U.S. suspicion of TikTok does not recognize the needs of American society
Updated 14:47, 08-Jan-2020
Huang Yongfu

Editor's note: Huang Yongfu is a senior fellow at the International Cooperation Center of the National Development and Reform Commission of China. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of the NDRC or CGTN.

As the 2020 U.S. election looms, advisers for presidential campaigns are looking for ways to make use of TikTok's incredible popularity and reach younger voters. In recent weeks, TikTok has been flooded with political content, with videos tagged "Trump2020" being viewed more than 200 million times in December 2019, followed by other popular videos tagged "Sanders2020" and "Bernie2020".

However, the U.S. military last week banned TikTok on any government-issued or personal phones for fear of potential national security risks, following various national security reviews and scrutiny from lawmakers that started in November 2019. Security-driven politics is polluting the lighthearted vibe of the app and decoupling from the needs of society in the U.S.

Alleged national security risks

The wildly popular video-sharing app TikTok was launched by ByteDance in August 2017, and was modeled on its hit Chinese short-video app Douyin. In late 2017, ByteDance purchased Musical.ly, which started in China, grew popular in the U.S, and later merged into TikTok.

On November 1 2019, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) opened a national security investigation into ByteDance's 1 billion U.S. dollar acquisition of the startup Musical.ly in 2017.

Since then, hawkish senators such as Josh Hawley and Marsha Blackburn have argued that, due to its Chinese roots, TikTok might collect data on American users for the Chinese government, censor or manipulate certain content on behalf of Beijing, and give Beijing access to technology and personal data on millions of Americans. Or, Beijing might demand information about the app's users whenever needed.

Some military hawks are wary of personal information potentially collected by TikTok being used to track the location and movements of individuals, an argument which in fact applies to many popular apps, not just TikTok.

Last week, the Air Force and Coast Guard publicly declared TikTok off-limits to their troops, specifically urging them to uninstall the app from any of their government-issued phones. Following similar decisions from the Defense Department, Navy, Army and Marines, this is the latest move from the armed forces to ban TikTok over possible national security risks related to its Chinese ownership.

To address the concerns of data privacy, TikTok issued an official statement declaring that the company's data centers are located outside of China, and not subjected to the Chinese law. More specifically, ByteDance has been further empowering local teams with different policies for each region it operates in. TikTok's main office located in Los Angeles runs U.S. operations, storing data of American users on servers within the country.

As for the alleged censorship dictated by the Chinese government, the official statement makes clear that, "We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content, and we would not do so if asked." ByteDance has also said that its U.S. moderation team in California reviews content for adherence to U.S. policies and is not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government.

Little Polish TikTok users Nadia and Zosia record a short video for the app using their parents' phone in Warsaw, Poland, February 16, 2019. /Xinhua Photo

Little Polish TikTok users Nadia and Zosia record a short video for the app using their parents' phone in Warsaw, Poland, February 16, 2019. /Xinhua Photo

Growing popularity in teens and presidential campaigns

TikTok allows users to shoot, share and view self-repeating short videos of up to 15 seconds with easy-to-use editing tools. By spreading videos of various dance-offs, lip-syncing and funny pet antics in a carefree and funny way, it has emerged as a genre of entertainment captivating adolescents and young people. Global downloads of TikTok have outstripped Facebook and its sister services Instagram and WhatsApp combined, as the app has been downloaded more than 750 million times in the past 12 months.

TikTok has surged in popularity in the U.S. with about 24 million active users by the end of 2019, about 40 percent of which are between the ages of 18 and 24.

Given its success, TikTok appeals to advisers of presidential campaigns who have been looking for social media platforms to broadcast candidates' messages in addition to Facebook and Twitter, enabling them to connect with largely first-time voters.

Though both the Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns don't have an official TikTok page, they have reached out to accounts with large amounts of followers. Trump's team has added Trump's 2020 flag, featuring the president's slogan "Keep America Great", as well as "I love Trump. I'mma vote Trump 2020!" into many of the most popular videos.

A new form of tech decoupling hurts American society

TikTok offers users a purely lighthearted and fun way to share short videos with a no-politics policy. Its woes in the U.S. have been regarded as politically motivated, turning the platform into a victim of icy Sino-U.S. relations.

To stymy China's technological advances, American policymakers have launched a series of high-profile crackdowns on telecoms giant Huawei, accusing Chinese firms of stealing American technologies and spying for Beijing, preventing its allies from using China-built 5G networks, and so on.

If America's sanctions on Huawei are about decoupling the supply chains of electronics and telecoms gear, its recent ban on TikTok is an attempt to disentangle the data flows between America and China. It is a new form of tech decoupling in terms of the data geopolitics of who controls what online.

It's not yet clear whether the recent scrutiny of and ban on TikTok will meaningfully hit its operations in the U.S.: Nevertheless, the American society is highly likely to suffer from recent events, and even show signs of schism.

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