Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 11 October 2021

1 Billion TikTok Users Understand What Congress Doesn’t

The video-sharing app avoids scrutiny because politicians don’t take it seriously.

TikTok influencers filming.
Miguel Medina / Getty

About the author: Evelyn Douek, a doctoral student at Harvard Law School, is a senior research fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

Many people think of TikTok as a dance app. And although it is an app full of dancing, it’s also a juggernaut experiencing astronomical growth. In July, TikTok—a short-form video-sharing app powered by an uncannily good recommendation algorithm and owned by the Chinese company ByteDance—became the only social-media mobile app other than those from Facebook to ever pass 3 billion downloads. At the end of last month, TikTok announced it had more than 1 billion monthly users. It was, by some counts, the most downloaded app in 2020 and remained so into 2021. Not bad for an app launched only in 2016!

Of the social-media platforms around today, TikTok is the likeliest to represent the future. Its user base is mostly young people. But if you look for TikTok in news coverage, you’re more likely to find it in the lifestyleculture, or even food section than you are on the front page.

It’s not that social-media platforms aren’t newsworthy—Facebook consistently dominates headlines. But TikTok is all too often regarded as an unserious thing to write or read about. That’s a mistake, and it’s one that Congress is making as well.

Recent Senate hearings—convened under the banner of “Protecting Kids Online”—focused on a whistleblower’s revelations regarding what Facebook itself knows about how its products harm teen users’ mental health. That’s an important question to ask. But if there’s going to be a reckoning around social media’s role in society, and in particular its effects on teens, shouldn’t lawmakers also talk about, um, the platforms teens actually useThe Wall Street Journal’s “Facebook Files” reports, after all, also showed that Facebook itself is petrified of young people abandoning its platforms. To these users, Facebook just isn’t cool.

So TikTok is not a passing fad or a tiny start-up in the social-media space. It’s a cultural powerhouse, creating superstars out of unknown artists overnight. It’s a career plan for young influencers and a portable shopping mall full of products and brands. It’s where many young people get their news and discuss politics. And sometimes they get rowdy: In June 2020, TikTok teens allegedly pranked then-President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign by overbooking tickets to a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then never showing.

That humiliation seemed to be one reason Trump threatened to ban the app in August 2020. This briefly put TikTok in the spotlight. For a few months, serious debate raged about whether the app was a national-security threat. Its ties to China sparked fears that it might be forced to share data with the Chinese government or that the Communist Party could influence its content-moderation practices. What unfolded was a saga made for prime time, involving twists and turns, distraught teens, threats of retaliation from China, the departure of the company’s chief executive, and, bizarrely, the floating of Microsoft and Walmart as possible buyers for the app at some point. But then the whole thing just … petered out. As a Verge headline quipped in November, “TikTok Says the Trump Administration Has Forgotten About Trying to Ban It, Would Like to Know What’s Up.” When Trump forgot about TikTok, so, it seems, did the rest of us. As lawmakers appear to be preparing to haul Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg back before them yet again, TikTok’s CEO has never appeared. Can you even name him?

But TikTok is still the same app it was last year, when people were worked up about the threat it posed to national security. Only bigger. And regardless of the extent of the Chinese government’s influence over it, TikTok is a mega-platform full of user-generated content. Wherever users post anything that can get millions of views, how the platform decides what it will and won’t allow is worth asking questions about.

In September, The Journal reported that TikTok also pushes minors toward posts encouraging eating disorders and other harmful content. Last year, many users were shown a graphic suicide video that went viral. Researchers find misinformation and conspiracy theories on TikTok, just as they do everywhere else on the internet. TikTok says it takes down plenty of these posts, but how it decides which ones is unclear. (The guidelines define misinformation as “content that is inaccurate or false.” Helpful!) The platform’s content moderation is opaque, but there are plenty of reasons to be concerned: It has suppressed posts of users deemed ugly, poor, or disabled; removed videos on topics that are politically sensitive in China; and automatically added beauty filters to users’ videos. The “devious licks” challenge, which prompted kids to remove soap dispensers in schools, might sound comical, but school administrators aren’t laughing. Connecticut’s attorney general wants to know what’s going on with the “slap a teacher” dare, although TikTok says that’s not its fault.

The Facebook hearings suggest that potential dangers to children have created a level of bipartisan focus from lawmakers that has been missing until now. But by putting all their focus on one company, lawmakers have shown that how Facebook works isn’t the only thing Congress doesn’t understand about the online ecosystem.

How TikTok manages to skirt the limelight is as mysterious as its recommendation algorithm. Maybe Facebook has a corporate culture and organizational structure that make it uniquely worrisome. Perhaps politicians forget about TikTok because they don’t use it much themselves (yet). TikTok may get less attention precisely because its content moderation is less transparent; it’s hard to write and complain about decisions you’re unaware of. TikTok’s success in branding itself as unserious—it just wants to “bring joy” rather than “connect people”—helps deflect serious criticism. But none of these is a great reason for ignoring such a wildly popular and rapidly growing app when thinking about the effects of social media and how to regulate it.

TikTok is not the only platform that tries to avoid scrutiny by quietly backing into a hedge while Facebook takes the heat—YouTube is the undisputed master of this strategy. But TikTok has the dubious privilege of being one of the few platforms that, according to polls, people dislike and distrust even more than Facebook. Maybe reports of Facebook’s imminent death are greatly exaggerated, but reports of TikTok’s rise certainly aren’t. If lawmakers want to address the problems that social-media platforms cause for young people, they should care about the platforms young people care about. 

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