The extraordinary rise of “Tik Tok” indicates a multipolar internet

For anyone who has shared hobbies like squawks, seashells, knitting patterns or Excel charts, TikTok is the place to be. The Chinese-owned short video app has emerged as a fun global platform that 1 billion users can access to enjoy their obsession, find like-minded audiences and sometimes even make money.
But for those with a more conspiratorial mindset, the entertainment platform is an electronic double agent, and there is an opportunity for the Chinese Communist Party to manipulate public opinion, sabotage democracies and spy on teenagers’ bedrooms. In June 2020, India banned the TikTok app following a border clash with China, leaving 200 million local users out of service. The following month, then-US President Donald Trump threatened to ban the app due to national security concerns, but lost the election before he could carry out his threat. This month, Britain’s House of Representatives closed its TikTok account over fears of data leaks and warned MPs that “the possibility of the Xi Jinping government accessing personal data on our children’s phones should be a major concern”.
While debates rage over whether TikTok is either too trivial or too dangerous, the platform has undoubtedly become an extraordinary cultural and commercial phenomenon in more than 150 countries. The latest Pew Research Center report found that TikTok is gaining popularity among American teenagers. About 67 percent of people surveyed said they use TikTok, compared to only 32 percent who use the once-dominant platform Facebook. “TikTok isn’t just in the zeitgeist. It’s the zeitgeist,” writes Jessica Lessin, founder of tech website The Information.
To be the coolest app for young users, TikTok has scored the best and fastest apps on the West Coast of the United States. Before the platform emerged, Twitter failed to capitalize on Vine, its short video app. Facebook, Instagram and Snap have also stumbled to monopolize the digital space that Tik Tok now controls. According to Cloudflare’s Global Traffic Report, tiktok.com overtook Google.com to become the most popular internet domain last year. Using the tone of Silicon Valley, TikTok has grown faster than the fastest growing companies.
There are probably two reasons for this great popularity. First, the platform is very easy to use and very addictive to watch more. Through its tools and its own set of filters, it allows its users to create short videos, ranging from 15 seconds to ten minutes in length, and helps them monetize their content by targeting ads their way.
Second, TikTok promotes videos through a content graph instead of a social graph, as other platforms commonly use. In other words, AI-trained algorithms promote content to those on the platform with similar interests, rather than distributing it mostly across networks of followers. In theory, the app would at least allow more “unknown people” to become “famous people”.
However, TikTok is increasingly suffering from some of the same sickening regulations as American platforms. He has been accused of spreading disinformation harmful to democracy in Colombia, Kenya, France, the United States and elsewhere, particularly during the war in Ukraine. The app says it deploys AI tools and employs thousands of brokers around the world to enforce strict content guidelines.
What about the potential influence of the Chinese government? ByteDance Group, the parent company of TikTok, a private company valued at $180 billion in December 2020, has taken the step to separate its international operations by creating a separate company structure in Singapore. TikTok says that all data of its international users is kept in the US and Singapore, and from 2023 also in Ireland. The company insists that no personal data flows to the Chinese government, and that it will not give Beijing access to this data even if it requests it.
In his primarily research-based book, TikTok Boom, Chris Stockel-Walker investigated these allegations and found no evidence of a systematic leak of personal data. But engineers in China have already gained access to some data to test algorithms, or real-time fake account attacks, for example. He concluded: “The Tik Tok app is not a dormant social media cell waiting to be remotely activated on millions of Westerners’ phones. The truth here is that there is no big hoax, but rather a little white lie.”
Even if this conclusion is correct, it cannot work. Some US senators continue to attack TikTok as a tool of Chinese soft power. There is a risk that the company could suffer the fate of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturer blacklisted by the United States.
But if TikTok manages to avoid becoming a geopolitical victim, it could become a symbol of a moment in the evolution of cyberspace: the de-Chineseization of the global Internet, as technology analyst Ben Thompson this case mention. In this digital world, more centralized Chinese-style control of content via recommendation algorithms becomes an advantage, not a disadvantage. For many decades, the United States has dominated consumer Internet standards, values, and practices. And the rise of TikTok points to a more controversial future.

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