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Concerns about ownership and security
It starts with ownership. TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance. With TikTok becoming the Gen Z app of choice, its success has made ByteDance the first Chinese tech firm to make it big overseas and reach a global audience. Despite its popularity and importance to users worldwide, the association between the tech start-up and China appears to be the main cause of Trump’s desire to issue the ban – he has decided that a tough stance on China is central to his re-election campaign come November of this year.
Trump also believes that the ties to China present a serious threat to national security and data privacy, suggesting that the app collects data on US citizens which then allows it to track the locations of Federal employees and build up information that could be used for blackmail or espionage. Via his executive order, Trump stated that, “The spread in the United States of mobile applications developed and owned by companies in the People’s Republic of China continues to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”
This executive order demands that TikTok be sold to a US buyer by mid-September, or the ban will become effective. So far, TikTok has done a lot to distance itself from China, hiring former Disney exec Kevin Mayer as CEO, and storing data in the US and Singapore, instead of in mainland China.
In response to the proposed ban, however, TikTok issued a statement, in which they said, “The text of the decision makes it plain that there has been a reliance on unnamed ‘reports’ with no citations, fears that the app ‘may be’ used for misinformation campaigns with no substantiation of such fears, and concerns about the collection of data that is industry standard for thousands of mobile apps around the world.” Many opponents to the proposed TikTok ban have pointed out that the TikTok model is no different to those of other large social media platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Data collection is an essential part of all of these, making the bias against China the more obvious reason for Trump’s stance.
TikTok’s importance to Gen Z – and the world
TikTok is really integral to Gen Z’s everyday life and impacts both online and offline behaviour. It’s a unique platform that combines authentic, creative content with fun, silly, community-centric trends. It’s therefore one of the only social media platforms to effectively integrate entertainment with sharing and a sense of belonging in a wider community, in a way that really rings true with every day, normal people.
Unlike many other aesthetic-driven platforms, it is deemed much more of a ‘safe space’, instead of perpetrating unrealistic standards of beauty or lifestyle.
During the worldwide lockdowns imposed this year, TikTok saw a particular uptick in users and downloads. While the platform is popular amongst young people, parents and grandparents started to get involved too – participation in family-friendly viral challenges such as the #blindinglightschallenge really took hold.
TikTok has also helped launch countless music careers and impacts mainstream media as well as youth culture at large. It has already played a pivotal role in cultural conversations, including on the Black Lives Matter movement where various challenges were created to demonstrate solidarity across the world. The #blacklivesmatter hashtag received 19.1 billion views, for instance. This goes to show that it isn’t just fun and memes – TikTok has a serious place in modern culture.
What happens if the ban goes ahead?
Let’s say the worst does happen, and the ban comes into effect. What would happen?
With a TikTok ban in place, it’s hard to say that another platform would be able to replace it. No platform allows the same level of authentic expression or appeals to a young audience who are keen to create content and engage with other users. Instagram, for instance, has a very clear line of demarcation between ‘it’ users and influencers, and the average user. Creating viral content is exceptionally difficult, whereas TikTok offers the opportunity for any user to gain millions of content views. Great content is celebrated, regardless of follower numbers.
As a result of ban talks, we’ve already seen big spikes in the user-base for competing apps like Triller, which is another short-form video app. However, this platform is very much a music destination, without the range of a platform like TikTok.
There’s also Reels, which is Facebook’s response to TikTok. It’s hard to say that this new competitor will gain traction easily or quickly, as TikTok creators may hesitate to jump ship from a platform they are dedicated to and enjoy. Reels is presented as part of Instagram, so it’s still associated with that platform – one which presents idealised images, rather than authentic ones. Hard to see how the TikTok vibe will translate in a place known for being very cultivated and mostly inaccessible – the exact opposite of TikTok.
A TikTok ban would curtail the creativity and livelihoods of so many creators. The opportunities for both individuals and brands alike to leverage on this flexible, accessible platform are huge. TikTok gives users an opportunity to experience products, songs, film and TV in a unique and intimate way, supporting other efforts to share information or market a brand. This is achieved in a much friendlier, native form of advertising, utilising skits, songs, and memes.
But more than anything, TikTok is still the go-to place for Gen Z. Young people would be the most affected by a TikTok ban, and given its place as more than just another social app, it would disrupt the way young people communicate and behave online, destroying the communities they value.
Tick tock for TikTok??
We can only hope that something happens to undo this potentially devastating ban. Whether it’s a big change to US government or a solution that somehow appeases a volatile despot, TikTok is a valuable and important place within the digital sphere that should be accessible to all.