Kelly Evans: TikTok on the Clock

CNBC

All the bellyaching about social media platforms in the past now seems quaint compared with the challenge that TikTok presents. 

At least Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram were home-grown nemeses to our attention and privacy. TikTok presents a far more serious threat. As Ben Thompson at Stratechery has pointed out, "TikTok data absolutely can be sent to China...All Chinese Internet companies are compelled by the country's National Intelligence Law to turn over any and all data that the government demands, and that power is not limited by China's borders."  

It's why plenty of big companies--including ours--will no longer allow you to download the app on your work phone. But there's also a more subtle threat; TikTok's control over what you see when you open the app. This is the appeal of TikTok; unlike Facebook or Instagram, if you put up a video on TikTok, it can immediately be shown to the whole public, instead of just the people who already follow you. A new user can suddenly command three million likes if their video is good enough; TikTok keeps showing it to a wider and wider audience if people like it.  

So the algorithms are in control of what everyone sees; put differently, that means TikTok itself is in control. And if it wanted to, say, advance its own agenda or foment social unrest in the U.S., it would be pretty easy to do that by pushing out such content to its estimated 50-80 million daily U.S. users. As Thompson observed, "how much of a leap is it to think that a [Chinese Communist] Party committed to ideological dominance will forever leave a route directly into the hearts and minds of millions of Americans untouched?" 

And yet here I am, messing around at home with my husband's TikTok account. Why? Because it's where all the eyeballs are, especially the younger ones. And once you dive into the spool of short, catchy, musical TikTok content, it's hard not to see all the other social platforms as dinosaurs by comparison. They seem stale, boring, so 2010s. I am in no way surprised that TikTok parent company ByteDance has been trading at a $250 billion valuation in private trades, as reported this week. It seems the app will only continue to grow users and command more advertising dollars from the U.S. tech giants.  

The new administration has gone quiet on the TikTok front, which seems like a tacit admission to the public that it's okay to keep using the app. But as outlandish as banning or forcing a sale of TikTok in the U.S. might have seemed, it may be the only way to deal with its enormous success and the threats it uniquely presents. And for an administration that is eager to show that  "Government must be a powerful force for good in the lives of Americans," this would be an odd place to risk doing "too little" instead of "too much." 

 See you in a couple of weeks! 

Kelly

Twitter: @KellyCNBC

Instagram: @realkellyevans

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