TikTok and democracy : the cases of China and India

Big Tech, Géopolitique

Alexandra Fieux-Castagnet

August 2020

INTRODUCTION

TikTok is a video-sharing social networking application created and owned by the Chinese company ByteDance in 2016. It allows users from around the world to create videos lasting less than one minute to record themselves in music on the topic they like. TikTok is the version of the service created for all markets outside of China, and especially for iOS and Android applications platforms. The application dedicated to the Chinese market is known as Douyin and works on a separate server than that of TikTok in order to comply with the Chinese censorship of media. As a result, Chinese users are not allowed to address any topic they like. 

TikTok became famous in the US following the merger with the American application Musical.ly in 2018 with helped the application gain traction with US teens, 70% of the users being less than 25-year-olds, even though the application is now targeting young adults. TikTok’s popularity exploded last year with a total of 800 millions active users in 141 countries, India being the application’s first market with 120 millions users using TikTok in 15 different Indian languages. Douyin accounts for 150 million users. 

The COVID-19 pandemic was viewed as a real boost for the application since users were seeking to avoid the lockdown boredom. It entailed 65 millions new downloads solely in march 2020 and 2 billions of total new downloads for the whole lockdown period. TikTok is thus already more downloaded than the ‘traditional’ social media applications, namely, Instagram, Facebook or WhatsApp. TikTok was therefore used as a real tool to avoid separation and distanciation in 2020 and videos tagged with #Coronavirus have been viewed more than 64 billion times.

Nonetheless, if TikTok can be seen as a mere entertainment new platform generating new excitement amongst users launching challenges to each other worldwide, it is also generating excitement amongst the governments. In the wake of investigations, and following tensions escalating with China regarding frontiers issues, the Indian government has banned the application along with 58 other Chinese apps in June 2020, depriving TikTok of its first market. In the context of the US-China trade war, Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, has declared the Trump administration was also looking at banning TikTok.

Is TikTok a genuine communication tool advocating for democracy and giving a voice of millions of unknown users? Or is it a mere threat to democracy in countries where some content videos are being censored by the app? One could argue that TikTok has become a geopolitical tool for countries to reaffirm their position in their trade or ideological wars, especially in China and India.

TikTok fights in favor of democracy

As we said in the introduction, TikTok is a worldwide application that reaches everyone. In this part, we will see that this app can allow anyone to express himself. Then we will see how TikTok became a political app and a soft geopolitical power for those who want to forbid it. Finally we will see how this app can be a new media for the young generation.  

TikTok, a tool allowing anyone to express himself

When you talk about TikTok one thing crucial to understand its growth is the development of 4G. Indeed, to use this app you only need a smartphone and an internet connection. As you can see in Appendix 1, India had approximately 80% of 4G coverage in 2018. So, even if you are in a rural place, you can have access to TikTok, like Israel Ansari. He is 19 years old and he comes from a small village in the north of India. His story illustrates the power of TikTok. A friend showed him TikTok during a wedding. So, he decided to buy a smartphone and try to express himself. After several videos where he was dancing on Bollywood song, he started to receive more than 30K likes. Now it’s his full-time job, paying more than he would never dream. This is how TikTok can create celebrity from scratch, last year, in India, there were 1.2 million of content creators for 120 million of monthly viewers.

Israel Ansari was not the only one who could be famous, TikTok is not the app of one cast. A lot of marginalized people use it, so you can find in TikTok Muslim comics, transexual performers, and rural grannies. TikTok, therefore, allows anyone to express themselves, even those who are not recognized as legitimate by the Indian government. In this sense, TikTok enforces freedom of expression and thus democracy. TikTok is also a way to reduce social borders and economic barriers. Small, poor villages are represented in the same way as megacities. And TikTok offers the few Indian celebrities like Israel Ansari a social lift.

Figure 1: Opensignal 4G coverage

TikTok goes political

Nowadays, the media have become increasingly involved in political life. We can cite events such as: the Arab spring through Facebook, the American presidential election through Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, or even suspicions of fake news pro Marine Le Pen broadcast by Russia. Each time the media has had a notable influence, TikTok is no exception to the rule. Through these short videos, many people can express their opinions or freedoms.

In the United States, many young people get involved in politics thanks to TikTok. This new « online politics » revolves around the same processes as « traditional politics »: political coalitions are formed, representatives are elected virtually and everyone can campaign for their candidate. In one month, the account of a party affiliated to the Republican Party received more than 200k followers.

TikTok also makes it possible to launch citizen policies on a large scale. Indeed, many challenges have been shared, especially concerning ecology. We can mention the #cleansnap, consisting in taking a photo/video of a place before and after cleaning it. This kind of challenge relayed several thousand times also represents a political and citizen act on behalf of the populations.

Finally, more recently in Egypt, many women are speaking out through their videos against sexual violence and restrictions of freedoms. Some influential women who show themselves dancing and singing on TikTok have been sent to prison. Thus, by logging on to TikTok and posting content, these women are also demonstrating political commitment. 

TikTok is therefore a channel of communication that remains free from those controlled by local governments. By its large audience, it allows opinions not always published on the classical communication channels to be heard and thus, TikTok is a tool to fight for democracy.

TikTok, a soft geopolitical power

Relations between India and China have rarely been so tense. The climax was reached during a military confrontation in the Himalayan range. India being militarily inferior to China, the latter has decided to retaliate on another field than the military one: the apps field. Thus, 59 Chinese applications have been banned from India under the cover of data protection and morals. The banning of applications such as TikTok becomes a power of retaliation for countries. The latest to date is the United States, which, according to its president, Donald Trump, wants to ban TikTok or have this application bought by an American group.

TikTok can also be a means of pressure for companies, such as Amazon, which for one afternoon forced its employees to delete TikTok if it was on the same phone than their professional mailboxes. Despite the fact that Amazon has acknowledged a mistake, large companies may be tempted to put pressure on China through this application. TikTok, thanks to its many users is an efficient way to pressure China, especially for states which cannot fight them through other ways, such as hard power, like India. In the specific case of India, the country was able to respond to a form of invasion of its territory. This allowed India to resist China and maintain sovereignty over its territory. Even if India’s policy is increasingly criticized, this response to China remains a reinforcement of democracy.

TikTok, a free access to information

Thanks to the global 4G coverage, it is very easy to watch videos on TikTok. This simplicity allows access to a diverse and varied flows of information. In a village in India, it is easier to have access to TikTok than to a news channel. Thus, this application becomes one of the only access to information especially for young people. Influencers have understood it like Sterling Caid Lewis who, from the top of his 19 years old and his 100 000 followers makes the following observation: « New cable news for young people ». Today, information is power. Making it accessible to a majority of the population allows for education, critical thinking and therefore population empowerment. We will see in the following section that the quality of information is however essential in order not to alienate the freedom of citizens.

TikTok, an anti-democratic app

TikTok is an application that reaches 800 million users worldwide, including 120 million Indian and 150 million Chinese. In these two countries where a large part of the population is undergoing the political regime in place and where democracy is being undermined, we have seen how a tool can link users to each other, allowing anyone with a smartphone and an Internet connection to express themselves and exchange. Could an application change the power of hands? 

Targeting so many people easily and quickly, in a way that is common to all, through information with impactful and appealing content, isn’t this the perfect weapon for effective propaganda? How can TikTok, which seems to first address the people and give them back some form of sovereignty by giving them a voice, turn against its users and threaten democracy? 

In this section we will discuss four areas that we think make TikTok an anti-democratic tool. First of all, TikTok is an application that is structurally built to influence, especially a young audience. Second, TikTok continuously delivers short (video of less than a minute) but impactful information. The moderation of this content is in the hands of TikTok. Do we want to let TikTok have the right to decide what we see? Moreover, TikTok is a gold mine of personal data (daily video, identity, contact information, religious affiliation, politics, …). What does TikTok do with this data? Finally, if TikTok is used daily by the people, TikTok is above all the weapon of governments as a means of pressure in a commercial war.  

TikTok, a strong way to influence others

As we have explained, TikTok is an application that allows you to share videos of less than one minute. Therefore, it also allows you to view videos from other users, available in the « For You » feed. The content of this feed is not focused on content posted by « friends ». Unlike Facebook or Instagram, whose content is largely that posted and shared by « friends », it is an artificial intelligence that determines what content the user will have in his feed. It is the algorithm built by TikTok that decides what it is judicious to show and which content will have the most impact. For instance, the BBC reported the case of Eilidh Bisset, bombarded with pro-eating disorders videos. It affected her mental health and even signaling those videos to TikTok, blocking accounts, it was impossible to suppress them from her feed. 

The risk is to be locked in the « profile » drawn up by the artificial intelligence (AI) and to restrict ourselves to the actions and reactions that this AI anticipates for us. This approach invites the user to look at content that will confirm his thought pattern and thus inhibit critical thinking. 

Moreover, in the context of a political campaign, a lobby, a boycott, focusing information according to the user’s profile in order to influence his behaviour without forcing him, takes a dramatic strategic turn. This is called the nudge, already widely used by Google Mail: an Al decides which email is important, which email to reply to and sends a reminder to the user, or Uber to influence its drivers to take more and more races. 

TikTok was also built by taking the most addictive features from previous social networks. Everything is done to make it hard to get bored with the application and to make sure that the time spent on the application is higher than the time spent on similar applications. 

TikTok has conducted a fierce marketing campaign, spending a billion dollars in 2018. TikTok has successfully placed ads in places such as Piccadilly Circus in London and Times Square in New York and has been able to count celebrities among its users. So many components that have enabled a very broad and fast take-up. TikTok also allows brands to have an account. It is therefore a place for targeted advertising according to our similar searches.

This is all the more worrying since TikTok targets young people. 70% of users are under 25 years old. They are therefore receptive, permeable users, in a period of learning about their ecosystem. These patterns are thus integrated durably in the users’ thinking mechanisms and participate in conditioning their vision of the world and their reasoning.

Recently, an Indian court banned the app on the grounds that it encourages sexual predators. Bangladesh and Indonesia had already banned it last year, accusing TikTok of promoting pornography. These are examples of the collateral effects of the elements we have been talking about. TikTok is also the scene of much mockery and criticism. These insults directed at a young, impressionable and application-obsessed audience can lead to extreme behaviors. In 2018, in southern India, a 24-year-old man killed himself by jumping in front of a train because he was mocked for videos in which he dressed like a woman. Many states are calling for a ban on TikTok, promoting bullying, hate-speech and child abuse.

TikTok, the threat of misinformation

The videos on TikTok are viewed by millions of people. As we saw in the previous sub-section, in addition to speaking to a large audience, they have a strong impact. 

However, TikTok has been accused of disclosing false information.

For example, in the case of the health crisis, Videos marked #coronavirus have been viewed more than 64bn times. Some of them spread misinformation. Faced with the crisis, TikTok responded by tagging all videos about covid-19 (#covid19) with a warning: « Learn the facts about COVID-19 ». This warning is accompanied by a link to videos of audited accounts such as those of the NHS, the Red Cross and the World Economic Forum.

While we understand the health impact that such widely disseminated misinformation can have, the use of fake news can also have a political impact. TikTok has been accused of interfering with elections in India and is being sued by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Indeed, the use of fake news is becoming commonplace during campaigns: in France some accuse Russia of disclosing false news in favour of Marine Le Pen. The user, by his vote, becomes a prey and no longer a voter. If TikTok gives the impression of facilitating expression and breaking down communication barriers, when it comes to a citizen exercising his right to express himself through the vote, TikTok and social networks become a formidable way to use him as someone you can influence. However, “we are not political, we do not accept political advertising and we do not have an agenda.” declared Wednesday in a blog post the boss of TikTok, Kevin Mayer. 

In the specific case of covid-19, TikTok refers to the health authorities to judge what to release or not to release. On the other hand, on other subjects, particularly on matters relating to China’s policy, TikTok is suspected of using censorship to prevent certain news from circulating. 

For example, very few videos about the protests in Hong Kong were published on the app. Similarly, the subject of the Uighurs is heavily censored. Feroza Aziz, using make-up tutos to denounce the trafficking of Uighurs in China, had her TikTok account temporarily banned. To avoid censorship, some Uighurs share videos of themselves with a photo of their missing family, without talking, with music evoking separation as a simple background.

In both cases, China’s policy is directly questioned. Who does TikTok refer to when deciding to censor or moderate these videos? The UN, or the Chinese government? Where does TikTok place the limit between freedom of expression and control of fake news? 

TikTok denied having deleted any video blaming Chinese government.

A geopolitical rivalry is emerging between a global Chinese social network (whose main target is the USA) and an American social network. During a public speech at Georgetown University in October, Zuckerberg said: « While our services like WhatsApp are used by protesters and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections, on TikTok, the China-based app growing quickly around the world, mentions of these same protests are censored, even here in the US. » He added: « Is that the internet we want? ». We must bear in mind that Mark Zuckerberg was heard by members of the two U.S. Senate committees for not respecting privacy among other things.

TikTok, rises concerns about privacy

TikTok holds a lot of personal data such as identity, Facebook and Twitter account information (for sign-ins), but also the content that users share which can be their political opinions, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, … Data security and respect is now a right in many countries. But in the case of a user-centric free service like TikTok, data become a currency of exchange.

Many countries, especially the USA, have expressed doubts about the security of TikTok user data. This is one of the reasons why the US, in particular, is considering banning TikTok said Mike Pompeo, America’s secretary of state, on July 6th. On June the 30th, Donald Trump announced he would ban TikTok. 

TikTok, rather than another social network, is of more concern as it is the first Chinese social network application to go global. ByteDance, its owner, is a Chinese company that owns the equivalent of TikTok, Douyin, for China. For the past two years, a security law in China has required every Chinese company to participate in intelligence-gathering when the party asks them to. That is to say that the Chinese police can enter any office of a Chinese company and copy its data, under the pretext of cyber-security.

This mistrust is fueled by previous scandals. Data from Grindr, a dating site for homosexuals, has reportedly been used by the Chinese government to blackmail US politicians. The US military has removed dji drones from its bases, suspecting that they are sending information about critical infrastructure back to China’s government. 

Governments, especially the US government, are therefore investigating these privacy issues very closely. In February, TikTok was fined up to $5.7m (a record) in America for illegally collecting data on users under the age of 13. 

The US authorities are beginning to restrict not just Chinese companies’ investments, but also their products. Are these real concerns about privacy or other milestones in a commercial war? 

The USA is one of TikTok’s biggest markets. Indeed, if India and China have many users, TikTok depends on its image in the US. TikTok makes money from ads and from commissions on tips, which users offer through the pseudo-currency of TikTok’s “coins” to their favourite creators. Poor population in India often can’t afford this. If TikTok always denied sharing data with China and has insisted that data about non-Chinese users are held on non-Chinese servers, TikTok has also put in place measures to strengthen its credibility. TikTok launch a “Transparency Centre” in Los Angeles that allows outside experts to examine and verify TikTok’s content moderation. 

TikTok had hired an independent American law firm to review its content moderation practices and to audit its security practices. Furthermore, this law firm found that TikTok would have been unable to transmit user data to China during the period it surveyed. 

TikTok, a weapon in a trade war

Last but not least, we saw that TikTok was being used by the states as a weapon in a trade war. TikTok fuels the US-China war, and serves as a means of pressure for India against China. 

But what is the risk of a state banning TikTok? Not much. Indeed, TikTok creates few jobs and pays little or no tax in America or India. The main cost is therefore to be borne by the millions of users who use TikTok as a means of expression, exchange, entertainment, and sometimes even as a salary and to whom their government imposes this ban. 

For the moment, it is not clearly established that TikTok is condemnable for harassment, fake news, censorship or lack of privacy. However, some states, such as India, have already decided to ban TikTok. TikTok may be a Chinese propaganda tool, but its ban is also a weapon for governments to resist China’s emergence. 

Is TikTok really rising new concerns?

Social medias as a new component of soft power

There is an important paradox: on the one hand a social media or an app that goes worldwide seems to be transnational, something that does not defend any specific political idea. But on the other hand, internet is today the most powerful media to spread an ideology or political ideas. Considering Jospeh Nye’s definition, culture and political values are two components of soft power. Social media are channels of expression of those elements. For instance, even if Facebook is defending a non-interference position of its website, the firms promote ideas of liberalism and democracy. That is why countries like China and Russia decided to ban the app on their own soil.

When we are interested in the distribution of social media on world scale, we can see a clear evolution in a decade from 2008 to 2020. Firstly, the use of social media has spread across all continents. Although in 2008 some regions such as Africa, South America and Middle East were spared by social media, today few countries are outside the use of internet. That being said, it is interesting to focus on the most popular social media by region. In 1946, Winston Churchill was talking about an iron curtain in order to express the opposition between the capitalist world led by the United-States and the communist world represented by the USSR. Today we could talk about an internet wall between the Western World using mainly Facebook an American social media, and those which oppose it (e.g. Russia, China, Iran…) by using other social media such as VKontakte or Qzone.

That opposition underlines the weight of social media in the new global geopolitical balance. Nevertheless, only Facebook until very recently had managed to break national borders. TikTok put an end to that American hegemony by becoming the first Chinese app to go global. At the time of the trade war between the US and China, the issue of banning the Chinese app on the US soil is sensitive. That element leads to another paradox: recreating border to app that are by definition without borders.

Data sovereignty is at the very heart of the conflict between India and China

An app like Tiktok worries governments because the Chinese app receives millions of user data every day. That leads to the concept of data sovereignty which is defined as the idea that data are subject to the laws and governance structures within the nation it is collected. The concept of data sovereignty is closely linked with data security, cloud computing and technological sovereignty. Many of the current concerns that surround data sovereignty relate to enforcing privacy regulations and preventing data that is stored in a foreign country from being subpoenaed by the host country’s government.

The financial weight of the control of the data is very important. Many of the most valued tech companies have a business model that relies on the use of data. This data before being processed, used and above all resold, must be stored. This raises the question of the storage location and more mainly of the State where the data centers are located. Data centers, since they are vulnerable, have become key security and geostrategic challenges.

CONCLUSION

TikTok, because of its global impact, is a crucial geopolitical and strategic issue for many states. TikTok, a social network based on short videos is more than a showcase of egocentricity as some might reduce it. It is a means of expression for all types of people, on all topics up to political engagement. It is an access to information, a platform for discussion and debate. It is also, for brands, for celebrities, but also for people who initially only had a telephone and an internet connection, a means of getting paid. However, TikTok is a lot of ink and has not only fans. Very addictive and used by a very young audience, TikTok is accused of promoting harassment, hate speeches etc… TikTok is also suspected of spreading fake news without accurate moderation and unreasonably censoring some content, especially those concerning Chinese politics. Finally, because it is the first Chinese application to become global, there are many concerns about the security of personal data. However, these accusations are not new. This week, American elected representatives also heard the GAFA representatives on similar topics. When we know that Apple’s stock market valuation exceeds the one of the CAC40, we understand that the power of these data-centric companies raises some government concerns. TikTok is therefore a weapon, both for China and its rival, the USA. For China it is a weapon of soft power, as TikTok is widely used all over the world. For the USA it is a weapon in a trade war, already used by India which has banned the application. 

REFERENCES

Trump pushes a TikTok ban: Everything you need to know, CNET 19 July 2020 

The United States is ‘looking at’ banning TikTok and other Chinese social media apps, Pompeo says”, CNN 7 July 2020 

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Israil Ansari TikTok account: https://www.tiktok.com/@israil.ansari/video/6733045770867461381?source=h5_m

Donald Trump annonce son intention d’interdire TikTok aux Etats-Unis – Le Monde – August 3rd 2020

« It was all I would see » BBC News – July 31st 2020  

Mieux valorisé que tout le CAC40, Apple redevient la première capitalisation mondiale – Les Echos – August 3rd 2020

Egypt jails TikTok users over ‘indecent videos’ – BBC News – July 27th 2020

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