The initiative is gaining momentum in the USA. US senators are beginning to resist the idea based on fears that TikTok’s Chinese owners will be unable to resist attempts by Chinese authorities to sway public opinion in Western countries.
India has already banned it for this reason.
Last week, Axel Springer boss Mathias Döpfner added to the chorus that allowing him to dominate social media was “naïve and dangerous”.
“We have a naivete in dealing with China at the moment,” he said. “We hand over personal data to the Chinese government. It is of course a spy tool.”
But is this just the latest wave of moral panic about the new, new? Could some of us succumb to Trump-style populism?
There are certainly reasonable grounds for taking a closer look at TikTok’s activity.
Tik Tok believes some are trying to make it a victim of international trade and geopolitical tensions
A number of recent, separate studies by credible media organizations suggest this.
Earlier this year, Buzzfeed received leaked audio from 80 internal TikTok meetings, which appears to show that China-based employees of parent company ByteDance have repeatedly accessed non-public data on U.S. TikTok users.
Although TikTok firmly denies that such data is accessed in China, concerns about it are not isolated.
The Irish Data Protection Commissioner has conducted two separate ongoing investigations into how the company handles our user data and specifically whether it is ultimately analyzed in China.
Similar concerns were raised after the Guardian revealed that TikTok could log keystrokes from anyone using the app on iPhones.
However, what seems to unsettle TikTok’s astute critics the most are the allegations of influence trading.
Buzzfeed again reported the testimony of four former ByteDance employees who claimed they were ordered to put pro-Chinese content at the forefront of the company’s now-defunct English-language news app, TopBuzz.
According to the staffers quoted by Buzzfeed, that was mostly “soft” material, such as promoting travel to China or the benefits of a startup moving there.
If the company doesn’t see that as a problem, critics argue, why not pressure TikTok on important issues in the age of US elections?
For its part, TikTok denies everything. It insists its operations in Europe and the US are completely separate from any data access in China.
It’s also somewhat scathing about what it sees as politically and commercially motivated campaigns to make it a victim of international trade and geopolitical tensions.
To a certain extent, it is right about the Chinese interference claims that have been thrown at it. As commentator Casey Newton pointed out, TikTok is in the somewhat impossible position of having to prove a negative — that Chinese authorities couldn’t and couldn’t influence its algorithm.
Furthermore, there has not (yet) been a scandal of the magnitude of Cambridge Analytica over the manipulation of its platform. This is largely due to the tight control over what you see and hear on its platform.
It’s secret about some basic details of how it works and who controls its all-powerful algorithm
TikTok differs from all other social media platforms in one essential point: Its content is moderated much more strictly than that on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and Co.
You don’t see videos from friends and family – you see videos based on what the algorithm thinks you are.
They also see things that are less viscerally disturbing, like images of child abuse, extreme violence, or crude hate speech.
But while this has proven very popular, it also increases caution about the added power and influence of those setting the terms of what the algorithm is pushing.
This is one of the reasons Donald Trump’s White House tried to restrict TikTok’s activities in the US.
It is undisputed that TikTok is a global cultural phenomenon. His videos make up an increasing percentage of what you see on every other social media platform, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and mainstream news media that use the videos in their reporting.
The younger you are, the more TikTok dominates your online life. In Ireland, for example, 74 percent of eight to twelve year olds use TikTok.
With this kind of cultural permeation, TikTok has inherited a very serious accountability problem.
So far, it hardly meets this requirement. Despite establishing (ironically) a transparency and accountability center in Dublin — where it’s scaling from 2,000 to 3,000 posts this year — and the US, it remains secretive about some basic details of how it works and how its all-powerful algorithm is controlled.
That leaves the field open for a wide range of commentators and agitators to howl foul.
There is nothing easier for a politician who smells populism than to point to a new engine of culture and accuse it of hiding a core of evil.
But just because they’re a little paranoid, does that mean they’re wrong?
It is now clear that the US is the market to watch on this issue.
The smart money might lie in divestment rather than outright ban. If ByteDance sold out, it would likely take most of the wind out of its critics’ sails.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/a-tool-of-chinese-espionage-how-nervous-should-we-be-about-tiktok-41994712.html A “Tool of Chinese Espionage” – How Nervous Should We Be About TikTok?