From Justin Bieber to Cardi B, everyone seems to be on TikTok. The platform is even serving as a launching pad to bigger careers, as TikTok influencers like Loren Gray are gaining traction off the video-sharing social network. Since TikTok became available in the United States in 2018, the app has quickly become a hit among teens and adults alike, eventually being named a top 10 app of the decade, according to app analytics company App Annie.
But is TikTok as innocuous as its jokes, lip-syncs and viral dance challenges suggest? Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Fergus Ryan thinks otherwise.
“They want the platform to be light, entertaining and funny and they have made several statements about how they don’t really want it to be a political space,” Ryan told InsideEdition.com. “That just doesn’t work outside of China. You can’t stop peoples’ free speech even if you don’t like what they’re saying.”
TikTok's story begins with Douyin, a similar app launched in late 2016 under the Chinese tech company Bytedance. In 2017, Bytedance also acquired musical.ly, another popular start-up app that focused on short lip-sync videos. While Douyin continues to be available and extremely popular in China, TikTok was launched abroad in many different countries and languages.
"They have different user bases and local trust and safety teams," a TikTok spokesperson told InsideEdition.com.
But “The Great Firewall” doesn’t crumble just because the app is used outside of China, Ryan explained. The country has had a long history of censorship, even in their move to an online world, and it affects all sectors of social media life within China’s borders, from blocking Facebook, Instagram, Google and YouTube, to disappearing posts and even entire accounts discussing sensitive topics from China-based social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo.
And while tech and innovation often seem to go hand in hand with change and disruption, that doesn’t seem to be the case in China.
“The tech industry in China is the most dynamic industry there,” Ryan said. And Tiktok’s parent company ByteDance is no different. Since the tech giant was founded in 2012, ByteDance has been behind several widely popular apps within China, Asia and abroad.
What distinguishes ByteDance from its Silicone Valley counterparts is how involved the government is in their operations. The Chinese government “has taken many steps to make sure they have the ultimate control over these tech companies,” Ryan explained. This includes placing officials from the Chinese Communist Party oversight roles.
“That doesn't necessarily mean that they're making the business decisions or making granular decisions about how certain apps work, but it does mean that every time these companies are making new products, they always have the Chinese Communist Party looking over their shoulder,” he said.
And when Chinese tech companies don’t comply, the government cracks down. ByteDance recently was ordered by the Chinese government to take down their new workplace messaging app, Feishu, which functions similarly to Slack. The decree came just one month after its launch after reports surfaced that it allowed users to access posts on Facebook and Twitter, platforms that are banned in China.
Therefore, Ryan said, it’s not surprising that TikTok too is subject to censorship. “[There] is plenty of anecdotal evidence of, for example, LGBTQ content that is being censored on the platform. There's plenty of anecdotal evidence of people who perhaps have body shapes that don't conform to what TikTok considers beautiful who are being censored on the platform,” Ryan said.
Last year, TikTok was accused of having censored videos and discussion related to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests. According to a Washington Post report, searching “Hong Kong” on TikTok last fall, amid airport closures and university raids, showed “barely a hint of unrest” in the neighboring city-state. Meanwhile, a similar search on Twitter showed “a vast visual patchwork of the city’s unavoidable protests, including … imagery of thousands of pro-democracy marchers who have braved police crackdowns.”
For researchers, it’s hard to pinpoint and prove censorship on the app, Ryan said. While some videos are outright taken down, there is also something known as shadow banning: “When people post content, they think that their friends can see that content, but in actual fact, their friends can't see. It's either the algorithm itself or the layer of content moderators above the algorithm who are stepping into the process and saying, ‘Hey, that content, we don't like it for whatever reason, and we're going to ensure that it doesn't go viral or that it isn't shown to other users on the platform,’
“That’s often what’s happening on TikTok,” he said. “TikTok can of course just come around and say, ‘Well, that content that you put out, it just wasn't entertaining enough.’”
TikTok denies there are any instances of censorship. "We do not remove videos based on the presence of Hong Kong protest content. Diversity is one of the core strengths of the TikTok community, and we could not be prouder of our large and active LGBTQ user base," the spokesperson said. "At the same time, we appreciate that greater transparency is helpful in mitigating these concerns." TikTok says it has taken steps to ensure greater transparency.
Even more concerning than China’s influence over TikTok’s content is how the they're suspected of using data collected from the app, Ryan said.
“Many people would be really surprised about just how detailed the data that is being collected about people is,” Ryan said. “ByteDance, the company that runs TikTok, is really an AI (artificial intelligence) company. It puts a lot of emphasis on the data collection it does and how it crunches the data.”
The most obvious usage of the data, which users of any platform observe on some level, is that it allows engineers to sort its users into certain groups. “They know what movies you like, they know what music you like, they know who your friends are,” Ryan explained. “It paints a really, really vivid picture of your life, what you do every day, what time you wake up, where you go, who you talk to.”
But the more sinister uses for this data are less obvious. “It’s not just looking at what hashtags you use,” Ryan explained. “It is analyzing your face and feeding that into a facial recognition algorithm.
“For a lot of people, it's not something that they should really be that worried about, but there is a huge chunk of people who it really does matter and that's because of what jobs they do. If they work in the government, if they work for the military, if they work in sensitive parts of the economy,” Ryan said. “Maybe right now they're teenagers and they're just putting up funny content on TikTok. But that data, if it is being stored and accessed by foreign governments, then that can be easily accessed once this person does go on to have an internship at the White House or go and work [in] Congress.”
Officially, ByteDance says the data is stored in Singapore or the United States – countries that have stronger regulations over the collection, storage and usage of data than China. But Ryan said that because the company’s main team of engineers is in Beijing, that doesn’t matter. “If it’s still being accessed from Beijing, it’s still a problem," he said.
Calling the data “very, very valuable information for foreign intelligence services,” Ryan said “it’s limited by your imagination how this information could be used.”
Many social media users already suspect their smartphones or apps of eavesdropping on their conversations – and that could manifest from a video appearing on their Facebook timeline, or an advertisement on Instagram, about the very topics they were looking up or discussing just minutes before.
For engineers building code to collect this data, “they want to be able to turn to advertisers and say, ‘Look at this granular detail that we have on all these people. We know that your specific product is perfect for this segment of our user base,'" he said.
“Now, that same information and that same intelligence can be used for non-commercial means,” he continued. “If authorities in Beijing have access to that data, then they're able to do the same thing that advertisers on the product are doing and really hone down to understanding a huge amount of information about people of interest to them. We're getting into the sort of spooky world of intelligence gathering.”
TikTok however denies that that should be a point of concern. "Many of the biggest technology companies in the world, including U.S. companies, have many employees in China. We take a serious approach to data security."
While the Chinese government’s access to this sort of data may be especially concerning to Americans, Ryan called it an “open secret” that many governments are doing the same thing with the data they collect. “Here in Australia, our intelligence agencies have been open about the capabilities that they have and the intelligence gathering that they do via the internet, via computers,” he said. “Everyone’s doing it.”
Still, Ryan emphasized it isn’t something teens and parents should brush off as a part of life.
“If we're worried about the kind of data and the capabilities that these companies have now, just use your imagination to think where is this technology going in the next two years, in the next five years? What is this technology going to be capable of doing?" he said. "We have to think ahead to that possibility.”