TikTok has become one of the most popular social networks in the world. This once again raises the thorny question of how to regulate online communication platforms. Operated by the Chinese giant ByteDance, TikTok emerged from the merger between Musical.ly, a 2017 strategic acquisition by Bytedance that aimed at penetration of foreign markets outside China, and Douyin, the domestic Chinese equivalent. From June onwards, Tiktok will be headed by Kevin Mayer, previously Director of Strategy at Disney (amongst other positions at Disney). The presence of an American citizen at the head of the platform speaks volumes about the ambition of a company that Western governments are wary of.
TikTok allows users to upload short videos online and share them with edits or comments. In the last three months, the application has been downloaded more than 100 million times every month, far surpassing the approximately 50 million downloads for Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp respectively.
As with every new popular social network on their rise, TikTok mainly attracts younger generations. In the United States, 60% of TikTok’s 26.5 million monthly users are between 16 and 24 years old according to the social network. In France, the app mainly attracts younger people. According to a study produced by Institut Montaigne, Internet: le péril jeune?, TikTok is used by 11% of 11 to 20 year olds. This figure is still far behind that of Snapchat (68%), Instagram (59%) and Facebook (43%) but it increases to 21% for 11 to 14-year olds, compared to 3% for 18 to 20-year olds.
TikTok finds itself at the crossroads of multiple tensions between China and the United States. Firstly, the company operating the social network is an object of technological competition. TikTok is developing cutting-edge tools for facial, image and voice recognition, rivalling with the capabilities of American giants. The company testifies of how intertwined innovation ecosystems in the United States and China are. In addition to Kevin Mayer’s appointment, TikTok is currently expanding its team of R&D engineers in the Silicon Valley and aims to strengthen the company’s American leadership.
Second, TikTok raises concerns over content moderation and foreign players’ ability to exert influence over national debates. This question already emerged from experiences with Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat. Of course, the stakes with TikTok are slightly different given that the company originates from a country where the state exports censorship, is engaged in a global contest against democratic values and has started during the Covid-19 crisis to step up foreign influence operations . The disappearance of pro-democracy content from the platform during demonstrations in Hong Kong at the end of 2019 has not only fuelled fears in the United States of an export of China's censorship practices, but also of TikTok's potential to conduct disinformation and influence campaigns in future US elections.