TikTok, which is owned and was developed by Bytedance, is currently under fire in various countries around the world, as several foreign governments see its Chinese roots as an increasing liability.
Recently, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News that the United States is “certainly looking at” banning TikTok over concerns that the Chinese government could use it as an espionage and intelligence tool. And three weeks ago, India announced that TikTok would become one of the 59 banned Chinese apps in the country.
It could be argued that this isn’t about censorship or national security, but more about market hegemony. That’s because the reality is that no social media network is currently a reasonable alternative to TikTok.
Is TikTok really a danger?
In the past, global social media platforms have been blamed for trying to spy on their users. For example, Facebook was accused of spying on text messages and conducting mass surveillance by gathering data from pictures and texts. Meanwhile, Amazon employees were caught listening to user conversations and spying. And Google Home had to “admit” that there’s “a flaw” that allows them to “secretly record conversations without users knowing.”
Uber has also been accused of spying on users but faced no consequences, and Facebook-owned Instagram had to vehemently deny that the company is “listening to the user microphones” and private conversations. Lastly, Israeli surveillance technology company NSO Group was accused of using WhatsApp accounts to hack into the phones of prominent individuals while the UAE government used a messaging app called ToTok to spy on its citizens.
It’s worth noting that there were no global calls to boycott any of these apps, and there were no diplomatic rows between the US and Israel or UAE. In fact, the US intelligence community remained relatively silent about these threats.
Why? Mainly because these efforts benefited the US or were the work of America’s “strategic partners.”
Regarding the accusations against it of spreading propaganda, TikTok is about as committed to “shaping politics” as any Western social media platform might be. Facebook, for instance, is currently part of a veritable war on truth by refusing to back down from political propaganda. If there’s a social media platform that promotes disinformation campaigns and dangerous messages, it’s the American social media platform, not the Chinese one.
A war on disinformation, propaganda, and espionage should be all-encompassing. Otherwise, it will just become another symbol of American hypocrisy and will be seen as a desperate attempt to derail the market supremacy of a Chinese-owned app. If Pompeo is truly serious about finding spyware (and not just political culprits), he could start with Facebook — an app that’s “enabling hate groups, white nationalists, and far-right extremists.” The activities of these dangerous organizations are a direct threat to the livelihood and wellbeing of American citizens, making white nationalist terrorism one of the greatest dangers in America today.
According to Time, the FBI has warned about this “rising domestic threat for years,” but, despite its imminent menace, only around 20 percent of the bureau’s counterterrorism field agents are focused on homeland probes.
Will a TikTok boycott or ban work in America?
The Chinese platform is the darling of Generation Z, and it’s currently the fastest and most efficient way to reach a highly lucrative target audience. Gen-Z users won’t turn away from their favorite app, and any attempt to curb their TikTok engagement could backfire. As a politically active generation, American Gen Zers might interpret Washington’s ban as a dangerous attack on free speech and a blatant attempt to silence their voices.
These youngsters could express their disapproval by voting against the establishment in November. According to the Census Bureau, voter turnout in the midterm 2018 election was the highest in four decades, and the younger generations outvoted the older ones.
The Pew Research Center reports that 30 percent (4.5 million votes) of eligible Gen-Z voters turned out for the 2018 elections. Furthermore, the millennial generation reached record engagement, and their turnout rates doubled between 2014-2018 from 22 to 42 percent.
But lastly, a TikTok ban won’t bring any real benefits. Today, digitally-savvy younger generations stand out because of their technology use, and any teenager knows how to download a VPN app so that they can continue accessing their TikTok account. For example, after the TikTok India ban, one of the trending discussions on social media was how to access the Chinese app from India. HITC highlights that several VPN providers have reported ways to access TikTok from India, and PureVPN announced on their website that users could log in the app using their service “without any restrictions.”
If TikTok gives in under pressure and leaves China, how will Chinese users react?
We’ve already established that Bytedance’s “success has made it a big target for regulators,” and TikTok is at risk of losing two important markets (India and the US). But our analysis didn’t include a crucial part of the equation: the Chinese consumer.
Any attack on TikTok could be interpreted as an assault against China, further widening the rift between the US and China. So it’s plausible to believe that Chinese consumers will respond to this with a boycott of American goods, as there’s a precedent for this.
Then there’s another possibility, which is that Bytedance could move TikTok’s operations overseas to avoid a US ban or any future probes. In this case, we foresee that the ire of passionate Douyin users and pro-Beijing officials would be redirected toward Bytedance.
We must remember that in the past, celebrities (Bobby Chen, Vivian Hsu, Hong Kong’s Anthony Wong, and Denise Ho) and companies (Lenovo) that were seen as unpatriotic endured serious backlashes. And in a country where nationalistic sentiment has been rising, any misstep can give rise to a populist-nationalist movement.
In the end, the emergence of ethnic nationalism in China is a far greater threat to the American business community than a short-video app. The movement could lead to retaliation and a total boycott of foreign brands and goods, closing off a market of 1.4 billion consumers to Western businesses.
“Last year, even with tariffs, trade between our two nations totaled $660 billion. US companies have developed complex supply chains that would be exceedingly difficult and costly to destroy,” said Lynn Reaser, the CBE chief economist and adjunct professor of economics at Point Loma Nazarene University, to The San Diego Union-Tribune. “Why would we abandon a market of 1.4 billion consumers or holders of $1.1 trillion of our national debt? China and the US can each grow more in combination than each alone.”
After considering these complexities, it’s safe to say that TikTok won’t leave China. Nevertheless, we foresee that the app will pull further away from Beijing’s grip while rebranding itself as a more Western-friendly app. The first steps are already on the way with the search for global headquarters outside China and the hiring of the former Disney streaming chief, Kevin Mayer.