Media, Science & the Arts

The TikTok Takedown and the Collateral Damage of Performative Politics

Sunday, June 25, 2023

Is time running out on TikTok? Calls to ban the popular social media platform have turned the political landscape, particularly in the US, into something of a theatrical spectacle, writes Marina Yue Zhang of the University of Technology Sydney. Farhana Nusrat of the University of San Diego assesses whether TikTok deserves the heightened scrutiny over data security concerns. And finally, Tom Divon of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem argues that disabling TikTok will marginalize a generation of young Palestinian and other activists who have gained voice and visibility thanks to the app.

The TikTok Takedown and the Collateral Damage of Performative Politics

Tracked on TikTok: Opposition protesters rally against the Indian government's citizenship law in Guwahati, Assam State, December 2019 (Credit: Talukdar David /

During a recent US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Republican Congressman Michael McCaul made bold claims that downloading TikTok opens a personal information gateway for China. The hearing revealed a lack of understanding and technical knowledge among lawmakers, as they asked elementary questions about TikTok's ability to connect to wi-fi or access device cameras. Based on such superficial inquiries, Congress drew conclusions about the threat posed by TikTok without a fundamental understanding of what it actually is and how it operates.

Misguided national security rhetoric was employed to justify actions against TikTok and suppress foreign investments, particularly from China. While there have been bans on government employees having TikTok, in May Montana became the first US state to ban the app on all devices. The Biden administration has threatened to do the same.

Banning TikTok in the US could be seen as a form of political censorship like what is already enforced in China. Some argue that the use of security and privacy concerns by Washington is a thinly veiled excuse, as the essence of the "TikTok ban" issue lies in politics rather than genuine security or privacy concerns.

TikTok is not fundamentally different from similar platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and many emerging competitors when it comes to data security. It is primarily an entertainment platform, connecting content creators with audiences. The distinction lies in the fact that TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. ByteDance, founded by Chinese entrepreneur Yiming Zhang in 2012, has become the world's largest unicorn with a valuation of $220 billion (as of 2022). The company has attracted investments from 30 prominent investors, including Softbank, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Tiger Global, KKR Japan, Sequoia Capital, as well as Chinese investors. While TikTok is owned by ByteDance, its diverse shareholding structure means it is inaccurate to classify it solely as a Chinese company.

TikTok experienced rapid market success upon its launch in the US in 2017, becoming the most downloaded app in the country by October 2018. Globally, it has amassed over three billion downloads and boasts over one billion monthly active users. Concerns surrounding TikTok primarily stem from its Chinese identity, despite the common safety challenges faced by the entire industry regarding data collection and analytics.

TikTok owes much of its success to its AI algorithm, particularly its information flow funnel mechanism. These algorithms function akin to a talent show, allowing creative content to be selected based on the preferences of the target audience. In other words, TikTok's algorithms enable unknown content creators to reach specific niche audiences interested in their particular content. If the content resonates and gains enough audience engagement, it can reach a larger audience and rise to the top, regardless of the creator's established fame or fan base. Conversely, TikTok's algorithms filter out content that fails to capture user interest, meaning internet influencers or politicians may find it challenging to push their messages through the selection mechanism if their content is found to not be of interest to the audience.

What sets TikTok apart from other social media platforms is its ability to connect content creators or influencers with their desired audience, as long as their content or products appeal to a niche market. TikTok operates on a model where content searches for the right audiences”, shifting away from the traditional model of “audiences searching for the right content”. This shift has dismantled the entry barriers prevalent on platforms, where established creators/influencers tend to dominate due to early-mover advantages.

Tech conference in Anaheim, California, June 2022: What sets TikTok apart from other social media platforms is its ability to connect content creators or influencers with their desired audience (Credit: Anthony Quintano)

Tech conference in Anaheim, California, June 2022: What sets TikTok apart from other social media platforms is its ability to connect content creators or influencers with their desired audience (Credit: Anthony Quintano)

The real challenge posed by TikTok, lies in the platform's ability inadvertently but intelligently to push content that resonates with audiences at the right time, leading to audience addiction and a more passive approach to content discovery and critical thinking, particularly among teenagers who form a significant portion of TikTok's user base.

It is crucial to recognize that data collection and sharing present challenges across all social media platforms and not exclusive to TikTok. TikTok has made substantial investments in initiatives such as Project Texas, which aims to isolate US user data through Oracle's cloud infrastructure, safeguarding the data stored on American soil and preventing unauthorized foreign access. In addition, source code audits serve as viable methods to address any safety concerns that may arise. Merely prohibiting TikTok may not be the ultimate solution to address data privacy concerns, let alone cybersecurity threats faced by modern society.

China's approach to internet governance, exemplified by the strict control of the Great Firewall, deviates from the fundamental principles of freedom and liberty on public platforms. It transforms the Chinese internet into a surveillance network, characterized by the widespread use of face-recognition cameras and internet "nannies" responsible for monitoring online activities. TikTok is inaccessible to users in mainland China due to restrictions imposed by the government's Great Firewall, preventing Chinese content creators from spreading potential political influence. (To underscore its separateness from China, TikTok withdrew from Hong Kong in July 2021, leaving its 150,000 account holders in the Chinese special administrative region in withdrawal, though many have returned using workarounds such as a VPN (virtual private network) service.

Washington's attempts to ban TikTok establish a worrisome precedent that jeopardizes the openness of the internet and introduces unprecedented threats to information democracy. These actions accelerate the fragmentation of the internet, emphasizing local data storage, virtual boundaries, and closed internet domains, which challenges free flows of information, data and capital critical for global trade.

TikTok has 150 million users, including five million businesses, in the US so banning it can have political repercussions. It is crucial to note that TikTok enjoys significant popularity among young Americans, with Generation Z constituting 60 percent of its user base. Politicians risk missing out on engaging with nearly half of the population on TikTok if they fail to grasp how the platform operates.

TikTok also serves as a platform where information not covered by mainstream media can reach a targeted audience and create ripple effects among a broader audience. This paradigm shift aligns with Washington's increasing embrace of techno-nationalism, advocating for state-guided and controlled technology rather than global market forces. While this concept has long been accepted in various countries, its growing prominence in Washington shapes the evolving cyberspace.

Resolving these issues means there will need to be collective efforts to establish a global digital order that takes into account China's rise in digital technology and the diverse needs for data sovereignty and governance from different nations. The key question is whether banning TikTok alone can effectively address data privacy and safety concerns. Privacy concerns related to TikTok require collective measures within the industry. It is important for governments to strike a balance between protecting data privacy and ensuring the benefits of an open and connected digital environment.

ByteDance co-founder Zhang Yiming at the company's seventh anniversary celebration in Beijing, 2019: Banning TikTok in the US could be seen as a form of political censorship like what is already enforced in China (Credit: ByteDance)

The TikTok difference: Greater transparency?

TikTok has been an outlier among its peers since its launch in 2016 – it achieved one billion monthly active users faster than any app in history (five years) and is the first social media platform to resonate with the West that is not based in the US. It has also garnered more fervent opposition than any social media platform preceding it, banned outright in many countries and restricted in others. TikTok has been taken to court, dragged before Congress and condemned in ways its peers have not.

Launched in 2016, TikTok broke out in part because of its powerful algorithm. It takes only 40 minutes of observation for TikTok to pinpoint a users' interest, with many drawn to the app for its ability to curate a highly personalized feed better than their rivals using the data the app collects.

But many governments are uncomfortable with the amount of data being collected by TikTok because its parent company ByteDance is based in China. ByteDance has faced accusations of sharing user data with the Chinese government, a claim the company has repeatedly denied.

In 2021, TikTok was brought to court over allegations it was collecting users' biometric data without consent. The parties settled for USD$92 million. TikTok has been banned in India since 2020, while the European Union, US, UK, Australia and Canada are among the jurisdictions which have banned the app on government devices. The US has toyed with an outright ban on the app since the presidency of Donald Trump.

TikTok faces more legislative pressure than other social media giants. While it collects a significant amount of user data, so too does Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and any other social media platform.

Five-hour grilling: TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew appeared before the US House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee on March 24, 2023 (Credit: C-SPAN on YouTube)

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, who is from Singapore, addressed the concerns of US lawmakers, appearing before Congress in March 2023. In his five-hour appearance, Chew denied claims that TikTok shared data with the Chinese government and emphasized the security-strengthening measures the company had put in place, such as moving its data centers to the US. Chew also made a precedent-setting pledge that separates TikTok from any social media giant that came before it – volunteering to submit TikTok's data security policies for an independent audit. It is a step not taken by Facebook (whose legal issues run long and include the Cambridge Analytica scandal) and Twitter (alleged to have leaked personal information on "tens of millions").

The concerns around TikTok's management of user data reflects the broad leeway tech companies are granted, rather than specific issues exclusive to the platform. A focus on policies that address data security concerns across all social media and tech platforms may be the more comprehensive way forward. Rather than be vilified, TikTok instead represents the only social media platform to have a strong record committing to transparency and systematically cooperating with regulators.

As governments seek collaboration to build strong laws and regulation to safeguard users' data and security, this standard of compliance should set the new normal – not attract condemnation.

Screenshots of TikTok clips posted by young Palestinian activists: Users have skillfully highlighted the rich legacy of their culture (Credit: Muslim Millennials on YouTube)

Screenshots of TikTok clips posted by young Palestinian activists: Users have skillfully highlighted the rich legacy of their culture (Credit: Muslim Millennials on YouTube)

Powerful tool for young activists

The internet has become the virtual haven for billions of young people across the globe, offering them a unique platform to express themselves. In regions where democracy faces challenges, this digital realm has empowered them to craft their online personas and courageously share their thoughts, experiences and creativity with a vibrant community of like-minded individuals.

Such an example is TikTok, emerging as a powerful political space where young users constantly challenge the status quo of their realities. Users now have at their disposal a novel set of tools to fearlessly envision new possibilities and redefine their reality from their own living rooms, with the ability to forge new pathways to rectify injustices, crises and social decline.

Over the past few years, it has become evident how the video-sharing platform has given the chance for geographically dispersed groups, such as Palestinians, to capture the attention of a vast and diverse audience. The app has served as an unbreakable realm of activism where Palestinian and pro-Palestinian users can navigate the complexities of everyday conflict with Israel and convey their messages through the platform in ways many can empathize, understand and live through their screens themselves.

These users have skillfully highlighted the rich legacy of Palestinian culture, transcending geographical boundaries and shedding light on both global and local issues such as living conditions, human rights violations, unlawful arrests, and various instances of perceived injustice. They accomplish this by leveraging the platform's powerful dissemination systems of hashtags, challenges, comments, trending sounds, and features (like 'duet' and 'stitch') to connect with Palestinians from around the world, fostering a dialogue that creates a community of support and affinity.

One of the pivotal moments for Palestinian users on TikTok occurred in 2021 during the eruption of the war between Gaza and Israel when the #FreePalestine movement migrated from platforms like Instagram and YouTube to TikTok. This movement had already established a legacy on other social media platforms, but the unique meme-based qualities of TikTok provided an immersive and contagious experience of activism, elevating its impact to new heights of virality. Users deployed playful templates for content creation (#challenges), where their everyday adversity took on a (self-)performative form, superseding the crude, real-life images with metaphorical representations of what the Israeli oppression “does” to their bodies.

On TikTok, they do not show victims for exhibitionist purposes like on Instagram; rather, they perform victimization, disclosing their faces and bodies as sufferers of conflict. Instead of depicting the conventional imagery of injured or dead bodies of Palestinians, many users opted for artistic renditions, symbolizing the inflicted violence upon them. For Palestinians, any ban on TikTok would deprive them of daily and accessible visibility to a nation yearning for recognition, in a territory where their existence is constantly contested. Do not expect Palestinian users to migrate easily to a different platform, as the notion of home for them is in a perpetual state of flux, with many already grappling to find a stable sense of belonging in the real world.

Rally at the US Capitol against a TikTok ban: The controversy is merely a narrow debate of the larger issue of data harvesting and user privacy across platforms, as well as the influence of American legislation (Credit: @RobertGarcia on Twitter)

This does not apply solely to Palestinian users, however. The language of activism on TikTok extends beyond Palestinians with countless users striving to bring their struggles into the public eye, to educate others and aspire for justice. TikTok has been instrumental in mobilizing passionate advocates who use their skills on the platform to fight for social issues like race, gender, class, elections and climate change.

If TikTok were taken away, it could disrupt the work of those advocates and potentially lead to a sense of disenfranchisement, hindering users' ability to actively engage in political discussions and current affairs. A ban would sever an essential connection point between the online and offline worlds for an entire generation of users.

Within TikTok's vibrant network of "universes”, it serves as a platform for the amplification of marginalized voices and underrepresented communities, including regions that often go unnoticed in the West, such as the #AfricanNative movement, allowing them to take center stage on the devices of millions around the world. Although this exposure comes at a price and often invites hateful speech, many take that risk, for a chance to tell their own story which has historically been suppressed or overlooked.

To align uncritically with the moral panic demanding a TikTok ban is to disregard the broader context. The controversy is merely a narrow debate of the larger issue of data harvesting and user privacy across platforms, as well as the influence of American legislation. Enforcing a ban would inevitably cause collateral casualties, with the democratic principles of freedom of expression being among the first, dragging down the users along with them.

This article is published under Creative Commons with 360info.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Marina Yue Zhang

Marina Yue Zhang

Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney

Marina Yue Zhang is an associate professor at the Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney.

Farhana Nusrat

Farhana Nusrat

University of San Diego

Farhana Nusrat is an assistant professor of marketing at the University of San Diego.

Tom Divon

Tom Divon

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Tom Divon is a PhD student at the Department of Journalism and Communication at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. His research focuses on digital culture, platform affordances, and user-generated content. Specifically, he explores TikTok's socio-political subcultures and their potential for education in three areas: TikTok users' engagement with history education, TikTok users' performative combat against antisemitism and hate speech and TikTok users' memetic participation in nationalism-driven conflicts, with a focus on Palestinian resistance.

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