It is a joke among me and my friends that I am in college and do not use TikTok. I am an Instagram user through and through. Yet I see the appeal. TikTok is the younger generation’s latest platform for unique and relatable content.
Since the Chinese tech company ByteDance debuted TikTok stateside in 2018, the app has grown to an audience of around 90 million active American users. This means around one in four Americans use TikTok. The majority of these users are young. As of 2020, more than 60 percent of U.S. TikTok users were under 30 years old.
Many experts get the allure of TikTok wrong. The allure of the app comes from how TikTok promotes its large village of micro-influencers. Micro-influencers have between 1,000 and 100,000 followers and often have hyperspecific interests and expertises. Data shows micro-influencers on TikTok boast an audience engagement score of 17.96 percent, dwarfing micro-influencers' engagement score on Instagram at 3.86 percent and YouTube at 1.63 percent. There is something endearing about the authentic influencer next door, and TikTok has cracked the code to manipulate this phenomena. To this point, 79 percent of TikTok users found content on the platform to be “unique or different” from competitors, and 84 percent of users said they had come across content to which they could relate.
Unfortunately, TikTok’s space for unique and relatable content has a nefarious underbelly when it comes to two components —- the app’s design and ownership.
In 2021, The Wall Street Journal crafted an experiment to investigate the true inner workings of TikTok’s algorithm. Researchers at WSJ created over a hundred TikTok bot accounts. A particular bot called Kentucky96 was designed to watch videos about sadness and depression. As Kentucky96 began to linger longer on these types of videos — not liking or commenting — the bot’s feed began to be filled with depressive ideations, mental health struggles and relationship turmoil. Eventually, the feed belonging to Kentucky96 was 93 percent flooded with content based around sadness and depression. A TikTok spokeswoman said the remaining 7 percent of this content was meant to help a user out of this rabbit hole. Ironically, researchers found the majority of this remaining 7 percent was actually ads.
So in an effort to better understand you over competitors, TikTok relies more on how long you watch certain videos and can avoid user interactions to determine your feed if necessary. Logically, watching content for longer does not always mean you enjoy it. This is where TikTok’s algorithm seriously backfires. For instance, what if the content contains relatable suicidal ideations, so a teenager watches it for longer? TikTok’s algorithm could conflate a person’s depression with genuine interest and promote harmful ideations.
This doesn’t happen on TikTok’s competitor Instagram. As an Instagram user, I did not like or comment on any content for years. Because of this, my feed was a composite of what my followers liked and who they followed. Unlike TikTok, my feed was never flooded by one specific genre of video that I watched more than any other. Instagram’s algorithm determines your social media feed based primarily on explicit user interactions, which are taken by you and your followers when you like, comment and share content. User interaction matters. Unfortunately, TikTok’s algorithm primarily compiles your feed based on how long you watch certain videos. TikTok algorithm is known to understand people’s sexualities better than they did, but is also known to expose children to suicidal content within three minutes of joining the app. TikTok should stick to providing content based on user interaction because guessing interests based on how long you watch content leads to two stories — one innocent and one deeply disturbing.
Besides its design, the other nefarious component of TikTok is its ownership. TikTok is owned by ByteDance, which has raised red flags for U.S. national security due to concerns such as Chinese Communist Party surveillance and acquisition of American data through TikTok. In a bid to soothe tensions, TikTok introduced Project Texas, which aims to have all U.S. user data stored on Oracle’s Texas-based cloud infrastructure, separate from other countries’ TikTok user data still centered in China.
Yet even after the announcement of Project Texas, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the bureau still had “national security concerns about TikTok operations in the U.S.” Wray warned that the Chinese government could be using the app to influence American users or control their devices. I share Wray’s concerns. As I mentioned earlier in this piece, the design of the TikTok is inherently wicked. Moving where user data is stored does not solve TikTok’s design problem. The truth is ByteDance does not care about your enjoyment of TikTok’s content. Whether your longest watched videos are about sexuality or suicide, ByteDance could care less. They care if you watch it.
Ultimately, to solve TikTok’s design problem, ownership problem and protect the health and privacy of Americans, we have two choices — ban or buy Tiktok.
Dec. 13, Macro Rubio announced bipartisan legislation to ban TikTok. If passed, the legislation would effectively “block all transactions from any social media company in or under the influence of China and Russia.” A companion bill was also developed in the House sponsored by Republican Mike Gallagher and Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi. Unfortunately for lawmakers, a ban of any social media is deeply at odds with the First Amendment. For instance, the American Civil Liberties Union has already been vocal against banning TikTok. In regards to the potential ban, the ACLU said, “This interference with freedom of expression and association violates the First Amendment.” I could argue that not banning TikTok violates the Federal Wiretap Act — since data collection by the CCP has been accused of illegally tracking users’ clicks and keystrokes. A TikTok ban is a pick and choose. Do you want to violate the First Amendment and ban TikTok, or keep TikTok around and violate the Federal Wiretap Act? Even Gallagher admitted that buying TikTok was more of a “workable solution.” I agree with Gallagher that buying TikTok is workable.
I recommend Congress backs an American buyer for TikTok. By backing a buyer, Congress can thwart Chinese data collection and retain TikTok’s financial stakeholders and its online communities. Congress should initiate a buy for TikTok by supporting previous suitors — Oracle and Walmart. To close the purchase, the companies will need support from the State Department to negotiate past China’s export control, which limits the sale of Chinese social media to foreigners. If we cannot negotiate a buy for TikTok, we must ban the app to protect the health, safety and privacy of all Americans.
Rylan Dawson is an Opinion Columnist who writes on Health, Tech, and Environment for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.