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TikTok - Victim or Villain?

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

By some, TikTok has been called the victim of an unprecedented trade-war and by others, an arm of the Chinese secret services; either way, it seems likely that in the next few months, Microsoft will become its principle owner in most English-speaking markets. At this moment, TikTok has around 100m users in the US and more than 500m in the global market.

Is TikTok a propaganda machine?

There are two concerns to any question around foreign ownership of any prominent media platform. Those are: the control and harvesting of data, and the independence of content recommendation.

In the first case, data, the main concern (voiced around TikTok) is that user data is being harvested via the platform and used to generate intelligence for Chinese secret services.

In the second case, the algorithm is manipulated to give preference or prominence to certain viewpoints, political or otherwise, while undesired opinions are smothered.

Both are reasonable questions that any responsible government should ask around any large platform which disseminates information to the public.

Control of Data

Across 2013-14, it became clear that social platforms and business dealing with user data were collaborating extensively with governments. In the US, PRISM provided back-doors into data streams. In the UK, GCHQ's Tempora system did largely the same.

We now know that it is commonplace for governments to tap into user data from social media – among many other sources, and we also know that businesses struggle to resist handing consumer data over. Yahoo was threatened with a $250k daily fine for non-compliance, and we saw the drop-off in business for CISCO when the extent of government access to confidential info was revealed.

Despite this, it still feels slightly conspiratorial to suggest that data is harvested and stored by shady government agencies, but the reality is it is now naïve to assume that data will not be accessed and stored in some way.

There is little doubt that TikTok will comply with some measure of user data harvesting and supply on behalf of the Chinese Government, just as US services do for their own. While reports suggest that TikTok is perhaps more invasive, in some ways the data argument is more about control of user data, than privacy.

To add to this, however, there is increasing evidence that China actively harvests and acquires data via non-legitimate methods, e.g. the Hilton hack. There is a concern that the reason this data is being harvested is not to prevent national security, or terrorism, but to allow digital methods to promote agenda or interfere in elections.

In the UK, we have just seen the release of the Russia Report, which effectively revealed that social media was being used by Russia to influence a range of political issues. It suggests that these issues may have extended to changes as dramatic and important as the UK exiting the EU.

It is legitimate to ask questions around the security of a service, however, control of that service’s data is just one way of using modern user platforms to generate influence.

The Algorithm

Direct Algorithmic control is an apparent concern with the bias that may be present in a social platform. Unlike user data, for which the purposes are nebulous and hard to define, abuse of the algorithm that recommends or filters content is simple to understand. The owner of the platform can, if they choose to, promote one type of content over the other – e.g. promote voices on one side of a political argument and suppress the other.

We know that, to some extent, TikTok has censored certain content on its platform - this includes coverage of the Hong Kong protests and seems to be linked to pressure applied by the Chinese government.

To balance this viewpoint, TikTok has been wary of all political content on its platform, and HK suppression could be related to a wider, blanket suppression. More recently, this policy has been loosened, and BLM and HK protest videos now appear much more prominently.

Where the Chinese government applied pressure for details of HK protestors, the company volunteered that they would close the app in HK, rather than submit to state pressure. On the 30th of June China passed the National Security Law and TikTok held true to their word, pulling out just days later.

A conclusion of sorts...

So, as well as this discussion being part of ongoing international trade disagreements between China and the US, there are some legitimate concerns to be had around impartiality, and it is right for a nation to be concerned around the influence that a foreign power may gain via platforms such as TikTok.

There is some evidence which suggests that TikTok is dealing in user data, however, there is also evidence that suggest that Microsoft will do the same.

Transfer of the control of the platform to a company such as Microsoft would likely allow a higher degree of transparency and perhaps will ensure that the algorithmic concerns are addressed, but the question of user data seem to point to desire for control, rather than absolute protection.

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