TikTok ban
According to July 2022 figures TikTok has over one billion monthly active users worldwide Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal/Gulf News

Hugely popular video-sharing app TikTok suffered a setback Thursday as the US Senate voted to ban it from all government-issued phones and other devices. Biden administration has been considering restrictions on the Chinese-owned platform due to widespread security fears and other allegations in the US. The video-sharing app has more than 1.5 billion users.

The measure, approved unanimously, would have to be passed by the US House before Congress leaves for the year.

The bill, sponsored by Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, underscores fears that TikTok and its parent, ByteDance Ltd., could share information on US users with Chinese authorities. The Senate also passed the ban in the last Congress.

What are the allegations?

"TikTok is a Trojan Horse for the Chinese Communist Party. It's a major security risk to the United States, and until it is forced to sever ties with China completely, it has no place on government devices," Senator Hawley said in a statement.

Are there any exceptions? 

The legislation includes exceptions for "law enforcement activities, national security interests and activities, and security researchers," under certain circumstances, according to the text of the bill.

Last month, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the House Homeland Security Committee that China's government could use TikTok to control millions of users' data or software, and its recommendation algorithm "- which determines which videos users will see next "- "could be used for influence operations if they so choose."

"Under Chinese law, Chinese companies are required to essentially "- and I'm going to shorthand here "- basically do whatever the Chinese government wants them to do in terms of sharing information or serving as a tool of the Chinese government," Wray told lawmakers.

About TikTok

TikTok is a short-form video-sharing mobile platform that allows users to create, edit, and share clips. These short videos are spruced up with filters and soundtracks from the latest music fads.
Social media watchers call TikTok the new Facebook, and the statistics bear them out. The latest TikTok statistics show that, as of July 2022, the platform has over one billion monthly active users worldwide (DataReportal, 2022).

What TikTok has to say about the ban?

Brooke Oberwetter, a TikTok spokesperson, said in a statement after the vote: "Once again, Senator Hawley has moved forward with legislation to ban TikTok on government devices, a proposal which does nothing to advance US national security interests."

We hope that rather than continuing down that road, he will urge the administration to move forward on an agreement that would actually address his concerns

- Brooke Oberwetter, TikTok spokesperson

What were the steps being taken earlier and how they fell apart?

The Biden administration has been attempting to forge an agreement with TikTok that would allow the video-sharing site to keep operating in the US by enacting additional safeguards on how US user data is stored, according to people familiar with the discussions who requested not to be identified discussing a national security matter.

That effort has faltered.

A final deal has been held up at the Justice Department, and questions linger over whether any deal could protect all US users' data from misuse. A plan would be expected to build on an arrangement announced by TikTok in June under which US user traffic is routed through servers maintained by Oracle Corp.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A plan by the Trump administration to force ByteDance to sell stakes in the app to US companies fell through.

Which are the other countries that banned TikTok
• India banned TikTok, among over 50 others, in 2022.
• Afghanistan in early 2022 ordered a TikTok ban.
• Calls to ban TikTok have also surfaced in countries such as Australia, while Taiwan recently moved to ban it from public devices.

Was ‘spying’ the only accusation against TikTok?

No, there were other concerns too, including the safety of children and offering questionable content to younger audience. In the second week of December, TikTok was hit with a pair of lawsuits in the US state of Indiana, which accused it of making false claims about the Chinese-owned app's safety for children.

The lawsuit said TikTok algorithms served up "abundant content depicting alcohol, tobacco, and drugs; sexual content, nudity, and suggestive themes" to users as young as 13.

The state also sued TikTok for allegedly deceiving customers into believing that "reams of highly sensitive data and personal information" were protected from the Chinese government.

"The TikTok app is a malicious and menacing threat unleashed on unsuspecting Indiana consumers by a Chinese company that knows full well the harms it inflicts on users," said Attorney General Todd Rokita in a statement.

In a statement, a TikTok spokesperson did not comment specifically on the case but said "the safety, privacy and security of our community is our top priority."

"We build youth well-being into our policies, limit features by age, empower parents with tools and resources, and continue to invest in new ways to enjoy content based on age-appropriateness or family comfort," the company said.

More than shock-value content?

One of the major concerns among the public has been the Hypersexualization of TikTok's teen users

Roselie Arritola, who goes by the name Jenny Popach on TikTok, is one of the platform's most controversial stars. The 16-year-old's account is filled with hypersexual posts - what she and her mother described as "shock-value content". In these she dances in string bikinis, body rolls in hot pants or drops innuendo in captions.

Her mother, Maria Ulacia, and her father, Jorge Arritola, say they are fully invested in their daughter's influencer aspirations. The Florida teen has 7 million followers and fashion brands have flocked to her, eager to capitalize on her sex appeal and paying a small fortune for her to wear their clothes. And while many of Arritola's followers are indeed teenage girls who would be their target demographic, many others are not there to see which dress she's wearing.

And this is what has some people furious.

The platform's algorithm rewards controversial posts by promoting them in a curated feed of personalized content to its 1 billion users, and efforts to remove content that contravenes its guidelines are often criticised as ineffective. (As reported by Bloomberg)

TikTok is the most disruptive (psychologically), the most effective network among young people. This network is deceptively innocent. It knows very well what you like... pushes incredibly well-made things that are much more creative than the American equivalents. Behind this, there's a real addiction.

- French President Emmanuel Macron

Why Apps are showing sexualized content?

If the videos can seem unsettling to some people, why are they the default? TikTok uses recommendation algorithms to decide which videos a person will see, based on a wide range of signals like who they follow and what they've liked, reports Washington Post.

More importantly, video feeds also use information the viewer isn't sharing on purpose, like how long they let a video play and if they click through to the comments. The apps assume basic demographic information including your gender and age without asking directly.

TikTok is the most well-known for suggesting shocking content to new users, but similar issues happen in apps trying to mimic TikTok's algorithmic success: Instagram's Reels, Snapchat and YouTube Shorts. Other apps use many of the same signals, though none are completely transparent with how their algorithms work.

The problem of showing sexualized content to the wrong audiences is long-standing, according to social media experts. Recommendation algorithms often prioritize shocking content because it's lucrative.

What’s the app’s current value?
TikTok has been valued at $50 billion, according to a report in gobankingrates.com. Recent estimates place the value of TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, at $275 billion, according to Bloomberg.

"The business model of every platform, especially social media, is to keep you on the platform as long and as much as possible. They try to offer you certain content to keep you interested and engaged," said Sandra Wachter, a professor of technology and regulation at the Oxford Internet Institute. "The truth is, what keeps you engaged is often toxic, controversial, scandalous, and gossipy."

The benefit of these types of algorithms is that they can learn your preferences over time, like that you prefer concert videos of Taylor Swift over Megadeath (or a mix of both). But when you log in for the first time, they often don't have anything to go on aside from basics like your country and language preferences.

"They call this the cold start problem. How do you make a behavioural prediction without any behaviour?" says Christian Sandvig, director of the Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing at the University of Michigan.

The apps likely default to showing these people the most popular content, says Sandvig. And according to the number of likes and comments on many of the sexualized videos we reviewed, they are broadly popular.

How to fix your feed
• If your TikTok, Reels, Shorts or Snapchat feeds are showing you content you're uninterested in, there are some simple - if time-sucking - ways to try to fix it.
• Say you're not interested: Each app has a way to say you're not interested or dislike a video, either by pressing and holding (TikTok) selecting the More options (three dots on Instagram and Snapchat) or hitting dislike (YouTube).
• Seek out content you do like: Look up hashtags and keywords for your core interests, follow those creators and read or engage in the comments.
• Train yourself to look away: The apps look at how long you view a video, if you read the comments, and if you click on the creator's profile to decide what to show you. Scroll away quickly, consistently.
• Give it time: To get your feeds right where you want them, you'll need to invest time - days or weeks - and likely see videos that you don't want along the way.

Who’s the founder of TikTok?

Zhang Yiming, a former software engineer, is the founder and CEO of ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok and its Chinese version Douyin. The 37-year old is currently worth over $59.4 billion, according to Forbes’ Real-Time Billionaires List, making him the 22nd-wealthiest person in the world.

How and when did TikTok start?

TikTok started life as a video sharing platform in China, where it was launched in September 2016 as Douyin. It became wildly popular, and the parent company ByteDance unveiled an international version the following year. Although it primarily focused on lipsyncing and dancing videos, TikTok later became a fully-fledged video service.

Bytedance, TikTok and their journey

Bytedance acquired Musical.ly, a social network whose lipsyncing and dancing video attracted young people, for $1 billion in November 2017. The Chinese company then rebranded Musical.ly and TikTok into one app the following year and raised $3 billion.

ByteDance had previously operated the AI-powered news aggregation platform Toutiao. A similar AI platform allowed TikTok to identify users’ interests and feed them relevant videos.

The growth of TikTok

In two years, TikTok’s growth has been phenomenal, racking up more than 1 billion DAU’s (Daily Active Users), with a likely worth of $200 billion. That made it one of the world’s most valuable companies.

TikTok reached 3 billion downloads in June 2021, making it the seventh-most downloaded app of the 2010s and the world’s most downloaded app in 2020, according to App Annie, a mobile analytics company. In March, users spent 2.8 billion hours, or nearly 320,000 years, on the app.

TikTok in numbers
• TikTok has 1 billion monthly active users worldwide.
• The TikTok app has been downloaded over 2 billion times on the App Store and Google Play.
• TikTok was the most downloaded app in Apple’s App Store for Q2 2022, with more than 60 million downloads.
• 62 percent of TikTok users in the US are between 10 and 29 years old.
• TikTok is available in 155 countries and in 75 languages.

How TikTok makes money

Advertising is one of the primary sources of TikTok’s revenue as it offers paid advertisements for brands to promote their products and services. In-feed ads, brand takeover ads, top view ads, branded hashtags, and branded effects are among the advertising vehicles. Brands can enhance their marketing through in-feed videos, brand takeovers, hashtag challenges and branded effects.

In-App purchases and e-commerce offerings are other revenue streams.

How you can make money through TikTok

Hugely popular TikTok users can make money through the platform. Here are some of the ways to earn money.

TikTok Creator Fund: The fund rewards users for creating engaging and popular videos on the platform depending on the number of views generated by their videos, which should be in line with TikTok guidelines. But to be part of the creator fund scheme, user must fulfil certain conditions.

Influencer marketing: Like all social media platforms, companies hire influencers to promote their goods or services in their videos to generate sales.

Sponsored content: Users can strike deals to create content for the TikTok account for companies, or get the company to sponsor the videos.

Branded merchandise: Highly popular TikTok stars can create their own line of products.

New careers: Tiktok stars can use the stardom to launch new careers in music, painting or acting.

Consultant: A TikTok expert can help guide others. People will pay consultants to create strategies, build brands and boost followers.