Tim Culpan

Kids Love TikTok for the Reason Others Fear It

TikTok is a happy place. From cute kitties to lip-syncing stars, the Chinese short-video service is a place where people go to entertain and to be delighted. Unlike Twitter and Facebook, the site is abjectly apolitical. Yet, politicians increasingly find it quite objectionable.

This is not dichotomous.
What makes TikTok so harmonious is also the very thing that attracts suspicion and ever-louder calls for the social-media platform to be banned in the US: the data it collects and the algorithms that power it. The vast troves of material TikTok gathers on users is what has regulators and legislators most aghast. Yet the secretive process by which videos are sorted and surfaced requires this mountain of information to function. One cannot exist without the other, and combined they create a powerful entertainment channel that’s compelling and addictive.

Algorithm is just a fancy word for formula or recipe. It’s like an algebraic function, with the final result derived from a combination of the inputs and the underlying equation itself. At TikTok, that answer is short-form videos which are “exciting, spontaneous and genuine.” The company offers a simple promise that the content is “guaranteed to make your day.”

But whereas the marquee products from Twitter Inc. and Meta Platforms Inc. have become places that disparate groups meet and clash, TikTok is designed to keep opposing views apart. That’s actually a pretty good trait. Twitter benefits from being the “public town square,” as new owner Elon Musk calls it, yet not being a place of debate is a key reason why TikTok has surpassed it in usage.

People who come to watch cat videos and magic broom rides aren’t likely to see rants against the LGBTQ community or the pro-gun lobby. With Twitter and Facebook, lighted-hearted fare often mixes with dystopian warnings. They’re rancorous, messy and sometimes toxic. On Instagram, another of Meta’s properties, myths about beauty and body image cause documented harm to teenage girls. Over at YouTube, owned by Alphabet Inc., damaging content gets served up to people on topics they hadn’t even sought.

At Twitter, the top ranks of popular posts are filled with politicians (Barack Obama, Joe Biden), Musk, and a facetious tweet about leaving this planet at a particularly tumultuous point in time. By contrast, TikTok’s hit list includes 10 seconds of head bobbing, a dude dancing to Nelly Furtado, and Khaby Lame peeling a banana.

This cheerful diet is not entirely organic.

TikTok deliberately tones down political posts, especially as it pertains to China. One of the most famous cases includes a 2019 ban of a US teenager after she criticized Beijing’s treatment of Muslim Uyghurs. The company said at the time that the account in question was not moderated due to China-related content, but because of a supposed association with a separate account that at one point featured an image of Osama Bin Laden. Yet a senior executive later admitted that posts related to the “Uyghur situation” had been censored. A TikTok search on “Uyghur Genocide” now shows multiple videos, with genocide denial filling the top three slots.

Allowing sensitive content doesn’t equate to promoting it, though. Just because an activist uploads a video on a human rights issue doesn’t guarantee anyone will see it. TikTok’s For You feed is the most powerful means by which users discover content, and it’s the heart and soul of the platform’s addictive quality. One need only open the app and the videos keep flowing. Who you follow, which content garners a “like,” how long you watch, and countless other data points are collated along the way.

By leveraging machine-learning algorithms and reams of data, TikTok can predict exactly what might keep any individual glued to their screens. It can dial up dance videos featuring Taylor Swift’s latest hit in the knowledge that the audience will stick around, and it can (and does) shadow-ban political content by taking it off the For-You feed.

This combination of information and algorithm has US political leaders calling for TikTok to be booted from the country. Brendan Carr, one of five commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission, is among the latest. Concerns about American data flowing back to China and the risk of a state actor using TikTok to covertly influence the US political process led him to conclude that there’s no “path forward for anything other than a ban,” he told Axios last week.

TikTok downplays those concerns. In June, it announced that all US traffic is now sent through servers run by Oracle Corp., with which it has a partnership to store and secure data from users in the country. Servers in the US and Singapore are also used for backup. Over time, it expects to delete all information it stores and have it hosted by Oracle, it said.

And although its parent, ByteDance Ltd., is based in Beijing, the company maintains headquarters overseas including in California and Singapore, where Chief Executive Officer Shou Zi Chew is based. ByteDance runs a similar short-video service in China called Douyin, as well as other products such as news aggregator Toutiao, but says those are operated separately from TikTok. It’s also repeatedly denied accusations that it can, or would, share US data with authorities in Beijing.

Yet numerous media reports have unearthed evidence that engineers and managers in China can access the platform and its data, while information collated on US users includes location details. It’s not like other social-media services are innocent, either. Twitter and Meta’s suite of products also gather large dossiers on people, which have been used to sell ads and manipulate elections.

What irks US political leaders, though, is the black-box approach to data and content coupled with the knowledge that authorities in China exert strict censorship at home. Having been bitten by Russia’s interference in elections, and cognizant of the growing rivalry with Beijing, there’s reason to believe that the Chinese social-media service could become a powerful tool to be used against the US.

TikTok grew strong by serving up a magical stream of happy, fun, enjoyable content. But that magic is now what Americans fear the most.