TikTok’s meteoric rise indicates a more multipolar Internet
TikTok is the place to go for everyone who has a passion for anything that others could also enjoy, such as dancing crazes, sea shanties, knitting patterns, or Excel spreadsheets.
The short-form video app is owned by the Chinese government, and it has developed into an approachable and entertaining global platform where one billion users may indulge their hobbies, find an audience of followers who share their interests, and sometimes even generate money from their content.
Those who have a more conspiratorial mindset, on the other hand, may view the entertainment platform as an electronic version of the Manchurian Candidate. This would provide the Chinese Communist party with the opportunity to manipulate public opinion, subvert democracies, and peer into the bedrooms of teenagers.
Following a conflict on its border with China in June 2020, India decided to ban the usage of TikTok, thus cutting off access to the service for its 200 million resident users. The next month, the then-president of the United States, Donald Trump, also vowed to ban TikTok on worries regarding the country’s national security; however, Trump was defeated in the election before he could carry out his plan. This month, out of concern that sensitive information would be exposed, the British Parliament deleted its own TikTok account.
The possibility that Xi Jinping’s government could have access to personal data stored on the mobile devices of our children “ought to be cause for great concern,” members of parliament cautioned.
TikTok has become a remarkable cultural and financial phenomenon in over 150 countries, despite the fact that debates continue to boil about whether it is too inconsequential or too dangerous. There is no question that it has achieved this level of success.
According to the most recent research from the Pew Research Center, the popularity of TikTok among young people in the United States has skyrocketed. In a recent poll, respondents indicated that they used TikTok at a rate of approximately 67%, whereas only 32% of respondents reported using the once-dominant social media platform Facebook.
TikTok has surpassed the West Coast’s best and most capable developers and users to become the app with the most popularity among younger users. Prior to the launch of the platform, Twitter had been unable to fully capitalize on Vine, its own short-form video platform. Facebook, Instagram, and Snap have all had failures in their attempts to stake claims to the digital land that has now been taken over by TikTok.
According to the global traffic statistics compiled by Cloudflare, TikTok.com became the most popular Internet domain in the previous year, surpassing Google.com in that regard. TikTok has out-blitzscaled the other blitzscalers, to use the vernacular of Silicon Valley.
It’s possible that there are two explanations for this enormous popularity. To begin, the website is ridiculously simple to navigate and incredibly engrossing to peruse. The TikTok app lets users to create short movies, ranging from 15 seconds to 10 minutes in length, and provides them with the tools and filters necessary to do so. Additionally, the software assists users in monetizing their work by directing ads in their direction. Even a former business contractor for the Financial Times named Cumbermatch, who looks eerily similar to the actor Benedict Cumberbatch, has amassed 4.5 million followers on TikTok by playing the role of Doctor Strange.
Second, unlike most other platforms, TikTok promotes videos using a “content graph” rather than a “social graph,” which is the more traditional method. In other words, artificial intelligence-trained algorithms push material to users of the platform who share similar interests, as opposed to the content mostly being shared through networks of followers. At the very least in theory, the application makes it possible for more “nobodies” to become “somebodies.”
Having said that, TikTok is increasingly suffering from some of the same diseases as the platforms used in the United States. In Colombia, Kenya, France, the United States, and other countries, as well as especially during the conflict in Ukraine, it has been accused of disseminating disinformation that is detrimental to democracy. TikTok claims that it uses artificial intelligence algorithms and employs “thousands” of reviewers throughout the world to enforce stringent content restrictions, with a specific focus on Ukraine.
One senior manager in London made the statement that he “didn’t believe” in maternity leave, which is an example of the aggressive tech bro attitude that has been displayed by the corporation on occasion.
What about the possibility of influence from the Chinese government? ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, is a privately held firm that was recently valued at US$180 billion in December 2020. In order to ring-fence its overseas operations, the company has created a distinct corporate structure that is domiciled in Singapore. TikTok claims that all of the data pertaining to its international users is stored in the United States, Singapore, and, beginning in 2023, also in Ireland. The corporation maintains that it does not provide any personally identifiable information to the Chinese government and that it would not do so even if Beijing made the request.
Chris Stokel-Walker looked into these allegations in his book “TikTok Boom,” which featured extensive research. He was unable to find any proof that personal data had been systematically leaked. However, Chinese engineers did gain access to some data in order to test algorithms or identify bot assaults, for instance.
According to the conclusions he reached, “TikTok is not a social media sleeper cell waiting to be ignited remotely on the phones of millions of Westerners. The truth of the matter is that there is not a major con going on here; rather, it is just a small white lie.”
It is possible that this conclusion is not helpful even if it is right. There are still some senators in the United States who are trying to demonize TikTok as a tool of Chinese soft power. There is a possibility that the corporation will end up in the same position as Huawei, the Chinese company that makes telecoms equipment but is banned from selling its products in the United States.
But if TikTok can avoid becoming a geopolitical punchbag, it may come to symbolize a moment in the progression of cyber space. Tech analyst Ben Thompson refers to this as the “Sinicization of the global Internet.” If TikTok can avoid becoming a geopolitical punchbag, it may come to symbolize this moment.
In this digital age, greater Chinese-style centralized control of information through recommendation algorithms becomes a feature, not a problem, rather than something to be avoided. The United States has maintained its preeminent position in the consumer Internet’s norms, attitudes, and practices for several decades. The rapid ascent of TikTok indicates that the future will be more competitive.