Why TikTok must act if it wants to survive

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Its turnover in the UK and Europe grew by 477 per cent in 2021 to $990million, thanks to monetisation tools that connected advertisers to a rising European user base of 150 million people. The UK operation, once run from a communal workspace, has expanded to around 2,000 people. So where does it need to take action and will it survive?

Spying and data

“The Chinese are not remotely interested in a teenager posting a video of themselves dancing on TikTok, but they are interested if the user’s parent is a government official because any information you can garner is a means to target individuals,” says Peter Warren, chairman of the Cyber Security Research Institute.

The app has been unable to shake off suspicion that it must comply with the 2017 Chinese National Intelligence Law, which dictates that “any organisation or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work in accordance with the law”. This means that “if TikTok is required by the Chinese government to turn over data, it will turn it over,” claims Warren.

TikTok argues that this never happens and that, despite having a Chinese parent, it is a global company with most of its ownership in the hands of US venture capital firms, such as General Atlantic and Sequoia Capital.

“What TikTok has to do is prove once and for all that it can stand on its own two feet and that is difficult because it is owned by ByteDance, which is headquartered in Beijing,” says MacEwan. “We know managers from Beijing fly back and forth and meet with TikTok managers because TikTok is ByteDance’s global business and ByteDance wants to be a global tech giant.”

Yet other social networks have been demonised before. YouTube was once a home for terrorist videos. Instagram was linked to teenage suicides. TikTok, which plans an IPO (Initial Public Offering), is the first outsider to challenge Silicon Valley’s hegemony in social media.

Cybersecurity expert Claire Trachet applauds TikTok’s use of a bug bounty programme for “ethical hackers” to search the app for security weaknesses. “No illegitimate data extraction has been found to date,” she points out. But as the Chinese technology giant Huawei found when it was excluded from the UK’s 5G infrastructure, perception and trust are essential in matters of national security.

Disinformation

Ofcom reported last year that TikTok was the UK’s fastest-growing source for news. But the news that users find there may be unreliable.

A study by NewsGuard, which rates the credibility of news websites, found that new TikTok users would receive false information about the war in Ukraine within 40 minutes of joining the app. In regions where TikTok is heavily used for news, such as south-east Asia, the platform is fertile ground for Beijing’s propaganda and Kremlin war narratives.

The app provoked disgust when ghoulish “TikTok sleuths” descended on St Michael’s on Wyre to post theories on the disappearance of Nicola Bulley. Lancashire Police publicly accused “TikTokers” of circulating “false information, accusations and rumours”. Millions of people saw these videos – but TikTok and Ofcom have made moves to moderate them.

Traditional news outlets are trying to combat this, through their own, more reliable TikTok videos. 81 per cent of traditional UK news publishers were using the app. “Despite concerns about data security they are there, because they recognise the risk of not being there in terms of combatting disinformation … and also of losing future audiences,” says the Reuters Institute’s Nic Newman.

Influence on children

Attitudes to TikTok vary across generations. That divide is embodied in school “TikTok protests” that have seen pupils across the country taking on head teachers by filming their mass objections to rules on uniforms and toilet access. The Department for Education declared itself  “concerned” as protests were staged across the country. Scores of students have been suspended. TikTok’s industry-leading filming tools are also coming under fire for their impact on young behaviour: its new “Bold Glamour” filter is so effective in improving facial appearances that beauty influencers complain it risks destroying a user’s confidence in how they look in real life. Despite China’s appetite for facial recognition technology, TikTok says it does not collect biometric data.

In its efforts to appear more responsible, Tik Tok has introduced a 60-minute daily time limit to safeguard young users (although it can be bypassed if you enter a password).

MacEwan is unconvinced that TikTok can change its colours. “I think they have been found wanting,” he says of TikTok’s data security reforms and its attempts to demonstrate its independence. “Byte Dance bankrolls them and ByteDance managers still oversee TikTok teams. There is a fight to prove they can be properly independent in the way they run their business and protect their users.”

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