Everybody is worried about China. America is too. Now, all developments starting in 2020 with the CFIUS investigation to the hopeful Project Texas can be forgotten and dusted off.
On March 23, Congress was in a rush to get Shou Zi Chew in a fix, subject him to intense fact-checking, and conclude that the Communist Party of China is indeed spying on Americans — more than 150 million of them — who are active users on the creator platform.
Republican Buddy Carter had questions about TikTok’s use of the camera function: does it connect the user’s pupil dilation and the algorithm? Does it not help detect the user’s age? In Chew’s words, the camera function was used only for the user to apply filters on their face. And for catching one’s age, they use age-gating — and visit the public profile of users and compare the videos with the age they’d entered while joining TikTok. Isn’t that creepy? asks Carter. But it’s a public profile, says Chew. This reassurance surely did not put the concerns to a halt.
The US had already banned the app for government-owned devices. It was only a matter of time before a more comprehensive ban became a subject of discussion. And Chew’s repeated attempts to instill trust in the platform’s data privacy ethics may just have pushed Congress further onward. Kevin McCarthy today announced that the bipartisan legislation would definitely take shape.
150 million American users will then lose access to this beloved platform. The number of users may have been a matter of pride to Chew on Thursday morning, but to Congress, this was an alarming amount of data that China was potentially dipping its analytics into.
It’s rare that both parties align on an issue in the US. But in this heat of anti-China rhetoric, bipartisanship did not seem too far away.
The length and breadth of content creation
According to a survey conducted by The Economist and YouGov, more than 50% of Americans aged 45 and above consider China an enemy. Only about 25% of those between 18 and 44 share this opinion — and nearly 20% of this age group even considers China to be friendly to the US. Most of TikTok's users fall within this demographic.
For content creators, TikTok is — despite Instagram's cloning attempt with the reels — a steady platform to engage and earn. Its more recent introduction of a creator marketplace enabled companies and individuals to connect with creators to expand the reach of their products or message. In the era of influencer marketing, TikTok was becoming a staple for content strategy. This year, through ad revenue alone, the platform is expecting $6.83 billion.
The news of potential legislation had alerted advertising agencies and marketers alike of the need to start diversifying their strategy into other channels. Amidst this tension, TikTok desperately tried to convince some advertisers through a hush-hush meeting led by Andy Bonillo, their data security manager. Now that the legislation appears nearly concrete in terms of whether it’ll be out or not, chances are, whatever little convincing happened during this meeting would fall back and crumble.
Will a ban on TikTok lead to new alternatives springing into the picture? Yes and No.
Alternative platforms may actively start looking for investments and squeeze their way into at least a few former-TikTok households. But, with Instagram marking just as strong a presence amongst content creators, these younger apps may only experience short-lived dependence.
Young users will be in the mood to experiment, but even the slightest user interface challenge can end up discouraging customer sustenance. When India banned TikTok in 2020, alternative platforms did start advertising widely — they even paid influencers to use the apps. But they failed. As this country’s example shows, Instagram shot up to the number one spot soon enough. And this likely will happen in the US too.
For Meta, it’s an occasion of indescribable joy — more users, more revenue, more everything. But, in all the fuss that surrounds political machinery, one must not forget that Big Tech, within or outside the US, is capable of a lot.
Congress should think of data privacy legislation for all platforms, irrespective of whether a China threat looms behind these or not. The concerns it raised against TikTok are legible enough for Instagram and Snapchat too. And no, the answer does not lie singularly in a ban.