It is a Chinese platform. It collects data from citizens from over 150 countries. It determines the content we see. Should Europe ban TikTok?
“More and more young people are using TikTok as a news source, and that is concerning,” says computer scientist Jeroen Burt. “There is often misinformation out there. TikTok says it is stepping in against this, but due to the viral influence of social media, this content has often been viewed millions of times before effective action is taken. So what is the use of that?”
TikTok has amassed more than 1 billion active users in six years, making it the fastest growing social media app in the world. In Belgium, 1.2 million people over the age of 15 use the app at least once a week. Young people in particular are a fan: 45.5 percent of users are between the ages of 15 and 24.
In the West, more and more questions are being raised about what data ByteDance, the Chinese technology company behind TikTok, collects from its users and what it does with it. “This is very mysterious,” Burt says. TikTok tracks, among other things, how long you watch videos, what you like, and what type of device you’re using the app from. But uploading videos also posts biometric data, such as his face and voice. TikTok generates a massive amount of data. Even if the company doesn’t yet know exactly what it wants to do with it, it can save it for later. Because storage is very cheap.
Having a company in China — the country that is building an unprecedented high-tech surveillance state — has so much data at its disposal is increasingly worrying people in the West. The Irish Data Protection Authority has opened an investigation into the sending of personal data of European users to China. In the Netherlands, three institutions are demanding billions of euros for violating children’s privacy. And the British Parliament closed his TikTok profile almost a week later. MEPs were concerned about data security and possible interference from China.
Because the other important question is how TikTok determines what its users see. Does the Chinese algorithm affect how (especially) young people view the world? “We also know very little about it,” Burt says. The main goal of most algorithms is to keep users on the app as long as possible. And the more time they spend there, the more ads they see and the more data can be collected.
Social media can influence what people think, and this has been proven before. “Experts have shown that Google, for example, can really play a role in elections,” says digital strategist Thomas Smulders. Let’s say you google Bart De Wever and all the information that comes up is negative. This of course colors your image of that person. We are currently naive about the interference we tolerate from TikTok, but we are also hypocritical if we only examined that platform.”
In this way, TikTok could be a Trojan horse. Burt, who called the app a geopolitical weapon, thinks it’s going a little too far. Although it can be used in this way. This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen something like this. Think of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In 2018, it was revealed that the British Marketing Agency had collected data from 87 million Facebook users without their consent. Cambridge Analytica used that data for targeted ads, including the election of Donald Trump. So it’s naive to think that’s a long way off, or to think that such a successful Chinese company isn’t subject to government interference. I’m not saying China secretly controls TikTok, but the Chinese government’s sphere of influence should definitely not be underestimated.
I discovered American Business Magazine last summer Forbes that 300 TikTok and BiteDance employees were working for Chinese state media. And some still work in the Chinese propaganda industry today. At the beginning of November, the company admitted for the first time that employees in China monitor data from European users, but also says that the data is not shared with the Chinese government.
According to Burt, we shouldn’t believe it blindly. Facebook really lied about sharing data. But perhaps the buzz around TikTok is greater because we see China as an authoritarian country where government interference is more prominent than in Europe or the United States. So, Smulders says, the question is more ideological. Do we want China to see our data? Do we want China to control our vital networks, be it a port or a social platform? These are questions that go beyond TikTok.
Should TikTok be banned? “Instead, there is very little transparency about how the company operates and how decisions are made,” Burt says. At the same time, the platform’s impact on our lives and our society is massive. That makes it dangerous. Smolders thinks a ban is still a bit premature, though. Than it demands more clarity about the data stored in China and what exactly is going on with it.”If TikTok refuses to provide more information on this matter, it will be banned.”