As the father of a baby girl, I regularly use social media platforms like TikTok for finding parenting tips and advice on how to feed my daughter solid foods. As a journalist covering TikTok as part of my work, I recognise the growing concerns over how social media platforms handle user data and the potential impact on our privacy and security.
The recent ultimatum issued by the Biden administration to TikTok parent company ByteDance to sell the app or face a possible ban in the US highlights the growing scrutiny over how TikTok handles user data and shares it with its Chinese parent company.
I understand the concerns raised by the Biden administration and lawmakers because even though TikTok has denied repeatedly that US data flows to China, investigations have shown otherwise.
Buzzfeed reported that engineers in China regularly accessed US data, and a former TikTok risk manager has also suggested that US data may still be exposed under TikTok’s proposed plan to improve security.
As a result, the Biden administration has demanded that TikTok be sold to an American company or face a possible ban in the U.S.
But as I watched TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testify before the US Congress last night, I cannot help but feel that TikTok has become a geopolitical hot potato more than anything else because of the repetition of many of the same questions.
Common questions include – Does the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control TikTok decisions, either directly or indirectly? How does TikTok get around CCP laws that require companies provide access to user data? How does the company plan to alleviate the harmful impacts of its platform on teen mental health?
It did not appear many lawmakers were interested in hearing Chew’s response and in some instances, rarely gave him the opportunity to fully respond to their questions or simply denied him the chance to respond.
To be fair to the lawmakers, Chew also avoided answering their questions directly and repeated many of the same lines from his opening testimony when responding to questions.
Coincidentally, hours before Chew was due in Congress, I was interviewing a senior TikTok executive (more on that in my article next week) and the executive told me the company believes that the narrative around TikTok is largely political posturing.
This has proven to be the case. While it is certainly important to ensure that user data is secure, it seems that many lawmakers are more interested in using TikTok as a political tool than in actually addressing the real issues at hand.
The questions posed to Chew are the same that can be asked of Facebook and Google. The last I checked, cookies still existed and Instagram only rolled out parental controls this year.
It is clear that TikTok has become a powerful advertising platform, with brands and agencies testing the waters and seeing promising results. When I speak to advertisers who typically use Facebook and Google, they are finding that TikTok charges a lower cost per thousand impressions (CPMs) and are therefore spending more on the platform.
This has led to significant growth in US ad spending on TikTok, with Disney’s ad spend on the platform increasing from just under $3 million in the first quarter of 2022 to $17.9 million.
It can be argued TikTok can be used for positive causes too. Take deinfluencing for example. Before this year, browsing through social media typically involved being inundated with influencers using ring lights to persuade you to purchase items that you likely don’t require, using money that could be better spent elsewhere.
However, the onset of inflation and economic uncertainty has led to the emergence of the ‘deinfluencer’. This trend is characterised by influencers discouraging individuals from making unnecessary purchases, exposing overpriced products, and providing tips for saving money.
As a parent, I want to be able to trust that both my daughter and my data are secure when she uses apps like TikTok when she grows up. As a journalist, I want to see platforms like TikTok continue to challenge the walled gardens Facebook and Google for ad dollars.
Yes, it is important to protect user data, but it is also important to consider the impact that a potential ban would have on TikTok’s users, creators and the many advertisers who have found success on the platform.
I hope that lawmakers can listen to Chew’s responses and work with TikTok to find a solution that balances user data protection with the needs of users and advertisers.
Shawn Lim is the media and technology editor at Campaign Asia-Pacific