The Sinister Side of TikTok
Updated: Apr 6
The Covid-19 crisis has forced governments across the globe to instruct citizens to remain within the confines of their own homes. The now world famous ‘Stay Home’ movement has given rise to a number of innovative indoor activities and has increased the usage of entertainment apps that can help to pass the time. One such app that has seen a surge in popularity over the last few weeks is TikTok. For those who are unfamiliar with TikTok, it’s a social networking app used to create and share (usually unfailingly irritating) 15 second videos of people dancing, lip-syncing or showing off any other ‘talents’ they possess. On the surface, TikTok seems like harmless fun, but few users are aware of the nature of the app’s ascent and its chequered relationship with the freedoms that define the majority of Western societies.
TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based company founded by internet entrepreneur Zhang Yiming. The Chinese version of TikTok, named ‘DouYin (抖音)’, is ubiquitous amongst young people in China, boasting almost 500 million users since its inception in September 2016. TikTok and DouYin are essentially the same app with one key difference - DouYin operates on separate servers in order to adhere to China’s strict censorship requirements. This distinction has been most noticeable during political events such as last year’s Hong Kong protests, when videos of the protests were circulating widely on TikTok but were strangely absent from its Chinese counterpart’s platform. You might think that this is fair game, and that all businesses should be required to comply with a country’s laws and regulations in order to operate in that country, but what about when legal and moral lines become blurred?
In recent months, fears over access provided to Chinese telecoms giant Huawei into the mobile networks of Western democracies have been well-documented. Sneaking under the radar comparatively, TikTok has also been identified by experts as a national security threat. When companies grow to a certain size in China, they are forced to hand over a portion of their operations to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and share data with the government, mandated under the Chinese Internet Security Law. In 2018, as TikTok grew exponentially, CEO Zhang Yiming announced that his firm would look to “further deeper cooperation” with the CCP in order to promote its policies both inside and outside China. Since then, independent think tanks and US senators alike have carried out thorough investigations into TikTok and found it guilty of handing over the locations, images, and biometric data of its users to its Chinese parent company. It’s no secret that China’s aim is to increase its influence across the world and, ultimately, replace the US as the global hegemon, and what better way to do this than have access to millions of foreign citizens’ data? Anyone who has seen The Great Hack on Netflix will be aware of just how easy it is for hostile agents to interfere in our democracies when provided with access to our online paper trails. Through TikTok, we have been handing our data to China like a cake with a cherry on top.
The censorship machine in China doesn’t take a day off, with news and content deemed critical of the CCP being wiped off the internet before you can say “Tiananmen”. Most of us probably take the stance that, whilst we don’t agree with censorship in principle and wouldn't want it for ourselves, we should let China do its own thing within its borders. But what about when the Chinese government’s desire to bury criticism impinges on the rights of those outside of the Middle Kingdom to speak freely? If you don’t believe that this is a legitimate concern, speak to Daryl Morey, the beleaguered Houston Rockets General Manager who tweeted "Fight for Freedom, Stand With Hong Kong", leading to an angry backlash from Chinese basketball fans and public condemnation by an NBA desperate to cling onto its Chinese market. TikTok has been at the centre of censorship controversy, particularly since the Chinese government announced stricter responsibility on the part of companies to censor user content in January 2019. Videos that have been deemed critical of the CCP have frequently been banned - both inside and outside China - including videos related to the aforementioned 2019 Hong Kong protests (Hong Kong itself is supposed to be free from government censorship).
Perhaps the most distressing way in which TikTok has worked with China to censor its unrelenting violations of human rights is the blocking of videos and deleting of accounts that have exposed abuses of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang Province. For those who are unaware of the situation in the North-West of China, the CCP currently has up to 3 million Uighur Muslims detained in 're-education' camps, stripping them of their identity in a cultural genocide that has not been seen on this scale since the Holocaust. In November, a 17 year old American girl named Feroza Aziz cleverly disguised a lesson on the atrocities being committed by the CCP in Xinjiang as a make-up tutorial. Aziz instructed watchers to: “put their eyelash curlers down, pick up their phones, and search how China is throwing innocent Muslims into concentration camps….separating their families from each other, kidnapping them, murdering them, raping them.” The video went viral in the US, before being swiftly taken down by TikTok, who also deleted Aziz’s account for good measure. After widespread outrage that TikTok was placating the abuses of the CCP, Aziz’s account was reinstated and the company apologised for a “human error” in the deletion of her video. It begs the question of how many other “human errors” have led to the removal of users who have spoken ill of the Chinese government?
This piece is not designed to call out TikTok addicts for unforgivable ignorance, or even discourage people from using the app to pass the time during this unprecedented period. Its purpose is to act as a reminder of the dangers posed by bad actors who are benefiting from our usage of the apps we log onto so frequently - particularly when one of those bad actors is the Chinese Communist Party. My concerns with TikTok are two-fold. Firstly, that the app is gathering our data and has no choice - by law - but to pass it onto the CCP, representing a clear own goal when it comes to safeguarding our own national security (the US and Australian armies have recently banned the use of the app on all government-issued devices). Secondly, TikTok’s continued failure to recognise the liberal freedoms - namely personal autonomy and freedom of speech - that we have agreed to build our societies upon is indicative of a shift towards a censored, truth-free world that the Chinese government seeks to lead. So keep TikToking away, but just bear in mind that the forces behind the app are perhaps not as harmless as the videos that you’re consuming.