In the span of a single week, the video sharing platform TikTok suffered a series of public blows, crescendoing Friday into an all-out panic on the application that one creator described as “World War III.”
The latest upheaval began Monday, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hinted in an appearance on Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle that the U.S. might follow in the steps of India, which banned the application in late June. At a Wednesday press briefing, Pompeo doubled down, promising to take actions that “deny the Chinese Communist Party access to the private information that belongs to Americans.” By Thursday, the hashtag #TikTokBan was trending on Twitter, just in time for a report on Friday, from The New York Times, documenting an email sent to Amazon employees instructing them to delete the applications from their phones.
The Amazon announcement appeared to surprise TikTok (“While Amazon did not communicate to us before sending their email, and we still do not understand their concerns,” a TikTok spokesperson said in a statement, “we welcome a dialogue so we can address any issues they may have.”). And the retail tech monolith quickly walked back their stance. “[Friday] morning’s email to some of our employees was sent in error,” an Amazon spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “There is no change to our policies right now with regard to TikTok.”
But that same afternoon, a glitch disappeared all TikTok likes and views for a half-hour, sending creators into a frenzy of dramatic farewells and urgent plugs for other platforms—until TikTok confirmed the error, citing a traffic surge on servers in Virginia. “I was online for the whole 20 minutes, pulling out the popcorn and the lotion, just eating and jerking off to that shit,” said Melissa Ong, the creator behind @chunkysdead, home of the Step Chickens Cult with a following of 2.1 million.
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“For our generation, it was like World War III was about to happen,” said Cristian Dennis, a 24-year-old creator with 4.4 million followers. “Because we all thought the app was going to die… We were all freaking out, like, ‘It’s time to say bye, everyone follow me on this app.’ I was really laughing the whole time.”
Like many of its social media peers, TikTok, an independent subsidiary of the Chinese company ByteDance, has been plagued by security concerns—concerns which often come tinged with xenophobia. “Infrastructure,” Pompeo said at the briefing, must be “built on the Western ideal of private property.”
In early 2019, the company settled with the FTC for $5.7 million over claims that the app illegally collected data from minors under the age of 13. That November, the United States opened a national security review to investigate whether the app could relay data to the Chinese government. In January, a team of independent researchers identified several security weaknesses within the app itself that could allow hackers to manipulate accounts, delete videos, and reveal personal information, among others. Two months later, The Intercept reported the app’s creators had instructed moderators to suppress content from those “too ugly, poor, or disabled for the platform.” In the past six months, the application has been banned by both the TSA and the American military.
Tiktok maintains that they would never turn over data to the Chinese government. “TikTok is led by an American CEO, with hundreds of employees and key leaders across safety, security, product, and public policy here in the U.S,” a spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “We have no higher priority than promoting a safe and secure app experience for our users. We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.”
Earlier this week, they withdrew the application from Hong Kong following legislation from the CCP that would grant greater access to user data. Likewise, many security experts doubt TikTok’s utility as an espionage tool. In a CNN Business review of the app’s security threats with five data privacy experts, Cyber Statecraft Initiative fellow Justin Sherman said the Trump administration had taken a “whack-a-mole” to Chinese companies. “It seems very unlikely that there is thinking going on about the longer-term strategy,” Sherman said, “and much more likely that the focus instead is on this politically motivated attack on an application because it’s a Chinese-owned app, even if there are real security questions.”
Still, the threat of a Vine-like redux has sent ripples through the TikTok world, particularly for those who rely on it for income. “I just moved into my first apartment really thanks to me being able to be fully self-employed with TikTok,” Dennis said. “So I was like, what am I going to do now? I should be fine for at least a year or two, but… I’ve been able to make most of my money, if not all, from TikTok.”
“I’ve been pretty vocal about how different things are for Black [people] and creators that are of color,” Dennis said. “That’s something I know that we’re going to be hit the hardest, because a lot of the other creators are fine.”
Ong only partially shared his concern. “I was a little relieved,” Ong said. “I was like, ‘Oh nice, I don’t have to do this shit anymore.’ But to be honest, I felt a sense of urgency to shift my followers to other platforms if they want to follow me on there.”
From the business side of things, if TikTok disappeared tomorrow, it would not change much for the influencers and advertising firms looking for a payout. For all its attention in the mainstream press, TikTok remains relatively unlucrative. “People can blow up every day and very big, and for those reasons it’s the hottest conversation in town,” said Nechelle Vanias, the chief solutions officer of influencer marketing firm Six Degrees of Influence. “But the reality is, it’s still a very small amount of the advertising influencer dollars being spent. The money is still on Instagram and YouTube.”
For them, the utility of TikTok is its obsessive user base. On most applications, a following does not necessarily mean a fan base. There are YouTube stars who can’t attract fans on Instagram, or Instagram accounts with few followers on YouTube. Vanias, whose company worked with ByteDance before TikTok, said the app’s uniqueness lies in how its creators can herd fans to other platforms.
“For the average Instagram influencer, engagement—meaning comments, likes and all that—is between 1 and 3 percent. If someone has 5 to 10 percent engagement, then they are in an upper echelon,” Vanias said. “But we are seeing regularly 20 to 40 percent engagement and up on TikTok…So when you see someone from TikTok bringing their numbers over [to other platforms], you’re seeing their engagement that even normal Instagrammers can’t compete with.”
The reason for that remains unclear. But Vanias suspects it concerns TikTok’s audience. “Young teen girls,” she said. “And young, teen girls, from the advent of time, are very ‘fanatic’ when it comes to people they love, admire, and follow. That’s every teen pop band, every rock ‘n’ roll idol, back to the Beatles… We attribute a lot of that to TikTok.”
But it’s because of that user base and the void of advertising cash that Ong thinks a TikTok ban would amount to more than a Vine-like cultural loss. “There’s so much funny, weird shit on that app that does not exist on any other platform,” Ong said. “On YouTube, things have to be more polished; on Instagram, sort of similar. On TikTok, you can just get away with being way more out of pocket and inappropriate. All this awesome comedy would just be gone.”
Like every nascent social media platform, TikTok users have created an internal vernacular that doesn’t easily translate to other outlets. “I do not think Deep TikTok is one of them,” Ong said, referring to the faction of users that make surreal videos on a handful of hyperspecific topics (“Beanz,” “Elmo,” “Dolls,” “DeepFried,” “Four in her,” “Department Stores,” “Frog”). “That sort of content exists in many other different ways. I saw all of that on Reddit years ago and on Youtube.”
It’s more the home-mixed audios, trend dances, and video-meme formats that have proliferated among TikTok users in the years since Vine: “TikTok creates a space for all of that to be inside jokes, in a way that other platforms don’t. Instagram is so saturated with so much fucking shit. I cannot imagine something like ‘who the hell put the muffins in the freezer’ on Instagram. There just isn’t really a space for it.”
Jason Derulo, among TikTok’s cornier stars, did not respond to requests for comment.
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