All eyes are on TikTok: Politicians around the world are discussing whether and how they can restrict or even ban the Chinese video streaming service, which has become one of the most popular apps among young people.

While the European Union wants to force TikTok with new laws to take aggressive action against harmful content, countries from the USA to Japan are considering how they can regulate the app – or whether they should even follow India’s example and ban it completely.

Your fear: China’s government could abuse TikTok for its own interests. Beijing, so the theory goes, could use the app as a kind of Trojan horse to gain access to sensitive user data or to spread disinformation abroad. And digital law experts tell DW that there is certainly cause for concern.

“Concerns about possible surveillance by the Chinese regime are justified,” says Estelle Massé of the Brussels-based NGO Access Now. At the same time, you have to keep an eye on TikTok “because it is growing faster than any other social network in the world and its target group is very young”.

For years, TikTok’s parent company, Chinese tech conglomerate ByteDance, has faced criticism for the way it handles user data. Especially since it became known in December that ByteDance employees had accessed the data of Western journalists, the pressure on authorities to regulate the platform has increased.

At DW’s request, a TikTok spokeswoman explained the incident as the “misconduct of individuals who are no longer employed by ByteDance” and emphasized that the requirements for access to user data have been “significantly tightened” since then.

But although TikTok data is stored in data centers outside of China, “limited employee access” from China is still necessary “to support our global community”. At the same time, the spokeswoman emphasized that “we have never been asked to provide TikTok user data to the Chinese government, nor have we provided any data to them.”

The rapid rise of the app is unique in the history of the internet. In just a few years, TikTok has grown from a niche product for teenagers singing playback to one of the world’s leading social media platforms, where users are increasingly looking for information and consuming news.

ByteDance launched TikTok, which it had developed along the lines of its Chinese app Douyin, in 2018. Three years later, in September 2021, the platform announced it had one billion active monthly users – a milestone that Facebook, for example, only reached more than eight years after its founding. According to download statistics, the number has continued to rise since then; TikTok itself does not provide any information on current user numbers.

The secret of the app’s success, analysts agree, is its “ForYou-Page”. It is an individualized video stream that looks different for each user. Immediately after opening the app, it starts playing. At the same time, software analyzes in the background what attracts the user’s attention. Factors include how long they watch a clip before swiping to the next. In this way, the software learns more and more about the users over time and adapts the content of their feeds to their respective interests.

“Ultimately, the algorithm of the ‘ForYou-Page’ has a relatively clumsy goal,” says Martin Degeling from the Berlin think tank Stiftung Neue responsibility (SNV), who analyzed TikTok’s recommendation system. “It’s about predicting what users are interested in at that precise moment in order to keep them on the platform for as long as possible.”

Given that users are increasingly using the app as a news source – and large media outlets including DW regularly post on the platform – warnings are mounting that TikTok could be misused to spread misleading information in a targeted manner. In the US, senior officials like FBI Director Chris Wray have warned that China’s government could “manipulate content” even on TikTok.

According to SNV researcher Degeling, “there is a risk that TikTok will be used to deliberately spread disinformation and influence public opinion”. But, he also emphasized, in his opinion this danger is “no greater than with other platforms”.

TikTok denies the allegations. Its spokeswoman said the platform was trying to “proactively limit the spread of misleading information.” There are partnerships with fact-checking organizations. At the same time, videos have recently been given warnings if they are uploaded from “accounts operated by organizations whose editorial work or decision-making processes are under the control or influence of a government”.

And then there’s the question of what impact the use of TikTok might have on the mental health of its mostly young users. In the USA, for example, according to a study by the think tank Pew Research Center from 2022, more than two thirds of all teenagers are now using the app.

Some health experts warn that the way TikTok works could encourage addictive behavior. Others say users’ cognitive abilities may suffer with prolonged use. Spending too much time on the app could lead to a shorter attention span or even trigger anxiety or depression – a phenomenon that has been described as the “TikTok brain”. Against this background, China has enacted rules restricting the use of the TikTok counterpart Douyin for children Limit under 14s to 40 minutes per day.

But so far there is not enough scientific evidence for these theses, according to Philipp Lorenz-Spreen from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

“We simply don’t yet know what TikTok is doing with the psychology and behavior of its users,” he says. There are two main reasons for this: “On the one hand, TikTok is a completely new platform with no historical comparison from which one could learn,” says Lorenz-Spreen. “Second, TikTok makes it difficult for researchers to study its impact because it gives them little access to its data.”

That could change soon, at least in the European Union, when a legislative package for platform regulation gradually comes into force from autumn. The new rules force particularly large social platforms, among other things, to disclose technical details to researchers. The EU has not yet commented on whether it will include TikTok among these big platforms; However, experts agree that this is the case.

Across the Atlantic, lawmakers in the US House of Representatives are voting this month on a bill aimed at banning the app outright. If passed, the law could pave the way for US President Joe Biden’s administration to ban the platform nationwide on national security grounds.

TIkTok itself is clearly trying to prevent this. Lobbyists for the firm have been swarming the offices of Washington, D.C. lawmakers for months. to Brussels to persuade them to soften forthcoming regulations. At the same time, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew travels to various capitals around the world to meet with policymakers.

Before this charm offensive, TikTok tried for years to test the limits of existing data protection rules, according to data protection expert Estelle Massé from Access Now. At the same time, she emphasizes that the mass collection of data is common practice in all major social networks.

“The fact that we still have questions about TikTok is sad industry norm, if you will,” she says. It is therefore all the more important that governments, when considering TikTok, do not lose sight of what other platforms such as Instagram are doing.

“TikTok is in the eye of the storm, and for good reason,” says Massé. “But we shouldn’t give other platforms a convenient way to hide behind TikTok while engaging in the same or similar practices.”

Author: Janosch Delcker

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The original to this post “TikTok: Why the app is being targeted by authorities” comes from Deutsche Welle.