your content preferences gathered by the app.

Although TikTok has said that it does not share information with the Chinese government, it has been suggested that because TikTok reserves the right to share user information with other members of its corporate group – which includes Bytedance – that user data could then be shared with Beijing.

Moreover China’s National Intelligence Law, passed in 2017, allows the government to compel any Chinese company to give it the information it requires and although Chinese companies such as Huawei and TikTok have claimed they would not comply with such requests, experts believe they would not have a choice in the matter.

Bytedance, TikTok’s parent company, has also seemingly been willing to engage with political censorship. A report from The Guardian in 2018 stated that TikTok censored content that mentioned Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong based on leaked documents about content moderation.

Bytedance said the version of the documents seen were out of date, and that the company took “a blunt approach to minimising conflict on the platform”.

It is this relationship with its Chinese developer – and apparent concerns over the relationship between private companies and the Chinese government – that has led to such attention from the US government and its potential prohibition.

However, these concerns are also exacerbated by geopolitical concerns as well as technological ones. This includes the current trade war between the US and China as well as a border dispute between India and China. The Indian government also banned the app, alongside 58 other Chinese applications.

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As such, it can be challenging to differentiate between genuine security concerns and international posturing, especially as the United States government has also been engaging in practises that, were they from China, it would disagree with.

This includes government law enforcement monitoring Facebook and Instagram for threats in real time as well as politicians from both the UK and US arguing in favour of weakening encryption in order to assist police investigations – something which could have severe ramifications for people’s privacy.

How have TikTok users reacted?

Many young users have been attempting to disrupt the activities of president Trump due to his intention to ban the application.

They have been requesting thousands of tickets to campaign rallies, with the intention to humiliate the president by having him speak to miniscule crowds.

As The New York Times reports, TikTok has become an outlet for creative expression as well as relationship building, and many are concerned about losing that if the app is banned.

Swapping platforms – moving between TikTok and Facebook, for example – is a large undertaking for those with thousands of followers on the platform, and with no guarantee that their audience, or friends, will easily follow many young users are loathe to do it.

It also comes in the context of criticism about Facebook as a tool for election interference, Twitter’s and Reddit’s issues with racism and sexism, and Instagram’s effect on mental health.

For many young people, it can feel like there are few areas of the internet that are “safe” to be on. User data was already taken through an American company to facilitate the victory of a president notably unpopular with young people and continues to be done in order to develop invasive software.

It may be that for many teens, in a digital world increasingly locked down and toxic, geopolitical or national security concerns are simply not on the forefront of their minds when other platforms cannot offer what they already have.



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