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Ever since 2016 – when media analysts began warning of covert efforts by Russia and China to undermine American social media platforms – there has been increasing talk of the various threats that malevolent nation-states could pose. The newest center of attention is Chinese social media app TikTok, which has burst onto the scene and almost instantly become one of the most popular social media apps in both the U.S. and UK. Yet, beneath the surface layer of viral memes and funny videos there might be a deeper, more sinister intent that can be traced all the way back to Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party.
National security implications of TikTok
That’s right – the growing suspicion in many national security circles is that TikTok is really just a way for China to collect information and data about U.S. citizens. Cyber specialists who have studied the app have found backdoors and major security weaknesses that might be exploited by Beijing. The U.S. armed forces are so concerned, in fact, that they have banned all military personnel from downloading the Chinese social media app to their mobile devices. In a worst-case scenario, China might be able to track troop movements or push subtle propaganda designed to weaken the resolve of U.S. troops. Imagine what would happen, if U.S. naval officers on a mission to the South China Sea were to be playing around with TikTok in their free time.
Censorship at TikTok
And another major negative for TikTok is that – despite its reputation as a “viral meme generating machine” – it is really just a mechanism for censorship and content suppression. For example, during the time of the Hong Kong protests, TikTok appeared to be shadow banning content from the protests (which were anti-Chinese in nature). Add to the fact that TikTok is an app that acts like spyware on your phone, constantly looking for ways to access your data and see what else you’re doing online, and it’s clear that TikTok could be used as part of a giant surveillance network by the paranoid Chinese state.
No wonder some have declared TikTok a “public danger” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has even suggested that the U.S. might declare an outright ban on Chinese social media apps. In the same way that the U.S. is banning the use of Huawei 5G networking gear (and strongly putting pressure on allies to do the same), the U.S. could also ban the use of TikTok in America.
Big questions for brands and digital marketers
Which, of course, raises a number of thorny questions for brands and digital marketers. Do you really want to be courting social media influencers on TikTok at a time when the app is close to being labeled a national security threat? And do you want your brand associated with an app that appears to be much more sinister and dark than it might appear to be on the surface? It’s one thing to use TikTok to reach the 18-to-24 demographic, but do you really want America’s youth under the surveillance of the Chinese Communist Party?
OK, OK, maybe this sounds a little bit too conspiratorial. Just as we probably overshot the mark on just how much influence Russia had on social media ahead of the 2016 election, we may now be overstating just how much of a threat TikTok poses to American democracy. But many TikTok influencers have already seen the writing on the wall, and have started advertising for fans to follow them on Instagram and YouTube instead. It’s now time for brands to make a similar type of move and stop sugar coating a potentially dangerous Chinese app. Tick-tock, the clock is now counting down to the end of the TikTok social media phenomenon.