ByteDance, the Chinese owner of the fastest growing social media app TikTok, is facing difficulty abroad. Tiktok is one of the few apps from China that have succeeded worldwide, with over 1 billion downloads, including 110 million users in the U.S. With the ongoing tensions between the U.S. and China over trade and technology, and more generally, the discrepancy between Western and Chinese values, severe scrutiny of Chinese operations in the U.S. was to be expected. New Jersey teenager FerozaAziz has received extensive media attention after getting banned for hiding a political statement about Uighur Muslims in a makeup video. A college student has sued the company for privacy violations and for funneling her personal data to China. And last month, the U.S. government announced it has launched a national security review to examine whether the app poses a national threat.
What does this mean?
The common denominator in all these events are concerns over content moderation and censorship, the privacy and protection of data on the platform and foreign interference with political campaigns and elections. Although the user base will remain mostly underaged and the “lighthearted fun” of the medium is crucial to its success, the immensely popular app needs to grow up quickly if it wants to survive abroad. As a response to the accusations and concerns, the app is taking every conceivable measure to distance itself from its “Chinese label“. The company is planning to expand its local operations and hire more local content moderators. Furthermore, a company representative has stated that earning the trust of foreign users and regulators is TikTok’s top priority and has repeatedly made clear the company doesn’t transfer data back to China. Last, Ferora Aziz has received a public formal apology, which included the video being reinstated (allegedly, the ban was due to a human moderation error).
These measures and the tone of voice are a first sign that the company is willing to adapt to foreign markets and Western standards. If they choose to follow this strategic path, this will mirror Western companies historically putting aside political or moral issues when entering the Chinese market. On the other hand, as we have written before, it remains difficult to believe the Chinese government will not heavily moderate and censor content if it opposes Chinese values or government policies. Furthermore, in line with China’s ambition as a global economic and political power, a cultural app such as TikTok could be an important vector of ideology and strong instrument in terms of soft power (e.g. to stimulate the acceptance of Chinese values, such as the different perspectives on freedom of speech or privacy). Currently, Byte Dance seems to be playing both sides of the fence, but this strategy seems untenable in the long term (for example, this study reveals how TikTok has repeatedlyclaimed to embrace an open, diverse and tolerant culture, but the actions of content moderators show the exact opposite).