The Trouble with TikTokApril 24, 2023
Popular for its lip-sync, comedy, and talent videos, TikTok is a social media platform that allows users to create, share, and watch short-form videos. With more than 1 billion monthly active users, TikTok is the fourth most popular social media platform globally, and on the surface it can seem generally harmless. However, the app is owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance, raising significant alarms for its cybersecurity, privacy, and social risks that have led lawmakers, organizations, and parents to scrutinize the app and its parent company.
The Chinese government keeps close ties with businesses operating within the country. Given the country’s standing as the United State’s most active and capable cyberthreat, many are concerned that TikTok could help the Chinese government collect and exploit user data or spread propaganda.
India, Hong Kong, Afghanistan, and other nations have already limited or banned the app, and in late 2022 the U.S. banned the app on federally owned government devices. The White House continues to consider an outright ban, which a recent study from the Pew Research Center found that more than twice as many Americans would support this ban as oppose it. Worried about these cyber risks, many major universities have already banned the app’s use on institutional networks and devices.
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Data Privacy Issues
Last year, ByteDance moved all U.S. user data to cloud servers managed by U.S. personnel, where its algorithm and moderation systems could be audited. However, there are worries that China could force the company to relinquish this control to the government due to national security concerns.
TikTok has also been criticized for collecting excessive amounts of data without sufficiently informing users or obtaining their consent, including improperly collecting data from children under the age of 13 and using it to target them with advertisements. In 2020, the Federal Trade Commission fined the company $5.7 million for violating child privacy laws, and earlier this year Britain fined the company nearly $16 million for breaking data protection laws.
And with the app downloaded to millions of mobile phones, there are significant concerns that the app could be a hidden gateway for the company to access personal information and spy on users.
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Content Moderation Challenges
The algorithm that drives what content a TikTok user sees––and doesn’t see––is written in China by Chinese engineers. U.S. lawmakers have raised concerns that the country could promote content that threatens American interests or attempt to undermine trust in the American government.
While TikTok does not publicly share a list of banned words or phrases, the app has faced allegations of "shadowbanning"––the practice of intentionally limiting a user’s reach without notifying them. For example, users have alleged shadowbanning after posting content protesting racial injustices and being critical of certain public figures. Internal documents have also showed the company instructing moderators to “suppress posts created by users deemed too ugly, poor, or disabled for the platform.”
And with teens and young adults among the platform’s most frequent users, individuals have shared concerns about the platform’s effect on mental health, as well as the popular challenges that put users and bystanders at risk. Last month, TikTok rolled out a number of new controls to help young users and their families better manage their engagement with the app.
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