Illustration by Ash Ramirez of a TikTok map

Calm Down, Take a Breath, and Don’t Believe the TikTok Hype

TikTok has been downloaded across the world over 2 billion times, but the app still isn't as important to our daily lives as the hype would have us believe.
August 17, 2020
8 mins read

TikTok is all the rage nowadays. The video-sharing app, known for viral dance routines and its mysterious algorithm, is the latest pop culture craze. With over 800 million active users — more than Snapchat and Twitter combined — TikTok has quickly become one of the most popular social networks on Earth.

The app began its global rise following a merger with Musical.ly just two years ago. Recently, though beloved by many, TikTok has found itself enmeshed in a fair bit of controversy. Some are sounding alarms and insisting that the app is being used by the Chinese government as a tool to spy on Americans. This is considered especially problematic given the heightened tensions between the two countries.

Such concerns are being echoed by the White House, who worry about “the app’s Chinese ownership” (TikTok belongs to ByteDance, a firm based in Beijing). Donald Trump has threatened to ban TikTok if not bought by an American company before Sept. 15, 2020. In a strange display of bipartisanship, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer backed the president. During a press conference in early August, Schumer said, “I have been very opposed to TikTok … and I have urged that it be shut down in America.”

There has been quite a lot of fuss made about this quirky app, and experts are suggesting we pump the brakes. In regards to allegations of Chinese spying, cybersecurity writer and tech CEO Zak Doffman said, “This is certainly not proven and almost certainly not true on any level.” Security expert Mike Thompson strikes a similar tone: “I’ve yet to see a documented, material threat.”

It is also worth noting that TikTok, while owned by a Chinese multinational, is run by an American CEO. And though the app does collect a lot of data from its users, so does every other social media platform. “[TikTok] is not any worse or better than what Facebook, Google and thousands of apps are already doing,” concluded information technology professional Ian Thornton-Trump.

There is valid concern, however, that TikTok could be used to spread disinformation. But this problem is by no means unique to TikTok; it plagues all forms of social media. Promoting freedom of expression typically leads to some people feeling empowered to say false things. Facebook, for example, has had no shortage of problems with users spreading fake news on their platform.

The anti-TikTok hysteria, though unfounded in empirical terms, has played into the election strategies of both major party presidential candidates. For months now, Trump and Biden have been fighting to outflank one another concerning who is “tougher” on China.

And while Biden has not been as bullish on banning TikTok as Trump, he has prohibited campaign staff from downloading it, and the Democratic National Committee has warned all Americans against using the app. The Republican National Committee makes the same recommendation. This is, by all accounts, a bipartisan effort.

The demonization of TikTok, and the traction it has gained, exposes a profound flaw within the American psyche. Indeed, it is an extension of extreme patriotism that regards almost everything foreign as fundamentally dangerous. In this specific case, any social network not created by the United States must be evil in some form or another. Though there is no evidence to support the claim, it is assumed that the seemingly innocuous TikTok is being used for nefarious ends by enemies of America.

This distrust of all that lies outside our borders is a logical consequence of the American exceptionalism taught to children from virtually the moment they can begin to comprehend language. Americans are told that they live in a country that stands above all others in its virtue — a “shining city upon a hill,” as Ronald Reagan famously repurposed from John Winthrop.

Since the United States is just so great, it follows that the rest of the world pales in comparison in every way imaginable. Outsiders are less moral, less virtuous and therefore less deserving of trust than we. America and her citizens must therefore stay vigilant against the world’s many evildoers, and never let their guard down. The foreigners are coming for us and trying to do us immeasurable harm.

In the current political moment, this culture of fear is being weaponized most palpably against China. And, indeed, the anti-TikTok movement is reflective of rising tensions between China and the United States. But these ideological currents long precede the present wave of Sinophobia and will likely far outlast it.

The targeting of TikTok is also a testament to American decline. Many historians have noted that, since emerging as the clear global hegemon in the aftermath of World War II, America’s power relative to the rest of the world has been steadily diminishing. That trend is widely believed to have accelerated under the sitting presidential administration, who apparently believes that an app best known for the Renegade dance poses a significant threat to national security. It is a rather shaky superpower that worries TikTok may be its downfall.

Comparably shaky are the app’s many fans who find themselves utterly distraught by the possibility that their favorite time-waster might get taken away. A now-deleted viral tweet comes to mind that alleged that banning TikTok would lead to a massive spike in youth suicides. Of course, this statement is more of a blind conjecture than an educated guess. However, it nonetheless speaks to the outsized importance of TikTok in the lives of many young people.

It is probably not a good idea to allow your happiness and well-being to hinge on a single app — especially one as silly as TikTok. While quarantine has certainly not made things any easier, there are still plenty of ways to find joy and fulfillment that have nothing to do with the app in question. It would appear that both sides in the debate over banning TikTok are, on some level, prone to overreaction and hyperbole.

In short, we all just need to calm down about TikTok. With Microsoft and other American companies eyeing it for purchase, it is likely that TikTok is not going anywhere any time soon. Accordingly, it is about time we get back to discussing the real issues — like how much worse TikTok is than its antecedent Vine.

Elias Khoury, University of Michigan

Writer Profile

Elias Khoury

University of Michigan
Philosophy, Politics and Economics

Elias Khoury is an undergraduate junior at the University of Michigan. He's also on the editorial board of the Young Democratic Socialists of America's (YDSA) national publication, The Activist.

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