Should we be afraid of TikTok?
Is this Chinese app a sinister threat or just a popular innovation? The debate may soon come to a boil, and the series Beyond The Viral Video takes a look at the issues.
MUMBAI and SINGAPORE: Living in a remote area, Mahesh Kapse almost went undiscovered.
His village of Veni, an 11-hour drive from Mumbai, is so forgotten that it has seen barely any economic development in decades. But the 23-year-old is famous, thanks to TikTok.
His most watched video has more than 71 million views, and his one-of-a-kind speed painting skill brought reactions from Indian stars and international cricket players.
In three months to June, he gained 1.25 million followers — and an income that was almost four times what his family earned from farming. The first thing he bought with this money from TikTok was a gas cylinder.
“Ever since we bought that, it’s become very easy to cook meals. It has two burners. That’s a good thing,” he said. “Previously it was very difficult for my family to cook meals in (our) hearth.”
The fact that TikTok allowed the rural poor to make a living as internet celebrities was a big draw as India became the app’s largest market, with about 200 million active users.
But that is an avenue they have lost after the country banned TikTok and 58 other Chinese apps on June 29, on the basis of national security.
WATCH: TikTok ban leaves Indian influencers in the lurch
While some observers believe the move was in retaliation for the military clash between India and China earlier that month, TikTok is truly at the centre of its own battle now, with some other nations talking about banning it.
WATCH: Why did India ban TikTok? (5:50)
Governments in countries like the United States, Japan and Australia are concerned that the app’s user data are being relayed to the Chinese government in a spy-like fashion.
So is it a sinister threat or just a popular innovation? That debate is the focus of the premiere episode of the series Beyond The Viral Video.
TikTok was among the top five apps downloaded worldwide last year, along with Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp. And as COVID-19 quarantines came into effect round the world, TikTok downloads have gone through the roof, crossing the two-billion threshold.
Its appeal as a short-video app lies in the fact that it enables users to add music and other effects to the videos to make them more creative.
But suspicions of TikTok, owned by Chinese internet company ByteDance, have been aroused following allegations that it was censoring posts about the Hong Kong protests last year.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States began a national security review of the app, whose entry into the American market came after ByteDance had previously acquired Musical.ly, a similar video-sharing app, and fused it with TikTok.
Then in March, there was evidence that TikTok was gathering information from users’ smartphone clipboards — as were a number of other apps, such as those of Fox News and LinkedIn.
In July, US President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign put out a series of advertisements threatening to ban TikTok for “spying” on US citizens.
READ: Trump campaign runs Facebook ads on whether TikTok should be banned
Very few social networking apps, however, do not keep data about its users.
“They can’t finance their operations and make money without collecting your data. That’s the reason for their existence,” noted David Gurle, chief executive officer of chat platform Symphony, one of the few whose business is not built on data aggregation.
Such data includes one’s name, username or handle, email address and phone number.
“But what’s even more important is your behaviour. What you’re watching … keywords you’re searching (and) what type of video you’re sharing tell a lot about you. And that information — we call this the metadata — is kept,” said Gurle.
That is his worry about TikTok, as “the boundaries that we let go when we interact with TikTok are far more intimate”.
“Any sovereign country has an obligation to protect its citizens,” he added. “Access to this information is as important as if somebody comes to your country and conducts malicious acts.”
But beyond national security, there are also more personal concerns.
The Indonesian government, for example, has received complaints about the “pornographic and blasphemous” content of many TikTok videos and wanted assurances that TikTok would clean up existing videos and ensure that such content would not be seen again.
Indonesian social activists have expressed concern about the numerous children who post content on the app — in fear that they could be the target of paedophiles, rapists and human traffickers.
There are also TikTok users who misuse their fame. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, miscreants in India showed off how they broke lockdown rules without getting caught, and taunted others to do the same. And the behaviour spread.
“The rural community … are more vulnerable because they don't have the kind of awareness programmes that happen, let’s say, in a city,” said Ritesh Bhatia, the director of V4Web Cybersecurity.
These influencers, added lawyer Ali Kaashif Khan Deshmukh, “aren’t followed by mature people”.
In Mumbai, the police took action. On top of making arrests, they forced the miscreants to put out a public apology.
The quest for attention on TikTok has given rise to a range of disturbing trends, including teenagers twerking to sexually explicit lyrics, a graphic suicide attempt that trolls kept re-uploading and even a mounting death toll from dangerous TikTok stunts.
Several media outlets have lambasted TikTok for the way questionable content can make it onto its website. What this shows is that the platform is the “Wild West”, Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters for America, told the BBC.
Arjun Narayan, ByteDance’s Singapore-based director of trust and safety (Asia-Pacific), is aware of the “perception” that TikTok does not have strict rules, but he called this a “misconception”.
“It’s kind of uncool to say we’re strict, but the fact is we’re strict,” he said. “We don’t allow content that’s hateful. We don’t want to be a place for distasteful content … That’s not what the brand stands for.”
TikTok bans hashtags like #sexy, #suicide and drug-related words. And as of August this year, it has taken down more than 380,000 videos in the US for violating its hate speech policy.
In the second half of last year, it removed more than 49 million videos that were in violation of its guidelines. The bulk of the videos were from India, followed by the US.
READ: TikTok removes 380,000 videos for violating hate speech policy
READ: TikTok removed more than 49 million videos in second half of 2019
TikTok management has also stated that it has never shared user data with the Chinese government and would not do so if asked by Beijing.
In a statement last November, TikTok maintained that the content moderation for TikTok US is handled by American employees, while all US user data is stored in the country and in Singapore.
ByteDance has also reportedly restricted its Chinese engineers’ access to the code bases and data of its overseas products.
As part of these moves to distance itself from its Chinese roots, TikTok hired Kevin Mayer in May, formerly from Disney, to be its CEO. But he quit less than three months after he joined the company.
For all of TikTok’s actions, there are still fears that it could be pressured to do Beijing’s bidding.
In 2018, when the Chinese government shut down news app Toutiao for 24 hours for allegedly spreading pornographic and vulgar content, parent company ByteDance began hiring 2,000 content reviewers — with a preference for Communist Party members.
ITS FATE IN THE BALANCE
Might there be another reason, however, that Trump has been trying to ban TikTok?
Earlier this year, TikTok users reserved tickets en masse for his rally on June 20 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There were a million requests for tickets, said his team. But when the day came, only 6,200 attended the rally.
TikTok users later claimed some responsibility for no-shows as part of a teen campaign sabotage.
But James Crabtree, an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, does not buy the story that TikTok’s fate is really about personal revenge.
“The concern was much more that potentially China or potentially Russia — sort of malign actors outside of the country — could use the app to interfere with American democracy,” he said.
The US government has given ByteDance until Nov 27 to divest TikTok, while the company has challenged the divestiture order.
READ: ByteDance gets 15-day extension from US order to divest TikTok: official
READ: China's ByteDance challenges Trump's TikTok divestiture order
Short of an outright sale to a non-Chinese owner, another possible scenario is a deal that splits control and ownership of the app between existing and new US investors, under a new American company.
A ban, on the other hand, could have huge implications. After all, the app’s wide reach has even prompted the World Health Organisation to start a TikTok account to help spread information about COVID-19.
TikTok’s woes have now presented other social media platforms with an opportunity to lure its influencers. For example, Facebook’s Instagram Reels has similar short-form video features.
TikTok has responded by setting up a US$200 million (S$269 million) fund to keep its content creators.
That is not a recourse, however, for those in India such as Kapse.
He not only is affected monetarily but also is left with some unrealised dreams, like helping to make the lake near his hometown “as famous as it deserves to be”.
“Lonar Lake is a beautiful place, but … not many people visit this place,” he said. “It was my wish to come here and film some videos.
“I wanted to paint at this site. But before I could do it, Tiktok was banned … I’m praying to (Lord Shiva) that TikTok makes a comeback.”
The series Beyond The Viral Video airs on Saturdays at 9pm.