President Donald Trump has recently taken aim at a social media platform whose top three influencers’ ages combined are still less than his own.
TikTok, an app and worldwide phenomenon, allows more than 800 million users to upload 15- to 60-second videos mixed with music and effects to attract followers. Users build brands that can lead to advertising money. The videos range from short jokes and physical stunts to cooking tips and political takes. The most popular TikTok creator, 16-year-old dancer Charli D’Amelio, has posted almost 1,500 videos, earned more than 76 million followers, and reached nearly 5.5 billion total “likes.”
The majority of TikTok’s top influencers are American, but it did not originate in the United States. ByteDance, headquartered in Beijing, founded the app as “Douyin” in 2016 and rebranded the software to TikTok for release outside of China. Since then, millions of Americans have downloaded it. But some express concern that data given to TikTok could end up in the hands of the Chinese government.
The company denies giving user data to Chinese officials and says it stores all information on Americans in the United States. But since its parent company is in Beijing, some politicians believe TikTok might have to hand over anything it collects if the Chinese government requests it.
That potential has sparked bipartisan attention.
“Security experts have voiced concerns that China’s vague patchwork of intelligence, national security, and cybersecurity laws compel Chinese companies to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party,” Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said in a letter last year.
Some experts say the fears are overblown. No one has found specific evidence of Chinese officials requesting data, and TikTok has repeatedly denied that it must give any up.
“The Chinese government does not necessarily have unfettered real-time access to all companies’ data,” Samm Sacks, a Yale Law School senior fellow, said at a Senate hearing in March. TikTok and other corporations have “their own interests to protect,” he added.
Now, Microsoft is working to buy TikTok’s operations in the United States. Trump said he may not ban the app if those negotiations succeed. But he added another potential condition at a news conference on Monday, saying the U.S. Treasury “should get a very large percentage of that [sale] price because we’re making it possible.”
Chinese media reacted with anger on Monday night. Hu Xijin, an editor for the state-backed Global Times, called Trump’s suggestion “open robbery.” Another state paper, China Daily, referred to the president’s idea as a “smash and grab” and said Beijing could retaliate if the proceeds of the sale ended up going to the U.S. government.
Until then, Trump will hold off on banning the app, and millions of Americans can continue to use it—though perhaps with more awareness of the privacy concerns.
This story originally appeared in WORLD. © 2020, reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.