TikTok Challenges

IN the few months of this year, the popular social media app TikTok posted an in-app purchase revenue that was “$205 million more than Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter combined”, according to a tech expert, quoted by Forbes. This is a notable metric because the rollout of new privacy indicators by Apple has meant that apps that usually made their money from advertising now have to make up that money from purchases made by users within the app. Some apps like X and Snapchat have turned to charging yearly fees but the fact that TikTok is in such a strong position suggests that it may have greater longevity than the other apps.

Perhaps, the only thing that can thwart TikTok’s rise are the bans being imposed on it by an increasing number of governments. The argument against TikTok is simple. Because it is owned by a Chinese company, TikTok is bound by rules which could put users’ data within the reach of the Chinese government. There are concerns that this would mean that anything you upload on the app would become a potential data leak. The view of TikTok critics is that, even if such a leak cannot harm you individually, it can pose a threat to the national security of other countries because you may upload information that is potentially useful to China in this regard.

It is because of this that Canada banned TikTok on official phones earlier this year, saying that the app posed a threat to security and privacy. The argument reflected concerns that the app could serve as spyware and look through the data on other apps on the phone. This information could then be relayed to government authorities.

In spring of this year, the US also implied that it was considering a ban on TikTok for the same reason. It was argued that the threat was not only to national security but also to US companies whose employees, just by having this app, would endanger their companies whose data could make its way to the Chinese government along the same route. The only way TikTok could continue without any censorship in America, officials said, was if it was bought by an American company.

One of the sociocultural effects of the app’s popularity is that in countries where it is available, a new breed of creatives has emerged.

TikTok has not been bought by an American company, nor is it banned in the US. Last month, TikTok submitted a thick draft to the US government in which it opposed any sale of the app to an American company. Some US states as well as some US universities have moved independently to ban TikTok. Montana became the first state in the US to ban the app. Several higher education institutes including the University of Texas at Austin, Auburn University, etc, have also done so.

The reason a government ban has not been introduced is because it could run awry of the first amendment of the US constitution, which protects freedom of speech. With media giants and newspapers like The New York Times using the app to upload news data, arguments could be made that the ability of these organisations to disseminate information was being curtailed by the US government. This is so, even though some are worried that user data could be manipulated to deliberately spread misinformation.

Countries such as Britain, France, Canada and Australia have banned it from government-issued devices, while India has banned the app altogether.

While it may be mired in these conflicts over serving as a potential conduit of information for the Chinese government, the popularity of the app is soaring all over the world. One of the sociocultural effects of its popularity has meant that in the countries in which it is available, a new breed of creatives has emerged. These TikTokers have the talent to produce excellent content that can go viral in a matter of minutes. In this sense, the app despite having emerged from a communist country, democratises entertainment by giving people who would not otherwise have had an audience a chance to exhibit their talent to millions of individuals.

The versatility of the platform means that it can localise its operations. So, a Pakistani TikToker can connect with a local Pakistani audience and develop a following. TikTok content can be produced with Urdu music and use local languages. This means that the user experience is not one of using a ‘Chinese’ app but a global one.

The potential to become quite wealthy using the app also continues to attract users and viewers. Even as the Pakistani economy is in free fall and there is no certainty about the future; Pakistani content creators who have mastered the app are seeing a constant increase in the money that they make from the app. While everything else is collapsing, the TikToker and YouTuber content creation economy in Pakistan is flourishing and seems to be largely unaffected by what is happening to the rest of the country.

In a country where the production of creative content has never yielded much or really any income, this has been a positive influence. It would not be surprising if even established entertainers ditch the usual television platforms to produce content only on TikTok.

The future of TikTok is uncertain but not because of the app’s quality or user experience. As the world enters what may well be a new Cold War, the proliferation of information, even when it is disguised as entertainment, is likely to lead to the arena of conflict. In the information age, war inevitably will focus on who gets to control the content of information, and the finesse with which TikTok manages to do this could well lead to many more aggressive bans before this year is over.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

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