Picture: ALEXEY MALKIN/123RF
Picture: ALEXEY MALKIN/123RF

New York/San Francisco — Days after the US government challenged Facebook’s growing power over social media in a Congressional hearing, the Trump administration handed the company a gift. 

Late last week, the president said he planned to shut down Facebook’s most formidable challenger: Chinese-owned video-sharing app TikTok. That threat sparked a panic among users that their digital clubhouse would soon be taken away or sold to Microsoft. It sent many popular TikTokers racing to move their creative endeavours to Instagram, the rival mobile app owned by Facebook.

But shifting to Instagram is an unsatisfactory solution, said Max Beaumont, who built a following on TikTok documenting his journey of self-improvement with videos about diet and skincare. TikTok has become “fundamentally an escape for a generation right now in isolation, especially, that needs it,” he said. “Just because you can have a massive following on something like TikTok doesn’t necessarily translate over to YouTube or to Instagram or to some of these others.”

Beaumont has organised an open letter with signatories who had hundreds of thousands, or millions, of followers, asking President Donald Trump to keep TikTok alive.

TikTok has garnered widespread appeal through its lip-syncing and dance videos and a formidable artificial intelligence algorithm that feeds fans an endless stream of more of what they love. It has also become a lightning rod in rising geopolitical tensions between the US and China, which has worsened amid the coronavirus pandemic. US politicians have expressed concern that TikTok, owned by one of China’s largest tech companies, is amassing data on millions of US users and could be compelled to hand it over to the Chinese government. TikTok has repeatedly denied those accusations, but Trump seems adamant about taking some action against the company nonetheless.

The president said on Monday that TikTok will have to close in the US by September 15 unless there is a deal to sell the domestic network to a US company. He also said the US government will have to be paid a “substantial amount of money” as part of any deal.

Domestic network

TikTok’s troubles come just as Facebook is facing several US antitrust probes. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was questioned, along with his peers at other leading US tech companies who are also under scrutiny, at a Congressional committee hearing last week. At the meeting, members of the House of Representatives presented documents showing that Facebook purchased Instagram in 2012 primarily to eliminate what was then a rising competitor.

Zuckerberg argued that any weakening of US technology companies, such as a breakup on antitrust grounds, would only strengthen China and its influence over the internet and other technology. But US restrictions on TikTok could also prove the reverse.

ByteDance on Sunday said it strictly abides by local laws and that it has been facing complicated and unimaginable difficulties, including “plagiarism and defamation” from Facebook. In the past few days, TikTok devotees flooded the app with tributes to the platform akin to mourning the loss of a friend and with protests against Trump for what many younger users felt was a personal affront. Videos filled with tears, outrage and anger helped propel the hashtag #savetiktok to more than 800-million views, even after news of a potential deal with Microsoft provided some hope that the app would not be taken down entirely.

“TikTok gave an entire generation a voice, a platform, and power and that terrifies a lot of people, including President Trump,” said Brooklynn Shrum, 25, who downloaded TikTok earlier in 2020. “If you’re banning it because of a cybersecurity risk is one thing, but if you don’t let an American company buy it, that’s pure politics.” 

Welcoming place

Shrum lives outside Nashville, Tennessee, and said TikTok provides a safe and welcoming place for people in the LGBTQ community like herself  “to be themselves, without judgment”. It also gives young people a platform for activism, even though some of them cannot vote.

Shrum, who goes by @brooklyn322 on TikTok, posted an online tribute to the app in July and directed her followers to Instragram. “Follow me there in case the app goes down,” she said. “It’s been real.” 

Nearly 60% of people under 25, often categorised as Generation Z, are opposed to a TikTok ban, according to a July survey by Morning Consult Brand Intelligence. Across all ages, about a third of Americans have never heard of TikTok, while a third have a favourable impression and a third have an unfavourable view of the app, the survey found.

Users and market experts say part of TikTok’s appeal is its global reach, propelling users to internet stardom by exposing their videos to billions of users around the world. “TikTok has massive appeal not only in the US but in many countries around the world,” said Debra Aho Williamson, a principal analyst at eMarketer. “Carving it up into pieces would put a huge damper on its overall growth.” 

Many TikTok users cheered a potential acquisition by Microsoft as a white knight saving their beloved digital hangout. In one video, a user with the handle @charlesthegr8 blew kisses in front of a backdrop of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in gratitude for “buying TikTok to stop it from being banned”. He said, “I might have to cop that new #xbox now.”  Another user, who goes by @boxedupentrepreneur, said, “Microsoft saves the day”.

With 45 days to craft a deal acceptable to the US government, as well as Microsoft and TikTok, it is not certain that the transaction will be sealed. 

Meanwhile, the distraction is giving Facebook the perfect chance to make inroads in short video, where it has struggled. In July it shut down a TikTok copycat called Lasso. Its new attempt, Reels, was launched in India just after the government banned TikTok and other Chinese apps there. 

Top creators unsure of TikTok’s future are not waiting around to see what happens. In addition to funnelling followers to Instagram, they are also migrating to up-and-coming short-video apps such as Triller and Byte. 

“They’re preparing for the worst and this has opened their eyes to other emerging platforms that are gaining traction,” says Brian Mandler, co-founder of marketing company The Network Effect, which works with more than 50 creators. “The conversation has moved on from TikTok to the idea of short video as a format across lots of different apps.” 

Bloomberg

 

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.