To the beat of TikTok, trends dance with national security
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A social media app once known for its cat videos and dance challenges has become a political flashpoint among Washington lawmakers.
In March, the Biden administration ordered that TikTok, a platform with more than 150 million users in the United States, be removed from federally issued devices, over concerns about the app’s handling. sensitive user data. Citing national security concerns, the administration later demanded that TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, sell the app or risk a total ban in the United States.
In a tense congressional hearing last month, politicians questioned TikTok chief executive Shou Chew about the company’s ties to the Chinese government, handling of its users’ data and concerns about children and adolescents who use the application. In the aftermath of the hearing, passionate TikTokkers came to Mr Chew’s defense and he went viral on his own platform.
Sapna Maheshwari, a New York Times business reporter who writes on TikTok, covered the hearing for about five hours and has since reported on China’s response to the US review of the app. In an interview, which has been edited, Ms Maheshwari discussed her reporting, Washington’s suspicions and what happens next.
What do you remember from the March 23 hearing?
I was really struck by the tough tone lawmakers took with Shou Chew. It seemed like the more than 50 lawmakers who interviewed him were interested in using their five minutes to voice an opinion they had on TikTok or pursue a very specific line of questioning that matters to their constituents. It was quite aggressive and showed that there isn’t much love for TikTok in our government right now.
How do you think this skepticism relates to the anti-China sentiments of politicians right now?
No politician will be blamed for being too tough on China right now, and that’s certainly part of what’s happening. But there’s certainly quite a bit of criticism from lawmakers that could apply to other social media companies. The CEO of TikTok really tried to defend the platform by bringing up this on several occasions. If you’re talking about anxiety, depression, and self-esteem issues among teens who use TikTok, it’s reasonable to raise similar concerns with Instagram.
Likewise, with data privacy concerns, the CEO of TikTok has repeatedly said that his users’ data is in an even safer position than with US tech companies. But people really weren’t interested in having that conversation during the hearing.
Where do you think TikTok is going?
What makes this an incredibly compelling story to cover is that it’s totally unparalleled in the United States. When you look to history for examples, there has never been a case where the government tried to ban an app that 150 million Americans use on their smartphones. A lot of that is really TBD, which makes for an exciting beat to cover.
In the short term, the pace of the US government is not fast. We will see how the negotiations between the Biden administration and TikTok are going. We’ve already seen a lot of concern from TikTokkers saying “Follow me on YouTube in case it’s banned” and taking different precautions. And as we reported recently, there’s a new app in the works from ByteDance called Lemon8.
What do you think of Lemon8 so far?Is this an effort by ByteDance to circumvent the measures taken against TikTok?
From what I learned from my sources, they started talking to ad agencies about it in January. At the time, TikTok was nervous that they hadn’t heard from the Biden administration, so there’s a chance they were worried about TikTok’s future in the United States.
But Lemon8 seems like a really different kind of platform – they’ve positioned it as a companion app to TikTok. There’s an interesting slide we found in our Lemon8 feature; In its marketing materials, ByteDance showed a potential top app store ranking with CapCut, their video editing tool, TikTok and Lemon8 as the top three apps.
I think ByteDance is undeterred, rushes forward and thinks, “We’re going to be the biggest and best app maker in America.
Is there anything particularly difficult to cover evolving platforms like TikTok?
AOne of the biggest challenges in covering technology platforms is how well they match your personal interests and behavior on the Internet. You don’t want to put yourself in a silo, where you miss out on trends that other people see. I do a lot of checking with different companies that track what’s popular on TikTok and people who represent creators.
How often do you use TikTok in your personal life? Have privacy concerns affected the way you use TikTok?
I definitely log in every day. I’ve seen with my own eyes how addicting it can be. The feed is really good for figuring out what you like right away. I created a few accounts to vary the content.
It would be really hard to cover TikTok at this point if I never used the app. I was certainly worried after learning about the surveillance of American journalists by ByteDance employees. The company claims this is not their practice and that these were rogue employees. We will see how the investigations of the FBI and the Department of Justice are carried out.
Do you have a tip for Sapna Maheshwari? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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