As TikTok is pulled into politics and faces bans by countries over privacy issues, it is in an unusual situation whereby it could have its meteoric rise stunted, for different reasons than any other platform before it.
There was a time when trouble for social networks simply meant not gaining sufficient user engagement, as the likes of Friendster, MySpace, Orkut, Google+ can attest. However, as a Chinese-owned social network, TikTok's future has been thrown into doubt by an altogether more modern problem – geopolitical privacy concerns.
India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has placed a blanket ban on 59 mobile apps from Chinese companies that it said were “engaged in activities prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, the security of the state and public order”.
In the United States, Donald Trump’s government is threatening to ban TikTok after accusing the platform of sharing information with the Chinese government. Then, following China’s establishment of a sweeping new national security law for Hong Kong, the platform announced it would exit the Hong Kong market within days.
“Banning digital things in an analog way does one thing – makes the digital thing bigger," David Mayo, the chief operating officer at ADNA Global tells The Drum. "TikTok may face some immediate fall off purely due to access, but over time it will continue to rise, at least until the next thing arrives.
“It would take more than people to see it as a ‘Chinese thing’ for it to fail in the short-term to its users; it doesn’t matter the nationality of the brand. In fact I would call TikTok a global brand from China. To its users, they do not like the people who are doubling down on TikTok."
Trevor Long, the editor of EFTM.com and a technology commentator, notes app developers like TikTok can do little to control how governments react to its usage or availability in any country, other than to attempt to influence the thinking of governments about the relative privacy and security of the app.
“But, very few governments in the world exercise restrictions on their constituents relating to what apps they can and cannot use," he adds. "As such, TikTok's users won't change what they are doing, [its] staggering growth won't likely slow at all."
Not everyone is convinced. Jasper Hamill, a senior account manager at Grammatik Agency, recalls that when he first encountered TikTok he used to joke that it was a Chinese psyop designed to rot the minds of western kids.
But now, he points out serious issues have emerged around this wildly popular app as critics claim it invades users' privacy in various concerning ways and everyone from parents to politicians have been asking if it is linked to China's surveillance state.
“I don't think it faces a bright future due to the growing geopolitical tensions between China and countries which are key TikTok markets," Hamill says. "It's already banned in India – which is a huge market – and looks set to be banned in the US too."
Are national security and privacy issues good enough to ban TikTok?
With the rise of nationalistic sentiments, countries are taking a closer look at potential national security threats posed by data leaks, and are subjecting foreign tech companies like Facebook and TikTok to comply with stricter checks, norms and policies.
Concerns about national security and privacy issues with TikTok should be taken seriously, believes Paul Spain, the chief Executive and futurist at Gorilla Technology, because Chinese companies are legally required to share information with the government when requested. This makes any app that collects a lot of personal data a security risk.
“Add to that concerns about the amount of data TikTok is collecting and storing and it makes sense countries would choose to ban TikTok in much the same way Huawei has been hit with bans," he continues. "This doesn’t mean TikTok will disappear immediately or at all, however it is possible that bans would ultimately lead to the death of TikTok."
If proven, Long says any link to national security issues should certainly result in governments and large businesses banning the use of TikTok on government or corporate devices.
“However, there has been no direct link between the claims of Chinese Government interaction with user data and proof of this happening. The company claims they do not hand over data to governments anywhere in the world - who do we believe?”
TikTok has denied inappropriate data collection on several occasions previously. The Drum reached out to the platform for further comment for this story but at the time of writing, it had no further statement to add.
Mayo argues there are numbers to support the growth of TikTok on other platforms. As well as the content itself, it has become very cool for people to share TikTok in intimate spaces such as WhatsApp.
“TikTok is still new enough to be a novelty and trying to stop a growth trajectory like this is virtually impossible without just turning the app itself off,” he adds.
For Facebook, it is facing a boycott campaign globally, with 1,032 brands joining the #StopHateForProfit, which first launched on 17 June, backed by civil rights groups including the NAACP, Color of Change and the Anti-Defamation League.
The coalition has been calling on major corporations to put a pause on advertising on Facebook, citing the company's "repeated failure to meaningfully address the vast proliferation of hate on its platforms". Global brands like Starbucks, Diageo, Verizon, The North Face and Ben & Jerry’s have heeded the call.
The initiative launched in the wake of Facebook's decision not to take action on incendiary posts from President Trump and amid widespread protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody in the US. It also comes ahead of the 2020 elections in the US.
In the recent Singapore general elections, Facebook has been keen to demonstrate it wants to prevent "inauthentic behaviour" on its platform in the interest of elections integrity by removing pages like Fabrications About The People’s Action Party (PAP is the ruling party of Singapore), Critical Spectator and Factually Singapore, for violating its policies, because the administrators of these pages misrepresent themselves, used fake accounts, or engage in behaviour designed to enable other violations of its community standards.
“We have taken action on several accounts and Pages in Singapore for violating our policies. This is based on the violating behaviour of these accounts and Pages and not based on the content they posted,” a Facebook spokesperson tells The Drum.
Facebook also has to legally abide by the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation (POFMA) Act in Singapore, which the government claims will help it fight fake news to incite racial and religious disharmony, and act swiftly to halt the viral spread of falsehoods. It has been ordered to block access to pages and issue correction notices on multiple occasions.
Will the setbacks stop TikTok’s ascendency with Gen Z and millennials?
While there is some resistance to India’s ban of TikTok and to the US’s proposal of a ban, with Vice describing it as a 'human rights issue', Hamill believes we are unlikely to see protests about the bans in the streets.
He says millennials and members of Generation Z will probably "huff and puff a little" about any ban, but then move to rival platforms like Snapchat, Byte and Dubsmash. After all, he notes it is the content, not necessarily the platform itself, which really got people hooked on TikTok.
"I think it's highly likely that TikTok will be banned in democracies across the world. If that happens, it's worth asking ourselves if we're comfortable letting any social media platform snoop on our private lives. Because let's face it, TikTok's US competitors aren't exactly famed for protecting their users' privacy,” he says.
On the other hand, Long predicts users will keep creating accounts, will keep making videos, and will keep spending hours and hours on the app watching videos.
“As we've seen with the Cambridge Analytica controversy that rocked Facebook, people are outraged, but rarely follow through with the idea of deleting their accounts and walking away from the platform. The same applies to TikTok,” he adds.
Agreeing, Mayo believes if anything, the bans will fuel the growth. He says it is "a superb story of David vs Goliath" or "brand vs the world" and for now, in a world where the leadership is so divorced from the people that TikTok is designed for, it gives a mouthpiece for Gen Z and millennials.
“Following this target, the app hopes to grow with them as they grow. If TikTok can hold on to them, work and grow with them, there is no holding it back,” he adds.
It is hard to predict exactly what will happen with TikTok until we gain clarity on further countries banning the app. If there are further bans, then TikTok’s future will be much dimmer than previously anticipated. The upcoming Instagram Reels along with competing apps such as Snapchat, Byte and Dubsmash are likely to benefit if TikTok’s woes continue.