TikTok: A Chinese Problem? Part 1 Podcast Transcript
The Bright Team
The Bright Team • Nov 09

TikTok: A Chinese Problem? Part 1 Podcast Transcript

Breaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headlines

To what extent is TikTok a Chinese problem, and what is this likely to mean for its future?  As this issue takes centre stage (in the most recent Republican debate, literally), we explore the unique TikTok risks, perceived and actual, and what's at the heart of the debate over whether to ban the platform.

Taryn Ward  Hi. I'm Taryn Ward,

Steven Jones and I'm Steven Jones,

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TW.  and this is Breaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headlines. 

SJ.  We're taking a closer look at the core issues around social media, including the rise and fall of social media empires, to better understand the role social media plays in our everyday lives and society.

TW.  In recent episodes, we've looked at the rise and fall of several social media empires. Now we'll turn our focus to the current offerings starting with TikTok.

SJ.  Over the next two episodes, we'll talk about how TikTok works and why its algorithm is so controversial, discuss some of the current restrictions and bans, analyse some of the risks regulators are concerned about, and discuss the role the Chinese government plays in all of this. 

TW.  In another series, we'll take a closer look at the proposed TikTok bans themselves and think about how they implicate our freedom of expression. But this episode is an opportunity to at least start thinking more broadly about the complicated relationship all social media networks and governments have and what this means for other online networks across the globe.

SJ.  We're not big on sensationalist headlines or commentary. But as conversations around TikTok bans and restrictions continue to evolve, it's impossible to separate out the political component and unwise to discount it's Chinese ownership as the reason it's receiving increased scrutiny. 

TW.  We're not here to argue that's a bad thing, and in fact, there are some very good reasons for governments particularly in the west to be concerned. Our goal today is to examine one question, to what extent is TikTok a Chinese problem, and what is this likely to mean for its future? We'll argue that TikTok both is and is not a Chinese problem. There are things about how the app and algorithm function that are troubling and independent of its Chinese ties and ownership. But it's Chinese ties and ownership are likely to be the thing that causes regulators to act. If you missed our episode on how TikTok has changed the social media landscape, we walk through how TikTok works and how it's functionally different to what was available before, and also how other platforms have made adjustments to be more like TikTok in order to stay competitive. 

SJ.  Briefly, TikTok is a video hosting service with social network features and a very powerful and noteworthy algorithm, and this is where much of the risk lies. This algorithm is designed to understand what you like and then to present you with more of what you like, or more what the platform wants you to see and thinks you're like enough to keep watching.

TW.  That's a really good point, and this presents a number of risks unique risks, especially given that the primary audience is people below the age of 24. First, it can lead to dangerous rabbit holes, where one minute your 15 year old is watching a video about making a healthy smoothie, and the next is a how to video on the benefits of disordered eating. Second, the platform itself can manipulate and promote various topics or information that's in line with other interests. So, for example, if you're interested in natural medicine, presenting vaccine conspiracy theories with a natural medicine angle, finally, and along those same lines, the platform can suggest certain pathways over others. So, that while you may start the day interested in quantum physics, by the end, you're watching videos of something completely idiotic, and you've lost six hours of your life, you'll never get back. While, in China, they're watching math tutorials and learning how to launch rockets. 

SJ.  Yeah, and, you know, this is a valid point that the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK released a report a couple of years ago called hashtag status of mind, where it looked at the then most popular social media platforms and it found that young people can lose hours of sleep at night, looking at YouTube videos, and the data that's currently available suggests that TikTok is a much better absorber of time than YouTube ever aspired to be. 

The average user of TikTok who's a young person will spend probably 24 hours a month, that's a full day absorbed on the platform, and that's the average user, and you've got people who, you know, barely use it, and then you have two people who are literally never off it, and, you know, anybody who's a parent of a teen will know how difficult it is to get them up in the morning in the best of times, and how easy it is for them to be distracted from whatever tasks that are in, you know, supposed to be working on, whether that's at home or at school. So loss of sleep is a major problem, and we know that loss of sleep has a whole series of other detrimental clinical and personal side effects, and so that sort of absorb almost addictive power of the algorithm is is there's a problem and it's also not accidental. 

TicToc, the TicTok algorithm, basically uses the same process that slot machines use to keep people putting money in it's this intermittent reward, you, you umm, you see results, there's lights, there flashing, it keeps you engaged, you see posts on TikTok, which is sort of okay, but you just scroll until you see that thing, which is absolutely brilliant, and that that intermittent exposure to the thing, which you really like, is the thing, which keeps you scrolling, and of course, that's gold for a platform that's based on advertising, because they need to keep your eyes on the screen at the same time, and, you know, as you mentioned, Facebook and Instagram, and the other platforms have sucked that feature in, and now, you know, most of what I see on Instagram isn't pictures of my friends' food anymore, or their family holidays. It's recycled TikTok's. You know, that gives the TicTok platform unprecedented power and reach. If you're an influencer in TikTok, you're essentially an influencer across all of these networks. 

TW.  Yes, and to be fair, you've sent me some great reels on Instagram that have been hugely entertaining and a great distraction, and we're not arguing that there's anything wrong with an occasional distraction or watching a silly video and sort of learning about you know how gravity works, or whatever it is. 

The point is more about choice, and TikTok is designed to make you feel like you're making choices. But actually, we're not making choices. We're not making choices about what kind of content we see, we're not making choices about how long we're on the app, we're not making choices, we make that initial choice to open the app. But beyond that, TikTok in a different way than other social media apps takes you down these these pathways, and that gives a lot of control and power to the platform. 

Let's back up for a second, though, because that's all that's all fine. I mean, it's not fine, but it is what it is. What does it mean, when we talk about TikTok as a Chinese problem. For our purposes in this episode, it means that if another social media company, not based in China, or in any way affiliated with the Chinese government, we're to do the things that TikTok is doing. The worries would be different in arguably fewer, I want to say here early on, and this carries through; throughout these two episodes. This has nothing to do with the Chinese people. This is about the Chinese government and how they operate and what that means for the people who own and run TikTok, and this has come up more and more recently, possibly because Meta, you know, based in the United States, has been a huge amount of money, framing the issue as the Chinese corrupting America's youth. We're not here to sell that narrative at all. But it is a narrative that's out there, and that has had a substantial amount of financial backing, and you know, partly because there are some genuine national security concerns here, and this has prompted several governments to ban the use of TikTok on official devices. There's even a separate Wikipedia page that tracks TikTok bans and restrictions. So, so we're talking about sort of two different but related problems here, and I think, you know, we can talk about one, which is not specifically about the Chinese. But there are elements that are that are concerning, because of the government relations, and the other that is really just about the Chinese government.

SJ.  I mean, the problem I think we have in the West, particularly, particularly now, is the perception or reality of racism, and I think it's, it's impossible to deny that there is an element of racial undertone to this, you know, the Chinese had been a traditional target, in Europe and American were subjected to, you know, pretty poor conditions when they were immigrants, and there's a long history of poor relations. But it's also true that geopolitically, they are not aligned with the general goals and attitudes of people in the West, and that has some major impact. It's also worth remembering that whilst we spent a lot of time agonising over whether we should ban platforms, and whether it is, you know, suppressing free speech, or bla bla bla, other governments have absolutely no problem in banning Twitter, and Facebook, and Instagram and any other platform you like, if they present a security concern, and in this instance, that includes the Chinese government, which goes to extraordinary lengths to prevent, access to free speech and information that they have not controlled and presented through state media. So it's not a case of just being racism, there are actual concerns, and the playing field needs to be level, in which case, we probably should feel free to take appropriate action rather than than being hamstrung by our guilt about our colonial past and the rest of the baggage that we carry with us. But it's a, it's a, difficult, it's a difficult problem, you know, in TikTok's case, because it's so engaging, and it because it's so popular, it's, I think, sometimes difficult for people to act because politicians here do need to be elected, and therefore taking away someone's favourite toy isn't great for you. Whereas in China, where people are not elected, taking away people's favourite toys is pretty simple.

TW.  Very, very true, and your point about the Chinese government not being afraid to ban other social media networks is important because it demonstrates that they are not naive. However, however you want to think about the Chinese government, they know exactly what kind of power social media and what's posted on social media can have on, on a population, which is why they so strictly control it, and so the content we're consuming on, on TikTok and these other platforms, it really does affect how we vote, how we think, how we live our lives, and, and they understand that maybe better than we do, which is part of the problem, and part of why, why we're so worried about this. 

TW.  So, so let's get into it. TikTok, TikTok is owned by bytedance, which is registered in the Cayman Islands, but whose management is in Beijing, TikTok executives have continued to deny that this presents a risk. But there's little doubt that the company would have to provide data to the Communist Party Government if requested, and just a reminder, if you don't know, you know, being requested by the Chinese government to share data is less of what we would think of as a request and more of what we would think of as an absolute requirement. This is partially why India fully banned TikTok in 2020. So at the time, they alleged that TikTok and a few other platforms were secretly transmitting users' data, and by the way, when this happened in India, the gap that was left by the loss of Tiktok was quickly filled with other platforms, and given the size of the Indian market, this was a windfall of sorts for some, obviously not TikTok, but there are some other apps who benefited tremendously and who trialled some things out in India and then later rolled out to the world, more widely, that were hugely successful. So TikTok is aware of all of this, and to avoid the same fate across the West, they're spending $1.3 billion to build data centres in the EU. So that by the end of 2024, the data of EU users at least won't leave the EU, Project Clover and similarly in the US, Project Texas, our attempts from TikTok and TikTok leadership to reassure US and European regulators and users alike, that they're really committed to getting this right, and to allay these concerns and to providing the support, and their leadership rightly points out that no other platform is demonstrating this level of commitment. That's all true. But it won't be enough. Because this isn't about where data is being processed. It sort of is but isn't really an even if Tiktok spent twice as much, and then twice as much again, on a PR campaign or a series of PR campaigns, which it may well do it may it may already be doing so; it's going to face an uphill battle. They know this, we know this, every other social media company on the field knows it. Because the problem isn't going to be addressed by datacenters, and I think maybe it's worth just thinking about what are the problems, and we can really think about these three related but separate things. 

  • First, the Chinese government having access to sensitive user data, location information is just the start of this. There's a lot of information they can pull from this app: how people engage with each other, who they engage with, when they're engaging. All these things, especially tied together, are really valuable, and we'll have someone come on and talk to us about the value of that data on another episode. But for now, it's worth just sort of putting out there that it's hugely, hugely valuable information. 
  • Second, the Chinese Government using TIkTok's algorithm to spread myths and disinformation. We've seen this on other platforms, and the potential of TikTok to do this, because of the way the algorithm works, because it's owned by a company that answers to the Chinese Government is really difficult to describe. But the potential here is is is really, really huge. 
  • Finally, the Chinese Government using Tiktok to corrupt and degrade the youth in various ways. I know how It sounds I framed it that way on purpose, because it does sound like a conspiracy theory, and in some ways it is, it's a little bit racist, it's a little bit, you know, whatever. But there is a kernel of truth to this, too, because young people really are spending wasting a lot of time on this platform, and they're not able to make clear choices about the way they're using it or how much they're using that, or how much they're using it, and that's a problem. 

TikTok's investment in data centres may or may not address the first point or the first concern, but it has nothing to answer the last two, and nothing short of a full sale to a company based outside of China would, and there's no guarantee that even a sale would actually change how people feel about it, or change the level of risk, or that anyone would believe it. So TikTok's really between a rock and a hard place here. 

SJ.  Yeah, it is an extremely unfortunate position to be in. But you know, there were, there are recorded incidents, and I believe fines that have been laid down on TikTok because of the way that they have mishandled user data in the US and the EU, and to be fair, that other platforms have had tremendous fines levelled against them. I am looking at you Meta, but there is there is no suggestion so far, that that involves foreign governments with geopolitical aims, which are not aligned with the benefit of the users whose data is being shared. Right, and it is, for sure true, that the Chinese Government, along with the Russian Government, have engaged in massive campaigns to influence Western opinion and cause and sow dissent, political and social, both Twitter and Meta have purged 1000s and 1000s of accounts, which were directly under the control or promoted and paid for by the Russian and Chinese governments whose aim was solely to cause dissent, or promote the positive opinion of those governments, and, and that's a that's a massive problem, and that, you know, they've included, I think, eight of the top 10, Facebook, evangelical Christian sites were actually run at one point, run out of St Petersburg. A similar number of Black Lives Matter, Facebook pages, were also run out of St. Petersburg, and you know, it's not that anybody in Russia was interested in those movements, it was just that that was a really good way to release memes designed to cause division and discontent in the US which, which is, you know, a perfect way for governments to cause problems. 

We know propaganda works. Everybody does it during wartime, and, you know, much of the rest of the time, just like advertising, we know it works, and the real danger of TikTok is is the data suggests that people are less good at understanding what a TikTok is an advert rather than entertainment. Which means that that that subtlety means that you're you're, you're going to struggle to be able to discern which messages are are real, and you know, which ones are disinformation, because you're, you know, you need to know something's an advert before your scepticism gets switched on. That is going to make it difficult, I think, for Tik Tok to solve this problem because the spectre of the Chinese government will be in the background, and that, I think you're right, when you talk about data, data centres not being important data can be moved and still reside on servers, and if it was owned, if it was if the ownership changed, how would be reassure ourselves that there were not multiple backdoors left in the operating system to transfer data around? I mean, there are endless possible scenarios that security officials who are paid for more than I am to think about these issues are going to worry about AD ad infinitum. Right. So they they really are in a very difficult position, which in some ways is is unfortunate, but only if you believe that they're entirely benign actor, without any influence from the Beijing government, and I don't think that many people are that naive. I mean, I hope not. What do you think, Taryn?

TW.  I agree. I think very few people feel that way, and again, you know, we talked very briefly about how much of this is is racism and how much is it and I think we have to be really careful because I think there's a temptation sometimes not to talk about it at all. Because there's, there's a worry, no one wants to be racist. Nobody wants to be biassed, and it, you know, it is sort of walking that line at some points, but we really here are talking about the Chinese Government, and as you've as you've said, they have a history of, of promoting mis- and disinformation, let's say, and I think it's one thing to do that on a platform that is owned and controlled by someone who is neutral. Or someone who is playing for your side, right, which we can talk about Meta or Twitter, their western owned. While that's, that's more complicated, but the the figureheads are American, or based in the United States at least, and that that provides some level of comfort. But there's no, there's no easy solution, and fair or unfair, and I think here, it's a little bit of both. There's there's no clear way out of this. 

Now, there's another side to this, of course, TikTok has described, the actual and potential bans that we're talking about here is political theatre, they've pushed to make friends with regulators, they've spent some money on this. But a lot of their focus is on arguing that other social media companies like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, whatever, present the same privacy and security issues, and that's not the way forward because it doesn't address the central issue in each of the three worries we talked about, and that's the Chinese Government. There, they're smart enough to know this. But I'm not sure there's another way for them to try to address it other than to continue to make a product that people love so much that they're willing to pretend or to ignore the dangers, the very real dangers, you know, we'll talk more about the bands specifically, and how they relate to freedom of expression, and how they might work functionally in another episode. For now, I think it's enough to say that we're national security is at risk or perceived to be at risk, and not just in the United States, we've seen the European Commission, the European Union, the European Parliament, Canada, France, New Zealand, Australia, all take steps to limit device to limit Tiktok on officials devices, very few things are going to be off the table.

SJ.  Yeah, I mean, it is important to remember that whilst there's a tendency to just want to have the things that we want. In the West, particularly, sometimes you can't have nice things because those nice things are sharp, or they will burn you, and that's sort of what we're talking about here. Right? That governments have information, which they're not necessarily going to share with us, because their means of acquiring it, or perhaps, you know, things they don't want to share, and that's pretty reasonable. We... that happens all the time, you know, the intelligence apparatus does its job, and you know, it doesn't mean we have to blindly accept what they do. But there's reason for concern, and I think we've talked about some of those reasons, pretty, pretty well. But those the countries you listed are, you know, some of them, like Canada or New Zealand seem to be pretty reasonable, friendly world actors, and whether that's true or not, and, you know, we could have entire conversations, which are off topic about that. They're not considered to be reactionary like you might consider Britain or the United States to be when it comes to, you know, global security, and they're worried, you know, the fact that the Canadian government banned TikTok on all devices is all government devices is pretty revealing, and, you know, devices on a phone can have access to more than just the data that comes with the phone or comes with that, you know, that the app. So I think there is a very definite concern here, and I'm a little surprised that it's taken, government's quite so long to decide. But I guess that comes back to the issue that here politicians taking away nice things comes with a potential election cost, and maybe that's what's slowed down, slowed this down. But I think we're going to talk about this more in the next episode.

TW.  Yes, and I think to be fair to governments, they've had their hands full these past few years, and I think with COVID and some other things that came up, like the current state of the economy, for example, it's difficult to focus on something like this, but it is important to note and to understand that really, this has become something that whatever your political party regulators are, this is one very few things that regulators agree on or coming around to agreeing on, which is why, you know, we'll continue to talk about these concerns in why we think the next 12 months are going to be really key and we think that we'll actually see some real changes over that time period. 

But we'll we'll talk more about that next time. In the meantime, we'll post a transcript of this episode with references on our website. You can find this and more about us at TheBrightApp.com

SJ.  Until next time, I'm Steven Jones,

TW.  and I'm Taryn Ward.

SJ.  Thank you for joining us for Breaking the Feed Social Media Beyond the Headlines.

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