The Rise of TikTok

Tori Carr and Delaney Moore

     “Go Demarcus, Go Demarcus.” Most TikTok users are all too familiar with this catchy tune. It constantly seems to pop up in every other video that graces the all too famous”for you page” where desperate Tik Toker’s hope their 1-minute videos or original sounds will one day be featured. A whopping 1.2 million videos have been made using the ‘Go Demarcus’ sound, and the most popular of those videos has over 4.6 million likes. 

     And it's not only songs that have gained immense popularity on Tik Tok, it's also people. For example, popular creators on the app have created a group known as the “Hype House” with the sole purpose of creating videos for more views. Popular creator Charli D’amelio went from 19 million followers to 20 million in about 4 days. There are countless examples of sounds and creators like this that have gained millions of likes, views, and comments that has caused sounds and trends to be recognized to people outside of TikTok. 

     TikTok, a social media platform and video-sharing app, has gained immense popularity since it was released in September 2016 by a Chinese company, ByteDance, under the name ‘Douyin,’ according to Business Insider. The creator of TikTok is 35-year-old billionaire, Zhang Yiming, who attended Nankai University and majored in software engineering. His first job was at a digital travel booking startup called Kuxun; however, in 2012, he created ByteDance’s first app, Toutiao, which was an artificial intelligence search engine that could compete with China’s search engine, Baidu. This forward thinking lead ByteDance to purchase Musical.ly, created in 2014 by Chinese entrepreneurs, in November 2017 for $1 billion, according to Vox. In August 2018 Zhang’s company then merged its pre-existing app, Douyin, with Musical.ly to create the TikTok the world knows today. 

     Zhang was first announced a billionaire, worth $8 billion, by Forbes in March 2018, and by November 2019 he is worth $16.2 billion due to his 24% stake in ByteDance. Besides his economic success, not much is known about Zhang. Business Insider stated that “Despite being the 13th-wealthiest person in China, Zhang is extremely private and little is known about his personal life.” 

     Since 2018, TikTok has amassed 500 million active users across the world, 150 million of those are in China, according to Oberlo. The video-sharing app has risen to the ninth most popular social network sites above Snapchat and Twitter. Comparatively, it took Instagram six years and Facebook four years to gain the same number of active users that TikTok has managed to acquire in three years. The app has been downloaded over 1.5 billion times in the past year on Google Play and the App Stores, and is now the number one non-gaming app in the United States, according to Oberlo and Business Insider. 

     “It started as a joke but now we’re addicted,” is a very common explanation that pops up on Tik Tok every now and again when some creators want to give their reasoning for joining the app. Many of our own SSSAS students have been hypnotized into joining the video sharing app themselves. When asked what caused them to join Tik Tok, Senior Charles Colby said, “A lot of people were using it. I thought it looked interesting.” 

     Senior Ashlyn Lee agreed, further saying, “My friends were using it and I thought it was super funny like I wanted to watch the videos for myself, and to make videos because I think I’m hilarious.” Tik Tok really has become a way to spread comedy, and has led to the popularization of many trends such as poking fun at a potential WWIII, by talking about avoiding a possible draft. 

     Despite TikTok’s popularity, many U.S. senators are questioning whether the app puts the American people in danger, and, according to CNN, “US lawmakers on both sides of the aisle warn that the app could pose a national security risk, and are calling on regulators and intelligence agencies to investigate TikTok’s ties to China.” In October 2019, Senators Tom Cotton and Chuck Schumer suggested that the US federal government should evaluate whether TikTok or other Chinese-owned social media apps are a security risk. The main risks are the U.S. could be spied on or “[be] targets of foreign influence campaigns like the Russian meddling campaign to influence the 2016 US presidential election,” according to CNN. 

 

     Many students at SSSAS share little to no concern to the possibility of their information being leaked by TikTok to the Chinese government. Meghan McCue, a sophmore, reflects “Why would China care that I’m dancing in my school bathroom? I don’t understand why they would care so much about it. It’s just me, in my room dancing.” 

Ashlyn Lee, a senior, explains “I didn’t care if my identity was stolen or anything. I still don’t care.” 

 

     Senior Isaac Ahdoot shared a similar notion, and stated, “I personally am not worried because I don’t really have a lot of important information. I’m not like a government official.”

It may be dangerous that TikTok is owned by a Chinese platform because it may be obliged to comply with or uphold beliefs of the Chinese Communist Party, and Senators Schumer and Cotton explained in a letter to the United States Director of National Intelligence that “there is no legal mechanism for Chinese companies to appeal if they disagree with a request," according to CNN. Senator Marco Rubio requested that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, CFIUS, analyze and examine how TikTok bought Musical.ly. This news was released shortly after the Washington Post published a story about the lack of posts related to the Hong Kong protests on TikTok as opposed to apps like Instagram or Twitter. However TikTok released a statement that said “We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked...[our team] reviews content for adherence to our US policies — just like other US companies in our space,” according to CNN.

 

     Lili Abizaid, a senior, explained that she downloaded TikTok because she had seen videos of it on Instagram and wanted to make TikToks with her friends. However, before midterms, she came to the decision to delete the app to focus on her studies. She commented, “I deleted it first of all because I wanted to study for midterms, but then, the reason why I really thought about deleting it, I guess, was I started seeing all these TikToks about the DMV, and schools in Virginia, and stuff about Arlington. I was like they’re definitely tracking me, and it’s owned by China. Also because the military were told to get off TikTok. I thought this could not be safe. I didn’t, I guess, redownload it after midterms because of that.” 

 

     Senior Evan Roper shared a similar opinion and explained, “They are definitely gathering data from our phones. Remember when we were only getting Virginia-specific TikToks. It was weird because it definitely knew, and then I was getting specific TikToks oriented towards me. I got a University of Oregon TikTok not too long ago.”

 

     Lili Abizaid went on to continue “I feel like our personal information is leaked through every app, but, I guess, I’m more concerned about TikTok because it has that direct connection to China. Instagram is chill because it’s owned by FaceBook, and America has their information, and even though it’s not great, it’s a little more trustworthy than the Chinese government having your information.”

 

     CFIUS now must come to a decision about the fate of TikTok. A possible outcome is that the committee finds that the platform presents no risk to United State national security and allow ByteDance to continue to operate. The absolute worst outcome for TikTok is that ByteDance would have to abandon TikTok which would either lead to returning the app back to Musical.ly or selling TikTok which would lead to it losing all its users in Europe and Asia. The most likely outcome is that CFIUS will create requirements for TikTok in order to stop any national security risks. 

 

     A new report from Check Point, a cybersecurity firm, states that TikTok has “multiple security vulnerabilities,” according to CNBC. The issue lies in the risk that possible hackers could access accounts and have the ability to change the account, upload or delete videos, and leak private information such as email addresses. Another weakness the firm found in the platform is that hackers could manipulate links to TikToks sent to phone numbers. CNBC states, “attackers could create a fake text message that appeared to be from TikTok, but actually contained a malicious link. Once users clicked on the link, hackers could take control of the account. There was also a vulnerability in a TikTok web domain which allowed attackers to insert a malicious code. This was used to retrieve personal information of users. CheckPoint said it disclosed the findings to TikTok and they have been patched.”

 

     According to Fox Business, a college student, Misty Hong, from Palo Alto is accusing “TikTok in a class-action lawsuit of transferring private user data to servers in China, despite the company’s assurances that does not store personal data there.” TikTok claims that they store U.S. user data in the United States and have back ups of this information in Singapore. The plaintiff claims that she downloaded TikTok in the Spring of 2019, but never went through with making an account. A few months later, “she discovered that TikTok had created an account for her without her knowledge and produced a dossier of private information about her, including biometric information gleaned from videos she created but never posted.” 

It was reported by Fox Business that the platform sent the student’s data to two servers in China: bugly.qq.com and umeng.com. It was released that Hong’s data was sent to those servers disclosing websites in her search history and information about her device. Other concerns include whether Baidu, the main search engine in China, could be ‘embedded’ in the app, and if the Chinese advertising company, Igexin, allows manufacturers to download spy-software on TikTok user’s devices. 

 

     BBC News reports that U.S. Army does not allow its personnel to download TikTok on devices owned by the United States government similarly to the US Navy. The Department of Defence announced that military employees should “be wary of applications you download,” however, the military cannot enforce this rule on private devices. 

 

     The big lesson from all the breaking news surrounding whether or not TikTok is a threat to national security is the value of one’s personal information. It is not clear whose information TikTok may take, where that data is stored, or who the information is disclosed to. This storing of personal information possibly happens with other social media apps; however, since TikTok is owned by the Chinese government this may pose a greater risk. The apps we have on our phone can come from anywhere and be run by anybody, so take caution when you download something and make sure you know what you are agreeing to.