Text: Raja Madani
Shou Zi Chew, TikTok CEO. Wikimedia Commons.
Not so long ago, TikTok was taken over by political figures from all over the world willing to use it as one of their communication tools. In the past few months, the rating of the social media among institutions is decreasing. What is the link between cybersecurity and geopolitics regarding the China/US rivalry?
“Allowing TikTok in America is like allowing the Soviet Union to create cartoons for American children during the Cold War”. This is how the US representative Mrs. Cathy McMorris Rodgers justified the urge to ban the app in the United States during the TikTok CEO’s congressional hearing on March 23, 2023.
Since last December, the platform owned by the Chinese giant ByteDance has become highly controversial. Almost a dozen countries and international organisations across the world, including the EU and NATO, decided to ban it on some or all of the devices of their institutions. This list continues to grow rapidly and now the question of banning the app for all citizens arises.
The social media is mainly criticised for the cyber-security threats it entails. Its unclear code, its huge collection of personal data and its mysterious algorithm do not really reassure our leaders about its transparency and are perceived as a threat to the citizens as well as to the institutions and states.
Towards citizens, the app is mainly accused of opinion manipulation through the spread of misinformation, political advertisement, and censorship. The Global Witness and the Cybersecurity for Democracy (C4D) team at NYU reported for example that from all the disinformation ads tested by the team through an experiment, 90% were approved by TikTok.
This kind of manipulation is particularly dangerous, especially when elections take place, since it could have direct consequences on the public opinion of individuals, their ability to act and therefore their democratic free will.
A risk of spying on citizens through the personal data collected in order to learn more about them and influence the course of events is also pointed out by TikTok’s opponents.
This threat of spying extends to institutions, making the concern even bigger. While Shou Zi Chew, CEO of TikTok, reaffirmed a few days ago that the data of European and American users were only stored in these territories, experts do not exclude the risk that they could be accessible to ByteDance, headquartered in Beijing, and to the Chinese government if requested.
These concerns are not meaningless. An internal investigation revealed by the New York Times on December 22 last year has shown that some American journalists were spied on by TikTok employees in order to identify their sources regarding their covering of the social media platform.
For its part, TikTok responds that the employees responsible for spying on journalists have been fired and that the platform is working hard to ensure that this kind of event does not happen again.
Now the particularly interesting aspect of the TikTok ban we are currently witnessing is its direct link to the international geopolitical landscape. Although cyber-security concerns are justified, it seems that they are not the only ones influencing the questioning of TikTok by governments and international organisations.
In reality, the majority of facts reproached to the platform, such as the collection and resale of excessive personal data, the dissemination of misinformation, or the lack of transparency on its operation are things that can be reproached to any social media. Remember the Cambridge Analytica scandal involving Facebook in 2016.
The particularity of TikTok that makes it currently more worrying than any other social media is its direct link with China, a state which is becoming a serious economical and political rival rather than an ally of liberal democratic countries.
As an integral part of its development strategy, China’s technological plan seems to be reaching new heights these days, raising the country to the level of a cyber power. Tencent, Huawei, Xiaomi, Alibaba, ByteDance… Chinese tech giants are multiplying and expanding, contributing to the drastic expansion of China’s international power thus competing with the United States and its tech giants.
For example, the country has spent in the past few years 400 billion dollars in research and development, 130 billion per year in green tech, 1650 billion for the deployment of 5G and 13 billion in artificial intelligence.
As a result, today, China dominates the US in 37 out of 44 advanced technologies according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s report published on March 2.
Faced with this rise in power, the United States has put in place a set of restrictions on China’s access to key technologies being promoted by Washington, officially to protect national security. European states, such as the Netherlands, have also decided to follow the United States in this restrictive manoeuvre. The same is true for Japan.
The phenomenal expansion of TikTok and its colossal success among the population in a context such as this one can then only worry the West even more. In addition to cyber-security concerns, a fear of a shift in power dynamics seems to be expressed through the TikTok ban. In a way, it reinforces the growing rivalry between the communist state of China and the United States, involving the establishment of blocs that include the allies of both countries. The comparison of the current situation of TikTok with that of the Soviet Union during the Cold War by Mrs. Rodgers might not then be so insignificant.
At this point, TikTok continues to claim its independence from the Chinese government and its willingness to cooperate with U.S. and European institutions to provide them with evidence to ensure the safety of the platform.
Although the U.S and Europe are quite reserved about the veracity of these statements, compromises will still have to be found between the different parties.
Indeed, our states are no longer able to completely suppress TikTok, just as they are no longer able to compose internationally without China, if they don’t want to bear the important consequences that would follow.
The platform is now deeply rooted in the daily lives of millions of people, especially young generations. And even if you are not a user, its viral videos tend to make the web rounds. You’ve probably already seen them appear somewhere else.
Above all, this platform represents a colossal economic stake. Thousands of people have made it their main source of income and are therefore very worried about its potential disappearance.
So what will happen to TikTok amid this turmoil? Only time will tell. What seems certain, however, is that decisions about the future of the app regarding the cyber-security risks it entails will not be made without our leaders having in mind the geopolitical polarisation that surrounds us, as it has already started to be the case.