Amidst a global frenzy of dancing, singing, and short-form videos, the world's most downloaded app, TikTok, has emerged as a digital phenomenon shrouded in controversy, accused of everything from flouting regulations to clandestine connections with the Chinese government. Shaking off such a reputation might be impossible, but has it always been this way?
Shou Chew, TikTok’s CEO, had earned a reputation for being calm under pressure, however, on March 23, 2023, his frustration showed as he faced a barrage of questions from the US Congress. When the hearing ended, both sides were left with a bitter taste of dissatisfaction. On one side, members of Congress didn't feel the answers convinced them; on the other, Chew seemed to know that the battle would only get worse.
Though Facebook is numerically larger than TikTok, the latter has shown incredible growth in recent years. Since the pandemic, the platform has become a mainstay, not only with young people, but with all age ranges, even those ninety-year-old.
TikTok has more than a billion users worldwide, with the US having most of them. This sets a precedent as the first Chinese app to disrupt global markets with such force. Still, as popular as it is, its future hangs in the balance, but it shouldn't come as a surprise as TikTok has been riddled with controversy since its inception
The brand ByteDance might not ring a bell to the Western world, but it's one of China's most important content companies. In 2012, it launched its first product, Neihan Duanzi, a social network where users shared jokes and memes. At one point, it became China's most popular social network, with 200 million daily active users.
Then, ByteDance released Toutiao, a news feed mixed with a social network, but users couldn't upload any content. Instead, depending on your traits as a user, you'd get hyper-targeted news, content, and ads. Even if the idea seems somewhat dull, it became a hit. The equation sounds eerily similar to TikTok. After all, ByteDance used this as a launching platform for the eventual successor, and it's all thanks to Zang Yiming, the company's founder and CEO.
Yiming is controversial from every possible angle. His managerial style raised eyebrows in China as he gave a new meaning to authority. He discouraged employees from calling him boss or CEO, a valuable tradition in China. Instead, he chose to mimic what he learned in companies such as Google and Microsoft, his two past employers, before creating ByteDance in 2012. However, choosing not to use the word boss is the lightest of controversies Yiming has faced. From the start, he has pushed the boundaries of correctness in China by trying to get closer to the West and its culture.
At the same time, Yiming had close ties with the Chinese government (for better or worse) since before ByteDance, and these ties have followed him throughout his career. For example, in 2018, the Chinese government shut down ByteDance's first app as it considered the content too vulgar, and Yiming reacted almost immediately. He promised that whichever app came next would follow the Chinese Communist Party's policies and philosophies. The problem is that these aren't necessarily well-received by the US market he wanted to conquer.
At the time of his first known encounter with the government, his company had already launched TikTok's Chinese version, Douyin, which was an instant hit in the country. His next goal was to launch TikTok globally, and he knew, by then, that he needed to keep both sides satisfied, which was practically impossible from the start. Still, the equation worked: TikTok would do something that no other company has ever done, and now, it has a billion users, and this success has raised some eyebrows.
The Chinese Communist Party has insisted, for years, that it has full authority over its people and businesses. In spite of this, Yiming has shied away from this belief. In several interviews, he, who's no longer TikTok's CEO, has stated that he's not a member of the Communist Party. Still, the world has seen these comments with doubt. After all, he's obeyed government comments and sanctions, reacting almost immediately to any sanction.
In 2018, after Toutiao came under fire for sexualized content, Yiming immediately promoted more stories about the president and the government. That was Yiming's way of maintaining a balance between East and West, and for a while, it worked. Still, as much as he claims that his company isn’t a part of the communist party, it's impossible to ignore ByteDance's obedience all the while, the company's star app, TikTok, was taking over the world.
Then, in 2021, came one the biggest blows to Yiming’s claims of having no relation with China. As TikTok became the most downloaded app worldwide, the Chinese government became a stockholder and earned a chair on the board of directors as a key investor in ByteDance.
Douyin relied on speed: sharing videos with effects, stickers, and songs that lasted seconds. This idea wasn't new, as China had similar apps, such as Kuaishou and Meipai. Still, Yiming persisted. He knew that young Chinese people were stuck to their phones, so when Douying didn't catch on at first, he didn't slow down. Instead, the company turned to local celebrities with massive fanbases, it integrated with Chinese chat services, and partnered with mainstream brands. This equation worked perfectly, and it would also help ByteDance apply the same knowledge to TikTok. The cherry on top was live streaming, which gave a new meaning to interaction.
By August 2017, Douyin had reached 1 billion views, and users in China were downloading the app like crazy. In 500 days, it overtook its competition and became the number-one short video-sharing app. Yiming knew that Douyin could work in the US, but it lacked something: pop music. To solve this issue, he turned his attention to one company already succeeding in the US.
Musical.ly allowed users to lip-sync to all the big hits, proving it worked with millions of users. So, Yiming chose to buy it instead of creating its own version, and the new TikTok worked perfectly. In June 2018, it was the #7 downloaded app in the US and #3 worldwide; by November of that year, it was #2 in the US.
The demographics changed as well. Before the merger, about 2.6 million adults used the app. Less than a year after the merger, that number was 7.2 million. As more and more people used it, TikTok caught the attention of major celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, Selena Gomez, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and many more. But, while the app rose in popularity, even as far back as 2018, it was already creating a reputation, and not a good one, on all fronts, from creative to political.
Easy to use, fast, and popular: TikTok had it all. Plus, with overwhelming popularity and growth, it seemed everyone, from teenagers to ninety-year-olds, were using it, and this was before the pandemic. Isolation meant people needed to escape reality, and TikTok was the perfect platform. In no time, it became a source of everything from medical advice to therapy.
Hashtags such as #doctortok and #nursetok became viral. After all, times were tough, so healthcare personnel had to find a way of venting their frustrations and challenges during the pandemic. So, what we thought impossible became true: doctors and nurses were dancing, telling jokes and even crying live on social networks, all thanks to TikTok. Plus, they shared vast knowledge that millions could access almost immediately. Some doctors and nurses managed to amass followers in the millions, and the media loved it. This was Grey's Anatomy without the drama.
The same situation happened with other professions. Educators found themselves locked indoors with the pandemic and gave the world a glimpse into their jobs. Hashtags, such as #teaschersoftiktok, garnered more than 70 billion views in 2020, showcasing both the challenges and the positive aspects of being a teacher.
At the same time, both cases came with a dilemma: how much information is too much? Some doctors came under fire for revealing sensitive data. On the other hand, teachers faced harsh criticism for having minors in their videos, regardless of how innocent the content was.
As serious as they are, these problems weren't the most concerning regarding TikTok. Even before the pandemic and the rise in popularity of some topics, TikTok faced another challenge that stemmed from Yiming's original goal to mix East and West. After all, no two countries think alike.
The idea of TikTok facing a complete ban from the United States, one of its biggest markets, has existed since Donald Trump announced it during his presidency. At the same time, the app has struggled to keep its reputation clean.
The first significant clash between TikTok and a government was with Indonesia. The country lashed out at TikTok for showing, what they believe was, excessively inappropriate content and banned it for eight days. ByteDance's solution was to have a dedicated staff of censors monitoring Indonesia's content. While the solution worked, and the ban was lifted, it highlighted the fragility of TikTok's political relationships with countries, and how fast the tide could turn. After all, as expected, another clash occurred, this time with India and the United Kingdom, for a flurry of reasons, to make matters worse. Every time TikTok tried to make amends with one country, another one fired back, and more and more cases arose.
With a billion users, it's reasonable to expect that some content slips by. Still, TikTok has also failed to handle these situations adequately. For example, in 2019, a Brazilian teenager died by suicide and streamed it live on the platform. The tragedy sparked immediate reactions and received 500 comments and a flurry of complaints, but TikTok was extremely slow to react. ByteDance's Brazilian division didn't take down the video immediately, instead leaving it there for an hour to monitor if the situation got out of hand.
This isn't an individualized case. Videos glorifying sexual abuse, animal cruelty, and violence against women and children have slipped by and remained untouched for longer than necessary. Such instances have led people to create social movements to ban the app, including a massive Twitter campaign in India where the hashtag #BanTikTok reached number one in trending topics. By the end of 2020, India managed to ban the app, but TikTok never relinquished the data it had obtained. Plus, if we dig deeper, the app has even more conflicting issues, most of them systemic.
In 2019, several media outlets, including the German site Netzplitik, revealed that TikTok had purposedly limited the reach of people with disabilities, including facial disfigurement, Down syndrome, mobility disabilities, and others. TikTok recognized that this restriction happened, yet countered the criticism by saying it did this to prevent these users from facing negative comments and discrimination. However, activists highlighted that silencing those users did nothing to eliminate bullying. Instead, it provided a haven for bullies and other hateful content.
Forbes Magazine released an article in 2020 highlighting the many cases in which TikTok users had their videos taken down due to violating community guidelines, but which? It was hard to tell. For example, several Black creators highlighted that the platform immediately took their videos down for using the word Black in bios, hashtags, and descriptions. Yet, TikTok didn't take down videos using other terms such as white supremacy and neo-nazi.
All the while, TikTok has reassured audiences that it's not discriminatory, nor that its goal is to restrict diverse users. It has worked to a degree. Users continue to flock to the platform, though growth has slowed down recently.
Shou Chew lost his temper as he insisted that TikTok was not a security risk to the United States. The discussion arose when members of Congress grilled him with questions about data privacy, censorship (or lack thereof), and spying on journalists, military personnel, and others.
It has been this way for years. In 2020, former US President Donald Trump issued an executive order to ban TikTok from operating in the country. Trump reasoned that TikTok collected data and shared it with the Chinese government. The dilemma then arises, according to the United States, as the Chinese government insists on having complete authority over technology, which might include a billion users' data.
TikTok's defense is the following: a company called ByteDance Ltd., which is based in Beijing and registered in the Cayman Islands. According to Chew, this company owns Douyin and TikTok, and there's no link with the Chinese government. When it comes to ownership, the company a few key players. 60% is in the hands of non-Chinese investors, including Carlyle Group, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, and the SoftBank Group. Meanwhile, the employees own 20% and the founders - including Yiming - own the remaining 20%. TikTok’s current CEO didn’t specify the government’s ownership.
Chew also argues that it doesn't share information with the Chinese government, despite the country's anti-espionage law since 2014 that states that relevant organizations may not refuse to hand over data. A company with one billion users indeed is relevant, and due to these reasons, Congress isn't convinced.
While the ban was supposed to start in November 2020, it had so many delays that it lost momentum until Biden launched a new review of TikTok's security practices. So the battle is now back on, and it's much more intense this time. Still, Chew and TikTok remain adamant that they're doing nothing wrong.
In the congressional hearings, Chew told everyone that the bottom line is this is “American data on American soil by an American company overseen by American personnel." However, when members of Congress asked him if no ByteDance employees have access to private data, he could not come up with a solid answer. So instead, he insisted that there was no evidence of this happening.
On March 22, 2023, the hearing was filled with interruptions, frustrations, and plenty of unanswered questions. Some say TikTok is a national security threat, while others see it as harmless dancing and lip-syncing.
Whatever it is, we can look back and understand where it comes from. While the app might survive, it has undoubtedly lost its momentum. Projections estimate that it will grow less and less in user count in the following years if it can survive. If it doesn't, we mustn't be surprised.
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