The Downside With Underestimating TikTok

The video sharing app, which has a billion users, is evading scrutiny because politics doesn’t take it seriously.

Miguel Medina / Getty

About the author: Evelyn Douek, a PhD student at Harvard Law School, is a partner at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard.

Lots of people think of TikTok as a dance app. And while it’s an app full of dance, it’s also a juggernaut that is experiencing astronomical growth. In July, TikTok – a short-form video-sharing app powered by an incredibly good recommendation algorithm and owned by Chinese company ByteDance – became the only mobile social media app other than Facebook to ever reach 3 billion downloads. Late last month, TikTok announced that it had more than 1 billion monthly users. It was the most downloaded app in some ways in 2020 and stayed that way until 2021. Not bad for an app that didn’t hit the market until 2016!

Of the social media platforms today, TikTok most closely represents the future. The user base consists mainly of young people. But if you look for TikTok in coverage, you’re more likely to find it in the lifestyle, culture, or even food space than on the front page.

It’s not that social media platforms aren’t newsworthy – Facebook constantly dominates the headlines. But TikTok is all too often viewed as frivolous to write or read about. That is a mistake that Congress is also making.

The recent Senate hearings – held under the slogan “Protecting Kids Online” – focused on a whistleblower’s revelation about what Facebook itself knows about how its products harm the mental health of adolescent users. That is an important question. But when the role of social media in society and especially its impact on young people is accounted for, shouldn’t the legislature also talk about the platforms that young people actually use? The “Facebook Files” reports of the Wall Street Journal finally also showed that Facebook itself is afraid of young people leaving its platforms. For these users, Facebook just isn’t cool.

So TikTok isn’t a passing fad or a tiny start-up in the social media space. It’s a cultural powerhouse that turns unknown artists into superstars overnight. It’s a career plan for young influencers and a portable mall full of products and brands. Here many young people hear their news and discuss politics. And sometimes they get loud: In June 2020, TikTok teenagers allegedly petted the re-election campaign of then-President Donald Trump by overbooking tickets for a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then never showing them.

That humiliation appeared to be one reason Trump threatened to ban the app in August 2020. This briefly put TikTok in the spotlight. For several months, a serious debate raged over whether the app posed a threat to national security. Its ties with China raised fears that China might be forced to share data with the Chinese government or that the Communist Party might influence its content moderation practices. What unfolded was a prime-time saga, with twists and turns, troubled teenagers, threats of retaliation from China, the departure of the company’s CEO, and bizarrely, that Microsoft and Walmart emerged as potential buyers for the app at one point. But then the whole thing just … fizzled out. As a Verge headline quipped 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 seemed that way too. With lawmakers apparently preparing to pull Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in front of them one more time, TikTok’s CEO never showed up. Can you even name it?

But TikTok is still the same app it was last year when people were excited about the national security threat. Just bigger. And regardless of the extent of the Chinese government’s influence, 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 to allow and what not, it is worth asking questions.

In September, The Journal reported that TikTok is also pushing minors to post promoting eating disorders and other harmful content. Over the past year, many users were shown a graphic suicide video that went viral. As everywhere on the internet, researchers find misinformation and conspiracy theories on TikTok. TikTok says it will delete many of these posts, but how it will decide which of them will be decided is unclear. (The guidelines define misinformation as “inaccurate or incorrect content.” Helpful!) The platform’s content moderation is opaque, but there are many reasons for concern: it has suppressed posts from users who are considered ugly, bad, or disabled; Videos on politically sensitive issues in China removed; and automatically added beauty filters to users’ videos. The Devil Licking Challenge that got kids to remove soap dispensers in schools may sound weird, but the school administration doesn’t laugh. The Connecticut attorney general wants to know what’s wrong with the “Slap a Teacher” car, even though TikTok says it was not his fault.

The Facebook hearings suggest that potential dangers to children have resulted in a previously-missed level of bipartisan focus from lawmakers. However, by focusing on a single company, lawmakers have shown that how Facebook works isn’t the only thing Congress doesn’t understand about the online ecosystem.

How TikTok manages to bypass the limelight is as mysterious as its recommendation algorithm. Perhaps Facebook has a corporate culture and organizational structure that make it uniquely worrying. Maybe politicians forget TikTok because they don’t (yet) use it often. TikTok may get less attention precisely because its content moderation is less transparent. it’s hard to write and complain about decisions that you don’t know about. The success of TikTok in branding itself as dubious – it just wants to “bring joy” and not “connect people” – helps to fend off serious criticism. But neither is a good reason to ignore such a popular and rapidly growing app when you think about the impact of social media and how it is regulated.

TikTok isn’t the only platform trying to evade scrutiny by quietly hiding in 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, according to surveys, is even more disliked and distrusted than Facebook. Perhaps reports of Facebook’s impending death are grossly exaggerated, but reports of TikTok’s rise certainly aren’t. If lawmakers want to address the problems that social media platforms are creating for young people, they should take care of the platforms that interest young people.

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