Three years since TikTok was launched, the video-sharing social network grown rapidly to accumulate more than two billion downloads, one of the most popular apps of the moment, beating even Instagram or YouTube in consumption time in the United States, United Kingdom or Spain, particularly among younger age segments.
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TikTok might be described as a repository of canned content to be conveniently remixed with user-created videos, a viral meme generating machine that makes users feel like rock stars, and has even been used as a way to coordinate protests against Donald Trump by sinking his COVID-19 comeback rally last week in Tulsa, as well as launching denial of inventory attacks on the US president’s merchandising site.
And of course if you dare to criticize TikTok, you’ll simply be told that you’re too old to understand it, that young people have different criteria to yours. Which is all well and good, but what is TikTok? How reliable are the criteria of young people?
A year ago now, I published an article in Forbes criticizing TikTok for its failure to take responsibility for a variety of misuses of the app.
Since then, the US armed forces have forbidden personnel from using it and describes it as a threat to cybersecurity. Israeli cybersecurity company Check Point has investigated it and concludes it has backdoors and major vulnerabilities, as well as overall security issues. The US government is also investigating it. Meanwhile, Reddit CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman describes it as a “fundamentally parasitic app that is always listening” and warns against installing what he calls “spyware”. Several child advocacy groups say it poses a clear risk to children. Apple claims it has caught TikTok using clipboard capture mechanisms to spy on millions of users.
Other investigations reveal that its content censorship standards are decided by the Chinese government and are clearly discriminatory. A cybersecurity expert who has reverse engineered the app warns people to stay away from it. In short, it’s not hard to find evidence of the problematic nature of TikTok. And yet it thrives, a time bomb in the making.
Why are so many people and institutions attacking a seemingly innocent app? Are we critics just a bunch of out of touch old fogeys?
I don’t believe so: TikTok is a very irresponsible company, dangerous by design. And not simply by carelessness, mistake or default: this is a deep and patent irresponsibility, a philosophy focused on the constant capture of all kinds of user data… the type of app you would expect from a Chinese company operating in China that makes a few cosmetic changes to adapt it to the West — if that — applying the same criteria and philosophy it does in China. In short, not recommendable for children or adults, particularly thanks to its sinister content recommendation system. And now under the benevolent guise of a Western CEO formerly at Disney.
All tools can be adapted to almost any use. Many young and not-so-young people who use TikTok today consider it fun, a fad, a way of expressing themselves, or even a vehicle for activism. But it’s not that, or at least it’s not really that. It’s dangerous, by design. It’s the application of Chinese philosophy on the internet — we want to see everything, know everything, analyze everything without limits — to a West where, apparently, we’re trying to put some kind of limits on it. It’s taken many years to recognize Facebook for what it is and to try to bring it into line through boycotts: we should act now to limit TikTok and its malevolent activities.
Have no illusions: beneath its seemingly innocent exterior, TikTok is a public danger. I have been teaching innovation for thirty years and open to all new ideas. I have nothing against China, a country I study closely, I have no interests in any of TikTok’s competitors: I speak on the basis of my analysis, my experience and what many other analysts have written. I’ve been saying it for a while, and everything I’m seeing and reading confirms my analysis. TikTok can’t be fixed: it’s problems lie in its very conception and the culture behind it. My advice is to avoid it like the plague. Don’t say you weren’t warned.