Should TikTok become illegal?
Whilst brainstorming ideas of what the final review of 2020 should be, I found myself curious about what others were curious about – and like that I was looking up Google’s most searched topics of the year. As you’d expect there was extensive search related to all things COVID-19. Unsurprisingly it dominated google search trends globally be it coronavirus symptoms, coronavirus update, coronavirus cure and on and on and on.
What struck me was the inbetweeners amongst search trends particularly the second most searched question in the U.K. which read “Where does vanilla flavouring come from?” (Google Trends, 2020).You may vividly remember entering these exact words into google yourself. What you’ll remember more clearly is the answer: “A chemical compound used in vanilla flavouring and scents comes from the anal glands of beavers” (Shenna, 2020). If you backtrack a little further to how and why this peculiar topic became relevant to your life, TikTok may trigger some recollection. You may feel indifferently for this app, you may love it or hate it, nonetheless, to say quite the least, I think we could all agree it has infiltrated our lives in one way or another.
TikTok is regarded as the new breakthrough and phenomena of social media platforms. Bergman (2020) regards the influence of TikTok as one that has transcended the app and a determinant of ‘quarantine culture’. Much like other social media platforms TikTok’s algorithm produces personalised content. It is essentially mechanised by studying you, your interests, your habits and produces infinite content in accordance with what engrosses the user. This is then showcased through the For You segment of the app. TikTok trends have transitioned to real life behaviours consisting of exchanges of TikTok references and infamous ‘dance’ challenges.
So why, with all its popularity and growth has TikTok been considered to be banned? To add to the irony, why is TikTok, a Chinese-owned video sharing, social networking service under risk of being banned by China? Earlier this summer we saw TikTok discontinuing its operations in the semi-autonomous territory of Hong Kong immediately after a new security law implemented by China (BBC, 2020). This has been followed by an executive order by the Trump administration to ban TikTok in the U.S.A. This order was blocked upon an injunction issued by a federal judge in case ‘TikTok v Trump’ (2020). So, why?
In relation to other platforms, the potentiality to make uploaded content go viral, irrespective of one’s follower count and popularity, is considerably easier and higher on TikTok (Williams, 2020). Given the escalation of political turmoil in 2020, alongside popular culture trends, we have seen a major burst in political activism on TikTok. Whilst social media plays a crucial role in world political movements, that interconnects people transnationally, it also functions to serve state interests through means of censorship (Shirky, 2011).
For instance, the exposure of the Chinese government's persecution of minority populations has probed the possibility to ban TikTok. An infamous example is Feroza Aziz’s post raising awareness on China’s minority Uyghur Muslims facing persecution in concentration camps. This post was abruptly removed, and the user was then also blocked from accessing her account (Hern, 2019). To give some insight to TikTok’s outreach, before deletion, the post had reached over 1.4 million views. Following the outrage of TikTok’s decision, the user uploaded a copy onto Twitter which reached another 5 millions views (Kelion, 2019). TikTok was pressured to release a statement of apology, but censorship has continued to be the case for various political movements and criticisms related to the Chinese government.
Another example includes Hong-Kong’s anti-government movement in the fight for an independent Hong-Kong. With reference to China’s ‘new security law’ discussed earlier, it specifically criminalises the commonly used pro-democracy slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time.” The app had become a “key for activists” in raising awareness for protests. Instead, this time, TikTok did not provide an explanation for it’s discontinuation, but rather, provided a tone-deaf statement indicating that this decision was reached “in light of recent events” (Griffin, 2020).
TikTok has faced substantial backlash for its censorship in accordance with political interests and biases of ruling political parties. There happens to be a correlation between TikTok’s policies and content related to restricting political criticism. For example, the Guardian (2019) has released documents that expose the ways in which TikTok restricts criticisms of the Chinese government, that is ensured through a ban of “criticism/attack towards policies, social rules of any country, such as constitutional monarchy, monarchy, parliamentary system, separation of powers, socialism system.”
Now to explain Trump’s executive order to ban TikTok, there are concerns that TikTok is breaching security and privacy measures to protect its users. For instance, there are various claims to suggest that TikTok is illegally collecting and sharing personal data of users with the Chinese government (Rapoza, 2020). This has caused tension in foreign policy - social media expands the realm of political information available to the public worldwide and therefore has an impact on the ways that foreign policy is conducted (Seib, 2012). As far in fact, as India fully banning TikTok - recent escalation of the India-China border dispute between the two countries, has had India alter its relations with China. One step has been to ban all Chinese owned apps including TikTok. This is also related to violation of personal data of users by TikTok for the purposes of China’s political aspirations (BBC, 2020).
So, whilst we consider TikTok to produce spotlights for what some might consider joyful entertainment, even positioning itself in top Google Search trends and so forth, there remains a much darker side that is incredibly censored, and ignorant to human right concerns and social issues. The weaponization of social media in these ways is a longstanding issue, it is not just limited to restricting content which does not adhere to state interests, but also to boost content which appeals too and favours them (DemocracyNow, 2020). That being said, in the age of digital media shaping our lives, and playing a significant role in political communication, the content we absorb and emerge in, must be taken into account with wider considerations for political interests.
“India-China dispute: The border row explained in 400 words” (2020) BBC News, 10 Sept. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-53062484 [Accessed 01 Jan. 2021]
“TikTok halts Hong Kong access after security law”, (2020) BBC News, 10 Jul. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-53358669 [Accessed 01 Jan. 2021]
Bergman, H. (2020) ‘TikTok’s Coming-Of-Age Into mainstream Quarantine Culture’, Talking Influence, Available at: https://talkinginfluence.com/2020/05/27/tiktok-mainstream-quarantine-culture/ [Accessed 27 Dec. 2020]
Briant, E, et al. (2020) ‘The Weaponization of Data: Cambridge Analytica, Information Warfare & the 2016 Election of Trump’, interviewed by Amy Goodman, Democrat Now, 10. Jan. Available at: https://www.democracynow.org/2020/1/10/defense_contractors_are_using_a_new [Accessed 01 Jan. 2021]
Google Trends. (2020). Google Trends, Available at: https://trends.google.co.uk/trends/yis/2020/GB/ [Accessed 27 Dec. 2020]
Griffin, A. (2020) ‘TIKTOK TO QUIT HONG KONG AFTER INDIA BAN AND US THREATS TO OUTLAW APP’, Independent, 7 July. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/tiktok-china-hong-kong-ban-protests-us-trump-iphone-app-store-google-play-a9605006.html [Accessed 01 Jan. 2021]
Hern, A. (2019) ‘Revealed: how TikTok censors videos that do not please Beijing’, The Guardian, 25 Sep. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/sep/25/revealed-how-tiktok-censors-videos-that-do-not-please-beijing [Accessed 27 Dec. 2020]
Kelion, L. (2019) ‘Teen's TikTok video about China's Muslim camps goes viral’, BBC News, 26 Nov. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-50559656 [Accessed 27 Dec. 2020]
Rapoza, K. (2020) ‘After India, U.S. Considers Banning TikTok For Real This Time’, Forbes, 7Jul. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2020/07/07/after-india-us-considers-banning-tiktok-for-real-this-time/?sh=471b88c34647 [Accessed 01 Jan. 2021]
Seib, P. (2012) Real-time diplomacy: politics and power in the social media era, 1st ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, p.104.
Shenna, R. (2020) ‘Where does vanilla flavouring come from? Beaver castoreum explained - and why we use it in cakes and icing’, Edinburgh News, 3 Dec. Available at: https://www.edinburghnews.scotsman.com/lifestyle/food-and-drink/where-does-vanilla-flavouring-come-beaver-castoreum-explained-and-why-we-use-it-cakes-and-icing-3030071 [Accessed 27 Dec. 2020]