President Donald J Trump has stepped up his attack on ByteDance Ltd. product TikTok and Tencent product WeChat amidst accusations that the apps provide user information to the Chinese government. On Thursday, Trump issued an executive order that bans the apps from operating in the United States after September 15th, unless their Chinese-owned parent companies sell them to American companies.
The business world is reeling as the President turns his attacks from verbal threats to executive action. Trump has long been outspoken against TikTok, claiming the company is a national security threat. But critics suggest another reason behind his feud with the platform, which provides users with software that allows them to make short videos of themselves and edit in music or visual effects. It’s user-friendly and has opened the door for many aspiring teen influencers to make their mark.
Vox describes the function of the app, “TikTok is one of the most popular — and most interesting — social media apps on the planet, but it has yet to enter the lexicon of most average Americans. The gist is this: Users film videos of themselves lip-syncing or acting out comedy sketches, up to 15 seconds long, and can choose from a database of songs, effects, or sound bites. Collaboration is a major incentive — you can do a ‘duet’ with someone by replying to their video, which creates a split-screen diptych, thus feeding into an endless chain of reactions. Users can also upload their own sounds, so it’s possible to lip-sync to someone else’s original video.”
TikTok was originally the app, Music.ly, and in 2017, a Chinese company, ByteDance Ltd., acquired the app for approximately $1 billion, and in 2018 merged it with their existing program, TikTok. By 2018, TikTok had surpassed Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and YouTube in new monthly downloads.
TikTok’s broad appeal to young audiences and user-friendly interface led to a rapid rise in active users. This young and active user base may account for the real reason that Donald Trump has picked a fight with the app giant.
In June of 2020, President Trump planned a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Forbes reports that the Trump campaign boasted having received over one million requests for tickets for the venue, which only seats just over 19,000. But the turnout was somewhat different than they expected.
The campaign, in anticipation of a massive overflow crowd, set up a second speaking stage outside, hoping to accommodate the number of fans of the President that they expected to attend. But when only 6,200 people showed, Trump and his campaign staff were left reeling. They hastily deconstructed the extra stage, and tried to spin it in a positive way, suggesting claims of empty seats were, “fake news,” and that protesters had prevented people from turning up.
So what happened, and how is TikTok involved?
Teenagers on TikTok, no fans of Donald Trump, began a campaign in June to encourage people to claim tickets, and then fail to turn up to the venue. It seemed like a silly prank, but the prank swelled to massive proportions when they involved K-pop stans, Korean pop star fans with huge fan bases and great social media reach. This escalation in effort garnered hundreds of thousands of ticket claims.
The venue was first-come, first-served, so people weren’t denied entry as a result of the campaign, but it inflated the numbers expected to attend and led the President’s people to expect support that did not materialize. It also messed with the campaign’s algorithm that they use to project support numbers for the campaign in general.
MSN quotes campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh, “Leftists always fool themselves into thinking they’re being clever. Registering for a rally only means you’ve RSVPed with a cell phone number. Every rally is general admission and entry is first-come-first served. But we thank them for their contact information.”
But despite his attempt to seem unbothered, the President did not seem to share in his cavalier response to the blow dealt by K-pop stans and TikTok influencers. An image shared widely of Trump returning home from the rally shows a man who is unenthusiastic, who looks disappointed and upset, and was quickly turned into a meme mocking the whole incident.
It was not long after this blow to his ego that Trump began escalating his verbal attacks on TikTok. While it’s true that TikTok has flaws that can be exploited by foreign interests hostile to the United States, the claims the President levels at the company about being Chinese spyware are unproven. Some tech companies and government departments have required employees to delete the app, ostensibly to avoid putting their software at risk, but the case against TikTok remains mostly conjecture.
Aside from fan anger at the prospect of losing a platform they have come to love, and some have come to earn money from, the precedent being offered here is troubling to many. The executive order states, “I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, find that additional steps must be taken to deal with the national emergency with respect to the information and communications technology and services supply chain declared in Executive Order 13873 of May 15, 2019 (Securing the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain). Specifically, the spread in the United States of mobile applications developed and owned by companies in the People’s Republic of China (China) continues to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States. At this time, action must be taken to address the threat posed by one mobile application in particular, TikTok.
TikTok, a video-sharing mobile application owned by the Chinese company ByteDance Ltd., has reportedly been downloaded over 175 million times in the United States and over one billion times globally. TikTok automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users, including Internet and other network activity information such as location data and browsing and search histories. This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information — potentially allowing China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.
TikTok also reportedly censors content that the Chinese Communist Party deems politically sensitive, such as content concerning protests in Hong Kong and China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. This mobile application may also be used for disinformation campaigns that benefit the Chinese Communist Party, such as when TikTok videos spread debunked conspiracy theories about the origins of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus.
These risks are real. The Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration, and the United States Armed Forces have already banned the use of TikTok on Federal Government phones. The Government of India recently banned the use of TikTok and other Chinese mobile applications throughout the country; in a statement, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology asserted that they were ‘stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorized manner to servers which have locations outside India.’ American companies and organizations have begun banning TikTok on their devices. The United States must take aggressive action against the owners of TikTok to protect our national security.”
While the accusations he makes are alarming, what is more alarming is the lack of any cited proof. Trump’s executive order alludes to India’s EIT statement about clandestine transference of private information, but does not provide any proof that his administration has investigated this independently in depth.
Data mining by social media platforms does pose danger to countries by providing information that allows companies to tailor the way they disseminate information, TikTok denies actually doing providing that information to anyone. They have an American CEO and claim that the Chinese government has no sway over the way they conduct business. They also say that if Beijing were to request information on the data they collect on users, the request would be denied.
TikTok responded to the executive order, saying, “TikTok is a community full of creativity and passion, a home that brings joy to families and meaningful careers to creators. And we are building this platform for the long term. TikTok will be here for many years to come.
We are shocked by the recent Executive Order, which was issued without any due process. For nearly a year, we have sought to engage with the US government in good faith to provide a constructive solution to the concerns that have been expressed. What we encountered instead was that the Administration paid no attention to facts, dictated terms of an agreement without going through standard legal processes, and tried to insert itself into negotiations between private businesses.
We made clear our intentions to work with the appropriate officials to devise a solution to benefit our users, creators, partners, employees, and the broader community in the United States. There has been, and continues to be, no due process or adherence to the law. The text of the decision makes it plain that there has been a reliance on unnamed ‘reports’ with no citations, fears that the app ‘may be’ used for misinformation campaigns with no substantiation of such fears, and concerns about the collection of data that is industry standard for thousands of mobile apps around the world. We have made clear that TikTok has never shared user data with the Chinese government, nor censored content at its request. In fact, we make our moderation guidelines and algorithm source code available in our Transparency Center, which is a level of accountability no peer company has committed to. We even expressed our willingness to pursue a full sale of the US business to an American company.
This Executive Order risks undermining global businesses’ trust in the United States’ commitment to the rule of law, which has served as a magnet for investment and spurred decades of American economic growth. And it sets a dangerous precedent for the concept of free expression and open markets. We will pursue all remedies available to us in order to ensure that the rule of law is not discarded and that our company and our users are treated fairly – if not by the Administration, then by the US courts.
We want the 100 million Americans who love our platform because it is your home for expression, entertainment, and connection to know: TikTok has never, and will never, waver in our commitment to you. We prioritize your safety, security, and the trust of our community – always. As TikTok users, creators, partners, and family, you have the right to express your opinions to your elected representatives, including the White House. You have the right to be heard.”
Tencent, owner of WeChat and target of a second executive order with similar aims, is more moderated in their response. CNN quotes them as saying, “[we are] reviewing the executive order to get a full understanding,” according to a company spokesperson.
Other businesses watching this exchange must be nervous, wondering if their company will be strong-armed next. Many argue that, security risk or no, the President having so much control over a company’s ability to do business is a dangerous precedent. US-based company Microsoft is moving forward with talks to purchase TikTok, which would adhere to the President’s requirement and allow the app to continue functioning after September 15th.
However, Trump has indicated that any deal struck to keep the app alive, would have to include, “a substantial amount of money coming to the US Treasury.”
While not included in the executive order, that statement has alarmed many, including those who support the President’s action against TikTok. Trump has long been criticized for being unable to separate business and political interests, and it seems as though this blind spot extends not only to his businesses and his own political interests, but the businesses of others as well.
It certainly isn’t a common function of democracy for a President to take such a serious stance against any global business. Other businesses who operate outside of the US or who are owned by foreign companies are now wondering if they will be next, and if their customers actions will force their hand in business decisions.
While there are legitimate concerns about TikTok, this is not the first business to be suspected of data mining, and not the first to be accused of using customer information for corporate espionage and blackmail. But usually such a drastic measure would come after investigations proving the allegations, rather than conjecture that they may be true.
It is a bizarre move to rely on the investigations of another nation to determine how we allow businesses to function within our own country. Whatever the outcome with the potential sale to Microsoft, the business world is watching closely and waiting to see what comes of this move by the President.
If, as many suspect, Trump is acting on hurt feelings and lashing out at TikTok out of ire, other businesses will need to guard their interests carefully. If, however, TikTok is proven to be dealing in clandestine information exchange and endangering American national security, this experiment in presidential power will pay off. By September 15th, the fate of TikTok will be revealed to its users and fanbase, and the question, “can the President force a business to alter its future by strong-arming them?” will be answered.