The TikTok underestimation problem


The video sharing app avoids scrutiny because politicians don’t take it seriously.

Miguel Medina / Getty

About the Author: Evelyn Douek, a doctoral student at Harvard Law School, is a senior researcher at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

A lot of people think that TikTok is a dance app. And although he is An application full of dancing, it is also a mastodon which is experiencing astronomical growth. In July, TikTok, an abbreviated video sharing app powered by a unbelievably good recommendation algorithm and owned by Chinese company ByteDance – has become the only non-Facebook social media mobile app to already spend 3 billion downloads. At the end of last month, TikTok announcement he had more than 1 billion monthly users. It was, in some ways, the most downloaded application in 2020 and remained so in 2021. Not bad for an application launched only in 2016!

Among current social media platforms, TikTok is the most likely to represent the future. Its user base is especially young people. But if you search for TikTok in media coverage, you’re more likely to find it in the way of life, culture, or even food section than you are on the front page.

It’s not that social media platforms aren’t newsworthy—Facebook regularly dominated securities. But TikTok is too often seen as a trivial thing to write or read. It is a mistake, and it is a mistake that Congress is making as well.

Recent Senate hearings—Convened under the banner of “Protecting Kids Online” —based on a whistleblower revelations regarding what Facebook itself knows about how its products are harming the mental health of teenage users. This is an important question to ask. But if the role of social media in society is to be taken into account, and in particular its effects on teens, shouldn’t lawmakers also be talking about, uh, teen platforms? actually use? The Wall Street JournalThe “Facebook files” reports, after all, also show that Facebook itself is petrified by the young people who abandon its platforms. For these users, Facebook comes from is not cool.

TikTok is therefore not a passing fad or a small start-up in the social media space. It is a cultural powerhouse, creating superstars unknown artists overnight. It’s a career plan for young people influencers and a laptop mall full of products and brands. This is where many young people their news and to discuss Politics. And sometimes they get rowdy: in June 2020, the teens of TikTok would have made a prank then-President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign by overbooking tickets to a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma and then never showing up.

This humiliation seemed to be one of the reasons Trump threatened to ban the application in August 2020. This briefly put TikTok in the spotlight. For a few months, a serious debate raged over whether the application was a threat to national security. Her ties to China have raised fears that she will be forced to share data with the Chinese government or that the Communist Party could influence his content moderation practices. What unfolded was a prime-time saga, involving twists and turns, distraught teens, threats of reprisals from China, the Departure of the CEO of the company and, strangely, the wavering of Microsoft and Walmart as potential buyers for the app at some point. But then it all just… faded away. Like a Edge headline joked in November, “TikTok says Trump administration forgot to try to ban it, would like to know what’s going on.” When Trump forgot about TikTok, it seems the rest of us did too. As lawmakers seem to be preparing to bring Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg back to them Again, the CEO of TikTok never appeared. Can you even name it?

But TikTok is still the same app as last year, when people worried about the threat it posed to national security. Only bigger. And regardless of the extent of the Chinese government’s influence on it, TikTok is a mega-platform full of user-generated content. Wherever users post something that can get millions of views, how the platform decides what it will allow and what it will not allow is worth asking questions.

In September, The newspaper reported that TikTok also pushes minors to posts promoting eating disorders and other harmful content. Over the past year, many users saw a graphic video about suicide which has gone viral. Researchers find misinformation and conspiracy theories on TikTok, like everywhere else on the Internet. TikTok says it deletes a lot of these posts, but it’s unclear how it decides which ones. (The guidelines define disinformation as “inaccurate or false content”. Helpful!) The moderation of content on the platform is opaque, but there are plenty of reasons for concern – it has removed posts from deemed users ugly, poor or disabled; deleted videos on topics politically sensitive in China; and beauty filters added automatically to user videos. The “Sneaky licks” challenge, which prompted children to remove soap dispensers from schools, may seem comical, but school administrators aren’t laughing. Connecticut Attorney General wants to know what’s going on with the “slap a teacher” dare, although TikTok says it is not his fault.

Hearings on Facebook suggest that the potential dangers to children have created a level of bipartisan focus from lawmakers that has so far been lacking. But by focusing on a single company, lawmakers have shown that how facebook works is not the only thing that Congress do not understand on the online ecosystem.

How TikTok manages to bypass the spotlight is as mysterious as its recommendation algorithm. Maybe Facebook has a corporate culture and organizational structure which make it particularly worrying. Maybe politicians forget about TikTok because they don’t use it much themselves (yet). TikTok may attract less attention precisely because its moderation of content is less transparent; it’s hard to write down and complain about decisions you don’t know about. TikTok’s success in portraying itself as not very serious – it just wants to “Bring joy” rather than “connect people”– helps deflect serious criticism. But none of this is a good reason to ignore such a popular and rapidly growing app when thinking about the effects of social media and how to regulate it.

TikTok isn’t the only platform that tries to avoid review by back down quietly into a hedge while Facebook takes the heat — YouTube is the undisputed master of this strategy. But TikTok has the dubious privilege of being one of the few platforms that polls show people aversion and mistrust even more than Facebook. Maybe reports of Facebook’s imminent death are greatly exaggerated, but reports of TikTok’s rise to prominence certainly aren’t. If lawmakers want to tackle the problems that social media platforms cause young people, they should care about platforms that interest young people.


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