The many faces of TikTok in the media

On to today's story: TikTok, the Chinese social media video app that's taking the world by storm. Launched in 2017 by the Beijing-based developer Bytedance, TikTok let users create and share short lip-sync, comedy, and talent videos.

So far, TikTok has surpassed 1.5 billion downloads on the Apple App Store and Google Play, according to the mobile data firm Sensor Tower. It's the third most downloaded non-gaming app this year. To put that into perspective, it's ahead of Facebook and Instagram, and just behind WhatsApp and Messenger.

The main sources of downloads? India followed by China and then the U.S. As of last year, the app was available in over 150 markets and 75 languages. Young people love it, celebrities use it, and it's growing by leaps and bounds.

But of course, the faster a company rises, the sooner the scrutiny follows, especially if the company is Chinese.

After TikTok got big in the U.S., some critics started branding the app as a threat to national security. They allege TikTok could share users' data with its Chinese parent company ByteDance, and in turn, the Chinese government.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio asked the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to open an investigation into TikTok on the grounds of national security, censorship, and anti-boycott compliance concerns.

To address these concerns and make clear the division between TikTok and the Chinese government, the company released an official statement on its website that says:

"We store all TikTok U.S. user data in the United States, with backup redundancy in Singapore. Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law. Further, we have a dedicated technical team focused on adhering to robust cybersecurity policies, and data privacy and security practices."

But despite the company's transparency, popularity, and clean track record, TikTok continues to attract controversy. As seems to be the case with many China-related stories in the international media.

Of course fears, doubts, and concerns cloud some headlines on TikTok, but today, I'm taking a new approach. Instead of busting headlines one by one, I'll look at how three different news companies have told TikTok's story this month:

First up, the BBC on November 7 published "TikTok: Should we trust the Chinese social-media video app?"

Here we see the same old fear-mongering style we've gotten used to. By using "we" in the headline, the article immediately draws a line between "us," the British people, the western world, and "them" – presumably the Chinese app and Chinese people and the entire country of China, which gives us a glimpse of how the BBC sees the world these days.

Never mind the fact that TikTok isn't even available in the Chinese market – it's specifically designed for international markets. But if the article wants to stress the "trust factor," as they have a right to, why not just phrase the headline like: "Can TikTok be trusted"? or "Does TikTok pose a threat?" Why make it so personal?

Then, the New York Times on November 18 published the article "TikTok's Chief Is on a Mission to Prove It's Not a Menace."

I found this article refreshing – instead of seeming to pit the world against a Chinese-owned app, this article presents a more comprehensive look at TikTok's story, leadership, and challenges.

Not only does the journalist humanize the tech company by profiling its leader, Alex Zhu, but it also does not segregate TikTok from the rest of the tech giants when it says:"Like almost everybody who runs a big tech company these days, Alex Zhu, the head of the of-the-moment video app TikTok, is worried about an image problem."

The article also does a good job of contextualizing where TikTok stands in the bigger picture of Chinese tech companies operating in the U.S. when it says:"Washington at this moment is suspicious of Chinese tech companies to a degree that can feel like paranoia."

And:"That a lip-syncing app now finds itself in the same position shows the extent to which any Chinese advancement is seen in Washington as harmful to American interests."

So maybe this isn't just an isolated case but part of a larger movement that's specifically targeting Chinese companies. It's worth an ask, and by highlighting multiple perspectives, the journalist does a just job of exploring the complexities surrounding the issue. It's a good read if you want a more in-depth look at the phenomenon rather than just to know if we can "trust" it or not.

And now, our last article presents an intriguing angle. The Independent on November 14 published the headline: "Instagram's new reels feature is almost an exact copy of Tiktok."

It says: "Instagram has launched a new tool called Reels that borrows some of the most popular features of social media upstart TikTok." Adding:"Reels allows users to create music videos for up to 15-seconds – the same length of time allowed on TikTok. Much like the 'Duet' feature in TikTok, Reels also allows users to take audio from other users to use in their own videos."

Do some words and phrases, such as "borrow" and "almost an exact copy", sound as if Facebook is so threatened by TikTok's success that it's actually stealing some of the app's features?

The article seems to think so when it adds: "It is the latest move by Facebook, which owns Instagram, to compete with its hugely popular Chinese rival that has gained more than 500 million users around the world since it launched in 2016."

So U.S. business interests are also at stake here – a detail that seems to get lost amid all the noise over the app's supposed threat to national security.

The article also notes that: "Through the launch of Reels, industry experts say Instagram can capitalize on its already sizable user base and monetize the format in a way that TikTok is unable to."

When you think about it this way, TikTok sounds more like a victim of its own success. The point of all this? As with most stories in the news, TikTok's story is multidimensional. It's not just black-and-white or about "us versus them"– it's much more dynamic.

We tried to bring you several pieces of the puzzle today but would love to hear your thoughts. What do you think about today's articles? Do you think the media does a good job of presenting China-related stories?

Let me know what you think, drop us a comment or send us your questions. 

(If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at