Is TikTok a threat to any country’s national security?
Social media has a checkered past and present with politics. As conversations on social media have a crucial role in circulating news, TikTok, the Chinese video-sharing app, is quietly turning into a political tool.
It has become a unique venue for sharing identity, ideology, political activity, and trolling, though it banned political advertising in 2019. On TikTok, you can put politics into comedy. In current months, contents on it have been getting extra-political. Moreover, TikTok faces scrutiny from the US and India over national security concerns.
Chinese company ByteDance owned and developed the TikTok app. Users can shoot, edit, and share 15-second videos jazzed up with filters, music, and more. TikTok has been one of the biggest hits of lockdown during Covid-19. According to BBC, TikTok’s user base has proliferated over the lockdown period, with 315 million downloads in the first quarter of 2020.
How TikTok is shaping politics
Firstly, Tiktok has become a platform where millions of young people are performing and exposing their identities, values, and ideas in public. They find it addictive, and less stressful than a regular news-driven platform. As stated in a study of Reach3Insights, three-quarters (77%) of TikTok users noted that the short-video sharing platform has helped them learn about politics and social justice.
Secondly, recently, a noticeable tendency has been the popular use of TikTok is as an engine for sharing progressive young politics; debates are going on about young civic attitudes.
On the one hand, youth are hailed, for instance, Greta Thunberg. On the other hand, children do not care about newspapers anymore, falling prey to misinformation and extreme views, ranging from dystopian to utopian. It has now become an inevitable significant media phenomenon.
Thirdly, in terms of youth political expression, there is a liberal activist community and conservative political activity on TikTok. You will find young people lip-syncing speeches by Trump or Obama, both earnestly and sarcastically. As the presidential election 2020 of the US is gearing up, you will find plenty of powerful political statements, misinformation, racist and sexist content, and political activism on TikTok that enables collective political expression for the youth.
Fourthly, TikTok enables young people to carry out an individual political message to a broader political movement. For example, in Israel, Ethiopian-origin Israelis protest racial discrimination in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. In the UK, before the overall election in December, TikTok users voiced their opinions on Brexit through standard codecs and lip syncs.
Fifthly, through using the same videos, audio clips, filters, dances, or challenges, activists can not only exploit virality but also find community.
This app enables you to make a funny 15-second clip just through lip-sync while sitting anywhere, a kind of political comedy we haven’t seen before.
Lastly, TikTok now is cable news like CNN and Fox for young people. Generation Z is the youngest, most ethnically diverse, and the largest generation in American history, comprising 27% of the US population.
They grew up with technology, the internet, and social media, and the platform has emerged as a catalyst for them to share their views about politics, according to the New York Times. Many members of Gen Z will probably be voting for the first time within the 2020 presidential election.
A dispute among global powers
TikTok has become a lightning rod in conflicts among global powers. The US and India have made the connection between TikTok and its national security explicit. The government of India has banned 59 Chinese mobile applications, including TikTok, to counter the threat posed by these applications to the country’s “sovereignty and security.”
The US government’s position on this is also the same. FBI Director Christopher Wray warned: “If you are an American adult, it is more likely than not that China has stolen your personal data.”
Donald Trump has issued a pair of executive orders that would ban any US transactions with the Chinese companies that own TikTok and WeChat, saying the US must take “aggressive action” in the interest of national security.
Point to remember: China’s relationship with both the US and India have always been complicated, but all have a common interest in maintaining balance and keeping tensions in check.
For the US, trade relations with China are critical, considering the world’s two largest economies have been locked in a bitter trade battle.
For India, ties with China bears enormous potential and opportunities to expand and deepen their economic, diverse fields of mutual interest, alongside a shared responsibility for maintaining regional stability.
TikTok also raises suspicion due to the prospect of the Chinese government’s backdoor attempts to seize data from the company. Critics often point to Article 28 of China’s Cybersecurity Law, which came into effect on June 1, 2017, to justify their concerns.
Article 28 states: “Network operators shall provide technical support and assistance to public security organs and national security organs that are safeguarding national security and investigating criminal activities in accordance with the law.”
Both good and evil
Genuinely speaking, funny interactions on TikTok may have the potential for both good and evil for the public sphere. More young politicians will likely produce their own content for or inspired by the platform in the future. To some, this app may seem innocent enough. To others, TikTok represents a threat to national security.
Md Jahid Hashan is a post-graduate student of political science.