Hi, my name is Daniel and I have a problem. A TikTok problem. After dismissing it for over a year, TikTok was thrust upon me last month at, of all things, a bachelor party in Hong Kong. It was a little like The Hangover, but subtract drugs, strippers and Mike Tyson’s tiger and replace it with a trendy Chinese video app aimed at 16-year-olds.
And now I’m addicted. A feed comprised of millions of silly videos from people around the world, curated to my taste by artificial intelligence. I never really stood a chance. Recent favorites include a dog getting its nails clipped, a teen runner belly flopping into a pool of mud mid-race, and a stoner interrupting a college lecture to heat up popcorn with a microwave he brought from home.
TikTok stands out from other social media in one key way: You actually feel good after using it., making the platform feel sterile. Studies show Instagram, acting as a highlight reel of other people’s artificial lives, . Twitter is designed to be a platform for open conversation, but reduces people, arguments and ideas into 280-character caricatures.
Do you remember the last time you felt satisfied after using any of these apps? I don’t. Not only do I remember the last time I felt satisfied post-TikTok (yesterday), TikTok has brought me closer to friends and colleagues. We share videos and laugh. We bond, which is what Facebook, Instagram and Twitter fail at.
But TikTok has to go.
My problem with the app isn’t its guarantee to waste too much of my time. Though TikTok distinguishes itself by being fun to use, its parent company is like many Silicon Valley giants in one key way: It can’t be trusted.
Paying attention to TikTok the app has made it necessary to pay attention to TikTok the company. And it’s not a pretty sight.
The app is owned by Chinese firm ByteDance, currently the most valuable startup in the world. Being a company of any importance in China means working with the ruling Communist Party in some capacity. Tech platforms in the past have not only had to purge any mention of or Tibetan independence, but also remove “subversive” imagery like and .
“Firms such as Huawei, Tencent, ZTE, Alibaba, and Baidu have no meaningful ability to tell the Chinese Communist Party ‘no’ if officials decide to ask for their assistance,” said US International Security bureaucrat Christopher Ashley Ford at a conference in September.
Like Huawei, TikTok denies this charge. The New York Times in November asked TikTok boss Alex Zhu what he would do if President Xi Jinping personally requested that he take down a video or share user data. “I would turn him down,” Zhu proclaimed.
So it was a little suspicious when news broke that TikTok had taken down the profile of an American teenager promoting awareness about China’s disastrous human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims. TikTok says the 17-year-old’s account was disabled not because of that video, but in relation to a TikTok featuring imagery of Osama Bin Laden.
It’s an eyebrow raiser for sure, but plausible. Unfortunately for TikTok, and people like me who just want to love TikTok, the app has had a spectacular run of bad news since.
A proposed class-action lawsuit filed in California claims called ByteDance a “vector for censorship and surveillance,” adding that it “collaborates with public security bureaus across China.”and sending it to China. A report out of Germany found TikTok had been , which TikTok said was a temporary anti-bullying measure. A think tank backed by Australia’s Department of Defense
For its part, TikTok says it doesn’t operate in China — the country has an app called Douyin which is essentially TikTok with a different name and stricter, China-specific content guidelines — and that it has no data centers in the country. “TikTok does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China,” a spokesperson said. “We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period.”
TikTok is a platform filled with much-needed mindless mirth, and was the springboard for noted banger Ol’ Town Road. But when you stack that up against accusations of harvesting user data, censoring what the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t like and its parent company’s alleged active assistance in human rights violations, it almost seems like it’s not worth it.
TikTok time machine
A thought exercise: If you could go back in time and stop yourself and everyone around you from downloading Facebook, would you?
In 2019, Facebook feels inescapable. Dissatisfied users grumble about how they would delete it if they could, and it seems the ongoing privacy catastrophes do little to damage the company. Regulating Facebook fairly would be a tricky balancing act US lawmakers are reluctant to attempt.
No one could have expected this in 2008, when Facebook overtook Myspace to become the world’s biggest social media site. Conversely, TikTok is just 3 years young but the red flags are already there.
It’s hard to say what the ramifications of its huge user base could be but, based on past experience with social media giants plus the nature of business in China, we can guess it’s probably not good. The US government isn’t idling, with the Committee of Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) already investigating the national security risks of TikTok and ByteDance, according to Reuters. In possibly related news, Zhu will meet with lawmakers in Washington next week, reports The Washington Post.
But governments move slowly, and tech companies move fast. Unlike Facebook, TikTok isn’t yet too big to fail. But it certainly feels like we’re at a crossroads. Support it now and potentially create a problem, or play it safe by giving up TikTok.
The reasonable choice to make is clear: When it comes to TikTok, just say no. But we’re all pretty bad when it comes to making the reasonable choice. If we weren’t, cigarettes wouldn’t exist.
Even being a tech journalist aware of its issues, I don’t want to give TikTok up. I’m guessing many of the hundreds of millions of teens who make up the app’s main user base, and who largely don’t know or care about the implications of an ascendant ByteDance, are less keen to hit uninstall.
It’s time to admit it. We all have a TikTok problem.
Originally published Dec. 6.
Update, Dec. 7: Adds mention of Zhu’s upcoming trip to Washington.