The platform also appears vulnerable to censorship and algorithmic manipulation. This month, a company executive openly said he had overstepped the application algorithm to push content to TikTok, and the platform has been reported to remove user content with Down syndromeautism and other disabilities, as well as users deemed “poor or ugly”. The app moderators have also censored videos about Tiananmen Square and Tibetan Independence, which means users in the United States are getting the Chinese version of the story. These are the aspects that attract the attention of disinformation and cybersecurity experts.
“The things that keep me up at night with this are the hardest things to understand – the big picture, the big picture, the propaganda – things that can be done on a massive scale to move an entire population from one or two ticks,” says Adam Marrè, former FBI cyber special agent and director of information security at Arctic Wolf, a cybersecurity firm in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, adding that “psychological patterns and the interactive nature” apps like TikTok also leave room for political manipulation.
Maureen Shanahan, director of global corporate communications at TikTok, denied reports that the app censors information, saying, “TikTok does not authorize the practices you claim, and anyone can access the app today and find content critical of the Chinese government. ”
It’s unclear whether the government’s concerns about censorship are enough to warrant banning the service, or whether average users face an immediate risk.
“I think it’s fair to say the conversation is driven by fear,” says Dakota Cary, a member of the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub and a consultant at Krebs Stamos Group, a cybersecurity consultancy in Washington, D.C. DC. conversation is fear. Are we subject to influences we don’t know exist? Is it an attack? I don’t think making political decisions from a place of fear leads to good decisions.
Analysts point out that there are also double standards at play in the data protection debate. “Everyone does it, not just TikTok. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Google, etc. If you’re not paying for an amazing service, then you’re part of the product, and being part of the product means your information is taken and monetized,” says Marrè.
The reason TikTok, of all Chinese-owned apps, has faced such intense pressure is primarily due to its scale and reach. “There is a huge difference between TikTok and these others,” says Marrè. “Even if they are in the top 20, TikTok is the Leviathan.”
But, analysts say, if the TikTok ban goes through, chances are WeChat will be next.
Cociani says banning the platform in the United States “would be a highly progressive step” and could worsen relations with China. And, it could be counterproductive.
“It would make global international communication more difficult and possibly more expensive,” Cociani said. “WeChat users in banned jurisdictions should use VPNs to circumvent the ban, or their families and contacts should use VPNs to circumvent Chinese censorship on foreign apps, such as WhatsApp and Facebook.”
In New York, that’s what worries Zhou: his parents are cut off on a whim. “I think it’s valid that there are safety concerns…but I don’t think an outright ban either – that’s just not the right way to approach it,” says Zhou. “I mean, any app could collect data. How far does it go? Like, any non-friendly US country? It just has a lot of ramifications.
A ban would be devastating for older generations, he says, adding that it would remove them from an “ecosystem” of family, friends and businesses housed between the United States and China.
“We…could probably come up with something and teach them to at least be in contact with us, but just take away their main sources of communication and entertainment? It will be difficult for them,” Zhou said. “It’s not just the people in China, it’s the people here.”