Over the past three years, the Chinese social media platform known as TikTok has had a massive rise to prominence across the globe. Any Holmes student has surely heard of it.
The app began its journey in 2017, with its first major move being the $1 billion purchase of musical.ly, a social media app that was mostly prominent in the mid-2010s. As the decade passed, TikTok built a strong foundation of corporate partnerships and celebrity endorsements. However, the company faced scrutiny in 2020. The Trump administration made scathing allegations of the app being a threat to United States data security. As TikTok’s user base grew closer to billions of users, pressure began to rise for their newly-hired CEO.
Since 2020, TikTok has been faced with a slew of allegations from average citizens and legal professionals alike. Countless videos and articles have contested TikTok since its launch, attacking its suspicious privacy policies and alleged ties to the Chinese government. Teenagers have come out with testimonies to the app’s adverse effects on their self-image and psychological state. In March 2022, U.S. attorneys general from 45 U.S. states launched an investigation on the company out of concerns for users’ mental health.
These events beg the question: Is TikTok an innocent app with a bad reputation, or is there more going on behind the scenes? Could this app plague the next generation of youths? Many writers, internet personalities, politicians and legal professionals argue for both sides of the dilemma. It is the writer’s hope that this question will be answered today. Several claims against the integrity of TikTok have been investigated thoroughly, and will be expounded in distinct sections. Each section is titled for a company malpractice that TikTok has categorically been exposed for participating in.
Degrading Mental Health
Any social media app, when used in excess, can have adverse effects on one’s mental health. This is a known fact. Every social media app has a unique way of playing on the human brain, so they keep people hooked on their platform. TikTok’s way of doing this is arguably more malicious and manipulative than meets the eye.
Specifically, TikTok attacks the human brain’s craving for dopamine – a neurotransmitter released by the brain that improves blood flow and our mood. Dopamine tends to guide the human brain in making decisions. We often choose to partake in a certain activity depending on how much dopamine we receive from it. When social media gives us dopamine, our brain craves to experience it again. Thus, we start replicating that experience once our dopamine is gone. This can come from watching another video, or liking another picture. Developers hope that we will lose ourselves in their app, and go on a binge of dopamine-seeking activity. The way TikTok is formatted makes this behavior nearly unavoidable. All of TikTok’s content is presented in a short-form video format. The app’s algorithm then generates endless videos after the first one, catalyzing a cycle of dopamine hits.
Video after video, we seek another short rush of dopamine to kill time. One more hit is never enough, no matter how much we say that to ourselves. TikTok videos perfectly appeal to the human craving for dopamine. They’re entertaining, short in length and constant in supply. The Gauntlet puts it best — they are the “perfect dopamine boosters.” The algorithm knows what interest to target, as well. The platform’s recommendation system is based on “likes.” For the world of social media, a “like” is basically showing your approval of this video’s theft of your time. This means more dopamine hits, and a bigger likelihood to get addicted to the app. If our brains register TikTok as a surefire source of our dopamine, we will naturally gravitate toward its pleasures.
This is not good. When one develops a psychological dependence on the social media platform, it is essentially a drug to them. This could be said about any social media app, but TikTok is intentional about this being its flagship feature. Without this addictive quality of TikTok’s interface, the app is reduced to nothing.
TikTok’s constituents deny its looming threat to the data of U.S. citizens. However, TikTok’s own legal statements and corporate practices expose their imminent goal to compromise international user data.
An investigation by The Wall Street Journal unveiled more corporate malpractice from TikTok regarding user data. On the Android platform, TikTok collected devices’ MAC addresses to further probe into users’ private data. By collecting MAC addresses, TikTok had access to data without giving users the freedom to opt out. Manufacturers specially encrypt MAC addresses to serve as unique identifiers for individual Android devices. However, Apple and Google universally banned the collection of MAC addresses as a business practice. This was no concern for TikTok, as they abused a loophole that over 300 Google Play apps used for ad-targeting, according to The Wall Street Journal. In late 2020, the company stopped collecting MAC addressed, most likely due to a rise in international political pressure.
Finally, corporate higher-ups have all but confirmed that TikTok retains user-sensitive data for the CCP specifically. According to Annabelle Liang from BBC, TikTok’s head of privacy for Europe said that corporate employees have remote access to European user data. If this is the case with Europe, how can one say this isn’t the case with the United States?
Failing to Follow Through
In 2022, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew presented the alleged solution to the United States’ privacy concerns: Project Texas. Project Texas is a corporate initiative aiming to progress towards a “final agreement with the U.S. Government that will fully safeguard user data and U.S. national security interests,” per Shou Zi Chew’s 2022 letter to the U.S. Senate. In this letter, Chew focused more on dissuading criticism of company practices, rather than providing a plan of action. Chew words anything regarding the execution of Project Texas vaguely at best. The letter provides a link to a post from TikTok itself, which allegedly outlines its plan to better govern the data of its overseas users.
However, a quick skimming of said article disproves this notion. The company hardly elaborates on its new “operational changes” and “data management protocols.” The company does not provide a specific list of steps or undertakings that will ensure the protection of overseas citizens’ data. TikTok says they will move U.S. data to a different location, and swear to keep U.S. user data within the country. However, there is no genuine confirmation that our country’s user data will not reach the CCP.
Furthermore, the testimony of former TikTok employees greatly damaged the validity of Project Texas in 2023. According to one whistleblower, U.S. data wouldn’t be secure from China unless the app was “re-engineered” entirely, per The Washington Post. He knew, through his observations of Project Texas, that it would not be sufficient to protect U.S. citizens’ data from the CCP. This employee worked with TikTok for six months, and specifically held a leadership position with the corporation’s Safety Operations team. Unsurprisingly, the gentleman was fired for his concerns with TikTok’s approach to data privacy. Soon after, another whistleblower came to a U.S. senator with claims about TikTok’s access to international user data from China: “I have seen first-hand China-based engineers flipping over to non-China datasets… to backup, aggregate, and analyze data.” Both of these whistleblowers contacted U.S. senators to voice their concerns.
According to the “Project Texas” letter, TikTok works hard to “address potentially harmful content,” and “protect against unauthorized access to user data.” However, history clearly shows this isn’t the case. If it was, harmful content wouldn’t run rampant. The Chinese government wouldn’t have access to users’ private information. TikTok wouldn’t be finding loopholes in Apple and Google’s corporate policies to spy on people.
It seems the company is more interested in keeping the CCP out of harm’s way.
Covering for the Government
It is no secret the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a long, grueling history of human rights abuse and corruption. Hypothetically, it would be especially resourceful of the Chinese government to use its international social media phenomenon to conceal their misdeeds from other nations and their citizens. However, skeptics have dismissed this notion. They decry it as ludicrous and rooted in prejudice. Nevertheless, there is strong evidence from company malpractices and leaked government documents that prove the CCP’s influence on TikTok.
Beijing’s puppeteering of the social media platform inherently lies in what the corporation chooses to censor. The Guardian and The Washington Post report that the company deliberately censors videos deemed unfavorable to Beijing. TikTok moderators have vehemently suppressed content related to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibetan independence and the 2020 Hong Kong protests; all of which are severely damaging to the CCP’s international reputation.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has also investigated TikTok’s censorship of the genocide and indoctrination of Uyghurs through internment camps. Uyghurs are a Turkic minority who mostly reside in a Chinese region called Xinjiang. The CCP consistently covered up their persecution of Uyghurs over decades. The China Cables, the Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism and the Civil Servant-Family Pair Up policy are prime examples of the Jinping administration’s agenda to sinicize their opposition. It’s no coincidence that TikTok moderators deceive its viewers in the same way the CCP deceives its citizens.
Uyghurs being handled by Chinese officers at concentration camp. Photo courtesy of Yeni Şafak.
TikTok has worked tirelessly to cover the tracks of the CCP’s history of human rights abuse, corruption of the law and moral failures under the communist system. However, research exposes company ties to Jinping, the CCP and Marxism-Leninism exhaustively.
It is clear that TikTok moderation is swift to silence any opposition to Chinese, communist rule. However, TikTok is not just an asset to defend the CCP’s public image. The Chinese government is also weaponizing TikTok to promote communist ideologies and deceive other countries’ citizens. Anyone could make claims that TikTok propagates Marxism-Leninism solely because the business’ home country is under communist rule. However, the fact that TikTok and Douyin are Chinese companies alone does not substantiate these claims. There is much stronger evidence that TikTok promotes communist ideologies through the influence of various government bodies.
TikTok deliberately allows communist countries to disperse their ideologies on the platform. The clearest example of this activity comes from North Korea. North Korea does not officially refer to itself as a “socialist” or “communist” nation. However, the country’s Juche ideology is similar to Marxism-Leninism. The DPRK and China unite under communist authoritarianism. Since 2020, TikTok accounts like “Life in North Korea” attempt to shine a positive light on life under the Kim regime. These accounts showcase school campuses, ski slopes, and the livelihoods of average Pyongyang citizens.
Screenshots of North Korean propaganda videos from TikTok.
These DPRK-themed TikTok accounts have accrued millions of views in recent years. Many are unsure if these accounts are affiliates of the regime, or are simply innocent citizens who love their country. Unfortunately, North Korea’s government statutes disprove the latter claim. Internet access is rare for common citizens and strictly monitored by the government. Only high-level officials and foreigners staying in Pyongyang can access global internet, per Freedom of the Press. Tae-jun Kang, a North Korean defector and journalist, also reports that only government ambassadors and officials have this privilege. Therefore, the likelihood that everyday citizens post these videos is nearly impossible. This power has to be in the hands of the DPRK’s government. The North Korean government clearly uses TikTok to make their impoverished, totalitarian regime more appealing to the foreign eye.
Furthermore, TikTok prohibits content featuring a list of “world leaders.” TikTok guidelines list Trump, Putin, Erdoğan and even Mahatma Gandhi as forbidden topics. Coincidentally, Chinese president Xi Jinping is nowhere on the list. Not only does TikTok suppress opposition to China, but it only allows people to sing Jinping’s praises. No other world leader has this privilege on the platform.
TikTok is a mouthpiece and weapon for the Jinping and Kim administrations, the two most powerful communist dictatorships on Earth.
To answer the initial questions: TikTok is much more than an innocent app with a bad reputation. The slew of disparaging allegations against ByteDance and TikTok are wholly justified. The negative psychological, moral and political influences of the company are painfully obvious. Young children are becoming addicted to TikTok as they seek to fulfill their dopamine cravings in perpetuity. The app is clearly set up to create a generation of thoughtless, propagandized TikTok addicts.
Not only does TikTok dangerously affect the brain, but it also serves as a political weapon. In this new decade, TikTok has worsened the already tense relationship between China and the United States. Between the government cover-ups, communist propaganda, and user data violations there is ample evidence that more goes on behind closed doors at TikTok headquarters.
It would behoove the U.S. government to move forward with restricting of the app, as well as taking a hard stance towards the Chinese government. Without our leaders’ best effort to stand against the CCP’s tricks, U.S. citizens could remain in danger without even knowing it.