The platform also appears to be vulnerable to censorship and algorithmic manipulation. This month, a company executive openly said they had overridden the app’s algorithm to push content on TikTok, and the platform has been reported to suppress content from users with Down syndromeautism, and other disabilities, as well as users deemed “poor or ugly.” The app’s moderators have also censored videos on Tiananmen Square and Tibetan independence, which means users in the US are presented with China’s version of the story. It’s these aspects that raise red flags for disinformation and cybersecurity experts.
“The things that keep me up at night with this are the more difficult things to understand—the aggregate, the larger picture, the propaganda—things that can be done at scale to move a whole population one or two ticks,” says Adam Marrè, a former FBI cyber special agent and the chief information security officer at Arctic Wolf, a cybersecurity company in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, adding that “psychological models and the interactive nature” of apps like TikTok leave room for political manipulation as well.
Maureen Shanahan, the director of global corporate communications at TikTok, denied reports that the app censors information, saying: “TikTok does not allow the practices you claim, and anyone can go on the app today and find content that’s critical of the Chinese government.”
Whether the government’s concerns over censorship are enough to justify banning the service, or whether average users face an immediate risk, isn’t clear.
“I think it’s fair to say the conversation is driven by fear,” says Dakota Cary, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub and a consultant at Krebs Stamos Group, a cybersecurity consulting firm in Washington, D.C. “The core experience in this conversation is fear. Are we subject to influence that we don’t know about? Is this an attack? I don’t think that making policy decisions from a place of fear leads to good decisions.”
Analysts point out that there are also double standards at play in the debate around data protection. “Everybody does it—not just TikTok. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Google, you name it. If you’re not paying for an amazing service, then you are part of the product, and being part of the product means that your information is being taken and monetized,” Marrè says.
The reason that TikTok, of all of the Chinese-owned apps, has faced such intense pressure is mainly because of its scale and reach. “There’s a huge difference between TikTok and those others,” Marrè says. “Even though they’re in the top 20, TikTok is the Leviathan.”
But, analysts say, if a ban on TikTok does go ahead, there’s a strong chance that WeChat could be next.
Cociani says that banning the platform in the US “would be a highly escalatory move,” and could worsen relations with China. And, it might be counterproductive.
“It would render overall international communication harder and possibly more expensive,” Cociani says. “WeChat users in banned jurisdictions would need to resort to VPNs in a bid to bypass the ban—or their families and contacts would need to use VPNs to bypass Chinese censorship on foreign apps, such as WhatsApp and Facebook.”
In New York, that’s what Zhou worries about—his parents getting cut off on a whim. “I think it’s valid that there are security concerns … but I also don’t think an outright ban of it—it’s just not the right way to go about approaching things,” Zhou says. “I mean, any app could collect data. How far does it reach? 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 in between the US and China.
“We … could probably figure something out and teach them to at least be in contact with us, but just removing the main sources of communication and entertainment from them? It’ll be tough for them,” Zhou said. “It’s not only people in China, it’s people here.”