TikTok: its Origin, Features, and Ongoing Issues with Privacy and Censorship

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TikTok, a mobile application allowing users to create custom videos, has been making huge waves recently.

The Chinese social media platform has experienced an impressive user growth rate. It managed to add 500,000,000 users in 2019 alone. Its total number of users is purported to be somewhere around the 1.5 billion mark.

“It managed to add 500,000,000 users in 2019 alone.”

However, its increasing popularity has not been entirely without controversy.

How did TikTok come to be?

The application was originally called Douyin, owned by a company named ByteDance.

It was launched in China in 2016. Within its first year of operation, it had 100 million users, generating a billion video views a day in the process. It was launched internationally later on as TikTok.

“Within its first year of operation, it had 100 million users, generating a billion video views a day in the process.”

Towards the end of the following year, the application’s parent company spent a whopping $1 billion to purchase, and subsequently merge with, an application called Musical.ly.

The latter application originated in Shanghai, however, it had an office in Santa Monica, California. The latter had enabled Musical.ly to capture a number of American teenage users. The merger was concluded in 2018, with all data and users consolidated into a single application.

What does TikTok allow users to do exactly?

The TikTok iOS and Android application allows users to create a short video of themselves. The video can be slowed down or sped up, have custom background music, edited with a filter, or feature the user lip-syncing. The video can be up to 15 seconds long.

The application also has a ‘react‘ feature. This allows users to film themselves reacting to a second video.

“The feed is tailored by artificial intelligence, which analyzes your in-app behaviour.”

Further, users can film a video alongside another video. This feature is called ‘duet‘.

The content feed users are exposed to is customized for each person. The feed is tailored by artificial intelligence, which analyzes your in-app behavior to create a unique experience.

TikTok logo

Controversies and Concerns

There have been several issues plaguing the application, mostly related to data sharing and censorship.

Children’s privacy, bullying, and addiction

Earlier this year, the BBC reported that TikTok had failed to delete users who had sent sexual messages to children.

In fact, a large number of explicit comments had been found under videos posted by children, some as young as nine years old.

“In fact, a large number of explicit comments had been found under videos posted by children, some as young as nine years old. “

Despite the deletion of individual comments, the vast majority of the users who had originally posted them were allowed to remain on the application.

TikTok said that the issue with sexual predators was “an industry-wide challenge” and not specific to them.

In terms of addictiveness, users have reported that the ease with which one can ‘stalk‘ other users contributed to this. While others mentioned the fact that the application involves having to create something that allows for their recognition of their creativity and talent through comments and likes.

“A large number of creators on TikTok were being bullied and that the app was taking minimal measures to protect them.”

Finally, in November of 2018, Buzzfeed reported that a large number of creators on TikTok were being bullied and that the app was taking minimal measures to protect them.

Specifically, users mentioned the ‘duet‘ feature, which allows users to record a video side-by-side with a second video, as a tool with which bullying and other mean-spirited behaviors can take place on the application.

National Security Concerns

There has been a growing sense of apprehension regarding TikTok’s popularity and their approach to data storage and sharing.

In January of 2019, an American think tank pointed out that the application’s ability to convey location, biometric data and images to its parent company was a significant risk for the West.

“In January of 2019, an American think tank pointed out that the application’s ability to convey location, biometric data and images to its parent company was a significant risk for the West.”

Moreover, ByteDance’s founder stated in a 2018 letter that they would further ‘increase their cooperation’ with China’s Communist Party. What this means, in essence, is that the application will help protect or promote the Chinese government’s policies, ideologies, and causes.

Censorship Issues

There have numerous cases revolving around TikTok and how it deals with censorship.

These include instances where the Chinese government forced the application block anything deemed as critical towards the Communist Party or promoting protest against any of their causes.

“The Chinese government forced the application block anything deemed as critical towards the Communist Party or promoting protest against any of their causes.”

This involved blocking content mentioning human rights abuse in China, as well as the Xinjiang ‘re-education camps’.

Most recently, an American teenager was blocked from the application. The reason was posting a video in which they discussed the mass imprisonment of Chinese Muslims.

The New York Times reported that TikTok reversed its decision to block the user after acknowledging that their moderation system had gone too far.

The Future

TikTok’s rise has been a cultural phenomenon over the past two years. It’s seen as a legitimate challenger to the duopoly shared by Facebook’s Instagram and Snapchat.

However, it is hard to see how it can dispel the accusations against the way it operates in regard to data collection and policy enforcement. Its link to the Chinese state seems like a permanent fixture, but it remains to be seen whether this will culminate in any serious mass user exodus in the short-to-medium term.

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