All the kids are talking about it. And now, so are government officials and corporate bigwigs. An app typically known for short, clever videos (and lots of dancing), TikTok has recently found itself at the center of international scrutiny. Critics say that TikTok’s massive presence in the US is a national security risk, because the app is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese tech company. Business leaders are also worried, in some cases asking their employees to delete the app from their devices. But what risks does TikTok really pose? And is this debate more than just a proxy for rising tensions between the US and China?
This week on Gadget Lab, WIRED staff writer Louise Matsakis joins us to talk about TikTok culture and what would happen if the app actually got banned.
Read Louise’s story about the national security risks TikTok poses here. Read more about Amazon’s “accidental” TikTok ban here. Read Louise’s story about inmates who use TikTok in prison here. Read more about WitchTok users hexing the moon here.
Louise recommends Riding the Iron Rooster, by Paul Theroux. Mike recommends The War on Cars podcast. Lauren recommends Alan Henry’s WIRED article about how to stay productive while sheltering in place.
Louise Matsakis can be found on Twitter @lmatsakis. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our executive producer is Alex Kapelman (@alexkapelman). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.
If you have feedback about the show, or just want to enter to win a $50 gift card, take our brief listener survey here.
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Lauren Goode: Mike.
Michael Calore: Lauren.
LG: Mike, are you on TikTok?
MC: I am not. I'm far too old for TikTok.
LG: Is there an official age cutoff for TikTok? Not really. You could be on TikTok.
MC: Yeah, but unofficially, I think once you're a man in your 40s, you just should not be on TikTok.
LG: All right. Fair enough. I browse it sometimes, but TikTok is a big deal, and it's getting even more attention these days, because it's become a question of national security. And we're going to talk about that right now.
[Intro theme music]
LG: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. I'm Lauren Goode, a senior writer at WIRED. WIRED senior editor Michael Calore is here too. And by here, I mean there. He's over there.
MC: Hello from over here.
LG: Hello, Mike. And we are also joined by WIRED staff writer Louise Matsakis from New York. Hi, Louise.
Louise Matsakis: Hey.
LG: Thanks so much for being here. So today, we're talking about TikTok. Last week, this app, which is for short, clever videos that the kids and influencers are all about, this app is now at the center of this ongoing power struggle between the US and China. Critics say that TikTok's massive presence here is a national security risk, because the app is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese tech company. And it's not just the government that's worried about TikTok. Amazon and Wells Fargo recently made a lot of headlines when these companies sent out statements to their employees asking them to delete the app.
Amazon's story is a little weird. The company later backtracked and said that the emails were sent accidentally. I don't really know. I don't know what that means. Sure, your cat stepped on the keyboard and hit the Send button. But anyway, people are still worried about the app and privacy and security, and White House officials have said that the US is considering outlawing the app entirely.
So later in the show, we're going to talk about the culture of TikTok, what it means to be on the app, and why so many people would be upset at the thought of the app being banned. But first, I do want to talk about the national security concerns. Louise, how valid are these worries?
LM: I think it's really hard to look at these worries in a vacuum, because there's basically no hard evidence. A couple of security researchers have found flaws with TikTok, but they're pretty much in line with the same kinds of flaws that are exposed with Facebook, with Twitter, with all sorts of apps all the time.
I think that you have to look at the ambient factors here. For example, as you mentioned there, the friendship between the US and China is not in a good place. Things are really deteriorating. The other day, literally, there were documents on fire at the Houston Consulate of China. These countries really don't like each other right now, and I think that TikTok has become a pawn in the middle. And that's really what's happening.
However, I don't think that you can discount the fact that TikTok is definitely owned by a Chinese company, and there is no doubt that if the CCP wanted to put pressure on TikTok to release user data or to give up information to them that they found valuable, ByteDance would probably have no choice but to say yes.
MC: Can you tell us what we know about ByteDance as a company and its history?
LM: Yeah. ByteDance came to prominence in 2012, and they had these two apps that were really popular. I would consider them almost a text version of TikTok in a sense. One of them is like Apple News, but extremely vulgar. The context in China here is that Xi Jinping has come to power. He's the biggest authoritarian since Mao, and he's cracking down on free speech in the country even more so. So the newspapers are getting really boring.
So ByteDance comes in and they make this app that pulls in from all these different news outlets, from all these independent bloggers, and it just gives you the juicy stuff. That's what they were known for. So flash forward a couple of years, they actually got in trouble with the CCP, and the CEO of ByteDance had to make this crazy apology.
But the CEO of ByteDance was known in China as a playboy, Silicon Valley type who was really into titillating content. And then he made TikTok, which is like their other apps, except instead of text-based news it was about algorithmically driven videos. They're going to show you the things you like, the same way they showed people in China the stories that they liked. And then they started expanding globally. So ByteDance is known for being this company that shows you more of what you like, and it's often vulgar, titillating stuff. And now they're doing that with video.
So they bought a company called Musical.ly. If you're too old for TikTok, you're way too old for Musical.ly, which was this lip-syncing app for teens that ByteDance purchased a couple of years ago, and then they rebranded it into TikTok. So ByteDance is not the CCP's best friend, but when you operate in China, you have to be the CCP's best friend.
LG: And Louise, do they operate entirely in China? Because some of the reports I've seen suggest that TikTok has its servers elsewhere. So in some ways, that may make it more neutral in this whole fight. Is that true?
LM: Yeah. So TikTok has said, we keep data on US users outside of China. We have a new CEO who's a former streaming executive from Disney. We have thousands of employees now in the US. We're not subject to Chinese law. If China asked us to hand over data, we would say no.
So they've done this symbolic decoupling, I guess, which is a big term in China-US relations. ByteDance has tried to distance itself from Beijing in a number of ways. But the reality is that the ownership structure is still there. ByteDance still owns TikTok in full.
MC: And in the past, we've seen TikTok cave to pressure from Beijing over content on the platform, right?
LM: We haven't seen them cave to pressure on their international apps, but they have caved to pressure inside China, which they're basically required to by law. But outside of the country, TikTok said, "We would never listen to Beijing. We have these community guidelines that are designed by people in the US. Our moderators are in the West, and these are two different apps."
However, there's another version of TikTok in China that operates domestically. But basically, I think that what's so interesting about ByteDance is they are trying to do something that no other global tech company has done before, which is that they want to dominate both within China and outside of China. Facebook wanted to do that, Google wanted to do that, and basically the CCP said no.
MC: All of this concern about TikTok possibly being a tool for data harvesting and espionage makes me think of the worry that people used to have about hardware coming out of China, having back doors or possibilities of leaking data back to China. Our iPhones are made entirely in China, all of our networking hardware in our computers is made in China. Why is it that we're so worried about software and in particular, this piece of software when we're not as worried about the hardware?
LM: Well, first of all, I think that a lot of security people would say to you, it's ridiculous that we're not trying to lock down the supply chain, and instead we're worrying about this social media app. But hey, that's the Trump Administration. But I think that there are two worries with the software.
The first worry people have is about Beijing sucking up data. I think that is a less immediate concern, because the Chinese government is hacking all sorts of entities all the time. I'm not really sure that they need to jeopardize the future of one of their most valuable companies in order to get more data than they already have. US officials accused them of hacking the US Office of Personnel Management, for example, a couple of years ago, and getting all of this juicy information on a lot of people who work for the American government. That versus dancing teens, not really so sure.
But the second concern with the software is about misinformation. And is Beijing going to suppress certain types of content over others? TikTok has emerged as a political platform, the same way every other social media platform is. If they wanted one candidate to win over another, would they push pro-Biden videos instead of pro-Trump videos or something like that? I think that's a more soft, squishy concern that people seem to have, and it's one that can't really be discounted. And I think it's something that people are particularly paranoid about, especially after what the Russians did in 2016. However, they didn't have to own the platforms to do that.
LG: So Louise, ever since the early days of app stores there have been incidents involving really aggressive growth hacking. We've seen it with a lot of social media sites. You might remember the blow up over Path just downloading everybody's contacts back in the day. And we've written a fair amount at WIRED about very insidious permission requests from apps. Although to give both Apple's App Store and Google's Play Store credit, they've started to crack down on those app permissions in recent releases of the operating system.
But knowing what we know about the way some apps have operated in the past, I'm wondering if TikTok's data collection or the permission requests are that much more sinister than other apps. How would you rate the way that TikTok is sucking up our data?
LM: I think that's a really great question. On one hand, two mobile security experts that I talked to for a story recently about this said, "Look, TikTok is in the same league with everybody else, but it's a league you don't really want to be in." They're an advertising-based business. They're going to collect a lot of data about you to serve you ads, including things like your location, the other apps on your phone, particularly if you're on Android.
And some of these other little things have popped up. For example, TikTok was caught collecting people's data on their clipboard, and that made a lot of people nervous. That was a feature that came up because iOS 14 will notify you if an app is copying your clipboard data.
LG: And that just means when someone presses on some content on their iPhone to copy and paste it somewhere else, that it temporarily goes on what's known as the clipboard, but in this case, TikTok was actually recording that?
LM: Yeah. However, the data was kept on the device. So it's not like they had this great spreadsheet somewhere that was user one's clipboard, user two's clipboard. What they were doing is that they were looking at your clipboard and seeing if you were trying to spam basically, where you're copying and pasting the same comment on every video that you were looking at. But I think it speaks to the concerns that people have about TikTok and about apps in general.
The other thing is, not only are people more skeptical about China than ever, but they're more skeptical about companies collecting their data, I think regardless of what country they happen to be from. That's so much of, I think, what's going on here, rather than it being something super specific about TikTok.
MC: So Louise, if TikTok ends up being banned by the US government and we're not allowed to have TikTok in this country anymore, what happens? Does it just disappear from people's phones?
LM: I think what it would probably look like is that there would be some sort of executive order or some law in Congress that would compel Apple and Google to do what they do in lots of other parts of the world, which is that they just remove these apps from their app stores. So you might actually still be able to have it on your phone, but I think that if TikTok detected that your IP address was in the US or something, it would block it. That's what would happen from a technical perspective.
From a cultural and a political perspective, I think it would be a disaster, because you would have millions of young voters and would have this platform for free expression cut off months before a consequential election. I think it would also really make the US look like a hypocrite, because we've really criticized China for years for this policy that we've called internet sovereignty, which is like, we're only going to let the big giants from our own country thrive. And we've said that's really not fair, that's not how you have a free global market. That's not free trade. So if we did that ourselves, it would be a bad look.
But it doesn't mean we're not going to. I think, especially if things continue down this road with China, every single day, I wake up and check the news, and I can't believe that it's gotten worse. So it wouldn't surprise me at this point. Every day there's a new surprise with our relations with China.
LG: Louise, thank you for explaining that. We're going to take a quick break, and when we come back, we're going to have you back on to talk about the people who have made TikTok such a popular place to be. And what it would mean for them if the app was banned.
LG: All right. Welcome back, everyone. We've talked a lot about the conversation surrounding TikTok, but now we're going to look at the conversations happening inside the app itself. Millions of people use TikTok as a vehicle for creativity, but increasingly, they're using it for activism or to even express political beliefs. And beyond that, TikTok is filled with nearly endless sub genres where whole communities form around really niche interests or lifestyles. So when people started talking about banning TikTok, some of those TikTok users made it pretty clear they weren't happy about this. Louise, you've been reporting on TikTok for a long time now. How have you seen its culture evolve?
LM: I think we're at the point now where TikTok is so big that anything that you would see on Reddit or see on Facebook or see on Twitter, there's probably some version of it on TikTok. TikTok is incredibly good at corralling people together based around their identity, which is actually pretty impressive because the whole thing revolves around this algorithm called the for you page, which just shows you videos one after another. It's like a slot machine of content, basically.
It's amazing and it's fascinating how well it figures out what you're interested in, and then throws you into that community and keeps you there for as long as you want to be there. My for you page is a mess, but I wouldn't want it any other way.
MC: So if you identify as a black person or as a trans person or as a queer person, and you're on TikTok, you're probably watching a lot of content from creators who also identify as a member of those groups? And then it shows you more content from those groups?
LM: Yeah. I think that you're probably not identifying in some overt way, but if you watch a lot of trans creator's videos from start to finish, if you like them a lot, if you comment on them, if you look at their profiles and look at more of their videos, the app will say, "OK, she likes this. I'm going to show her more stuff like this." It's not as explicit as these other platforms where Facebook, you might go and follow a black creator's page, or you might go and add someone as a friend who's trans like you, and you get part of that community. Or you join a group for other trans people.
On TikTok, it's like the algorithm senses this. So sometimes you might show the algorithm that you like something, but it's actually that you're outraged by it. And then you get more content like that. It's optimizing for your attention, but I think that they do a really good job of realizing that she's paying attention to this because she's part of this community, or she at least likes lurking here.
LG: Louise, you also wrote a great story for WIRED about how prison populations are using TikTok. So, what does it mean if lifelines like that go away?
LM: I think that story was really interesting. I think it's a good example of a community that thrives on a platform like TikTok, because it's something that people stumble upon. Most people don't know that prisoners have access to contraband cell phones, so why would that be something that you would look for? It's something that people stumbled upon. I think that's what's interesting.
But if the app was banned, I think that there's a lot of creators at this point who came up through TikTok. At first, there were some people who maybe came from YouTube or came from Instagram. But at this point, there are thousands, if not millions of creators who are native to that platform. And I don't really think you can just bring your audience elsewhere. Because the dynamics on TikTok, like any platform, are pretty unique.
MC: I actually do lurk on TikTok a little bit through the web.
LM: Oh, truth comes out! Truth comes out.
MC: I haven't installed the app. I don't have an account, but I do like-
LG: Are you clicking on them on Twitter? Is that what it is, or on Instagram?
MC: Somebody will post a TikTok video to Twitter and then I'll click through and I'll watch it, and then I'll see what else it's showing me. And something that I've noticed, especially in the last couple of weeks, is that when I watched the most popular videos, the ones that have tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of different engagement metrics is that the creators will often start or end the video by saying "Yo, this might be shutting down, so go subscribe to my YouTube."
And I'm just wondering, is that actually going to happen? Are these creators who also have a presence on YouTube, have they set up a presence on YouTube? Or is it the other way around? These are YouTubers who are using TikTok because it's the hotter platform?
LM: I think it's the former. So I think it's that they are proactively trying to make sure that some of their audience has another way of reaching them. But I think it's like for a lot of these creators that TikTok is the main outlet that they have. But if you're a super fan, you'll also follow them on Instagram. Or if you've liked the two-minute vlog they put on TikTok, you can go watch the monetized 10-minute video on YouTube. But those I think are for super fans.
A lot of times when I click on a TikTok creator's Instagram profile, it will say, "Hey, I have 500,000 followers on TikTok." Or, "Hey, if you found me from TikTok, follow me here." So I definitely think it's not really that they grew their platform elsewhere. A lot of them are too young, and I think that people forget that Instagram is really driven by your existing social network.
YouTube, the videos are the wrong way. It's very desktop driven. So if you were used to making stuff on your phone, it doesn't really make sense. It's not super obvious how to translate that to other platforms necessarily. Of course, plenty of them do, but I think that TikTok is something different. No one wants to watch a 10-second dancing video on YouTube really.
LG: One of the things that seems unique about TikTok too, is just the way people are actually encouraged to copy each other. I don't know if copying is the right word exactly, but they're encouraged to-
LM: Participate in the challenges it's kind of like.
LG: Yeah, take a meme or a challenge and do some version of it or interpretation of it. So now, I've watched like a dozen videos of people holding up their cat to their ears and going, "Hello, governor, the queen is coming. You're not going to experience it the same way without seeing the TikTok, but people do really creative, different interpretations. And that's one of the things that I really like. Whereas I think if you see 12 of the same videos on YouTube, you're like, "OK, who is stealing whose idea here?"
LM: I think that what people forget is early on, people would describe TikTok this way, but everyone forgot it, is that it's like YouTube, but with Spotify in it. So they were really smart to have these relationships with the record labels. There's also been some problems with pirated content, but they made these relationships with musical artists and with record labels so that you can have those sound clips. That was a huge part of it that you don't have on YouTube.
YouTube will just silence your video if you're trying to take some music. It's a very different environment where that's not really part of it. Yeah, the sound clips are huge. I don't know about you, but I definitely have brain worms from them. They're in my head and it's horrible.
LG: So, speaking of other platforms, if TikTok is banned, does this end up meaning more power for Facebook via Instagram, considering how much Facebook already rules our social existences?
LM: Well, they're also going to release this new app that's a TikTok knockoff called Reels, so we will see if that has any traction. I think that it's more likely to have traction if TikTok is banned. And there was also some activity from the founders of Vine that they got a boost in new users recently because people came to their new app, Byte, because they thought that TikTok was going to be banned. So people are getting a little bit more into Byte.
So yeah, I do think that there's a chance that this ends up being a boon for TikTok's competitors. And Mark Zuckerberg loves to talk about how scary China is, so I think that these companies are aware of how they can use this situation to their advantage.
MC: I think it would be really interesting to see if the communities make the jump, because they're so embedded. All of your followers and all of your follower data, and all of your like data can't really translate from one platform to another. So it's almost like people would just have to rebuild their communities elsewhere.
LM: Right. And the for you algorithm knows a lot about you and serves you content that it thinks you'll like, but you're dependent on it. It's not like a list of your friends that you can just take elsewhere and look them up elsewhere. The algorithm being catered to your taste is something very different.
LG: So Mike, have we convinced you to get on TikTok?
MC: Actually, the thing that made me want to go check it out was it's absolutely my favorite TikTok community story, and it's when WitchTok, which is all of these young witches on TikTok put a hex on the moon in order to take power away from Artemis, which is the moon goddess that a lot of the older witches rely on for their power. So it was like this power grab by the young witches of TikTok.
It happened in the lead up to the new moon this week. I read that story and I was like, I would love to see these videos. But of course, I go on the web and I searched for it and it doesn't really show me much because I don't have all of my data in the app, and I don't have an account and I can't see the for you page.
So it's like, I hear about these stories and I want to get involved, but just actually putting my hands in it and getting into it is just a step that I feel like I have so much noise in my life that it just feels like a whole heavy weight that I would have to take on.
LM: It's so loud. It is such a loud app. I used to joke that it's the AirPods app. We couldn't have this app without AirPods because you will drive everyone crazy if you listen to it without headphones in. My poor boyfriend, I feel so bad for him.
LG: Because, Mike, I'm surprised that someone like Sarah Cooper hasn't lured you into the app yet. How are you seeing Sarah Cooper's tremendous reenactments of Trump press briefings?
MC: Because she's very smart and she posts them to Twitter for the olds.
LG: So Jack Dorsey gets to benefit from that basically?
LG: All right. This has been another really interesting segment. Louise, stick around. When we come back, we're going to do recommendations.
LG: All right, Louise, why don't you go first?
LM: I'm going to be a nerd and I'm going to recommend a book. It's called Riding the Iron Rooster. It's about traveling through China on a train for a year and it takes place in, I think, the late '80s, so it's really surreal. I thought that reading a travel book would be depressing, but it's actually pretty funny. And it's been a nice relief to follow the travels of someone who can just get on things and not wear a mask, and talk to strangers and whatnot. So that's my recommendation.
MC: Who wrote it?
LM: It's by Paul Theroux.
LG: Oh, I downloaded that once and I never got around to reading it. But it's on my Kindle so I should probably take a stab at it again.
LM: It's definitely like a white guy wrote this a little too long ago. There is some of that, but I think he's a great travel writer and it's really fun for this moment where things are so hard with our country's relationship with China. And also, we can't go anywhere so it's nice to hang out with someone who can.
MC: So he is a very prolific travel author.
MC: And if you liked that book, I would recommend The Old Patagonian Express where he rides a train through South America. Mexico and South America.
LM: That's the really famous one, right?
LM: Yeah, that's one of his big ones. OK, great. I would love to do that.
MC: Totally good.
LG: Mike, what's your recommendation, aside from that book?
MC: I want to recommend a podcast that I've really been enjoying lately. I've been listening to it on and off for a couple of years, but it's gotten really good in coronavirus time. It's called The War on Cars.
LM: Oh, awesome.
MC: It's about transit basically. You might think that it's just a bunch of cycling advocates, which it is, but it also explores really deep concepts about urban design, about the way people move through cities, about suburbs, about self-driving cars. It's really about the changing landscape of transit and pedestrian culture, and bike culture and car culture in the US. And of course, they go to Europe and they go to Asia and they talk to people in those places. But really it's about a street level view of how a city is handling all of the changes happening in that space.
It's really wonderful. I can't listen to every episode, but the ones lately have been really good. There's been one about a bunch of guys who ride bikes around LA. There's been one about the Slow Streets Program here in the Bay Area, which is the thing that drew me back to it. And the most recent one is an interview with an author who wrote a book about how our society has been shaped by the culture of the automobile. It's really great.
LG: That sounds really fascinating and actually, really timely considering we're now seeing transit fundamentally changed, and here in the Bay Area, lose funding. It really does make me wonder about the future of transit.
MC: Public transit is going away in almost every major city in our country, at least temporarily. And maybe in some cases permanently. It's going to look very different when we're on the other side of this, so it's important to start thinking about these things now, if you haven't already. Lauren, what's your recommendation?
LG: My recommendation is coming from inside the house. Our colleague, Alan Henry wrote a story on WIRED.com this week on how to be productive. However, do not let the headline fool you because in many ways, it's the antithetical to being productive. It's not about how to write your novel while we're undergoing one of the greatest crises of our lives, and it's not about becoming a sourdough master.
It's about giving yourself a pat on the back and reminding yourself that you're doing the best you can right now. And it's about taking breaks so that when you are done taking a break, you can be a little bit more functional and present. And it's about maybe saying no to as many work Zooms and instead substituting them with some chats with family and friends, so that you can feel like a real human being again.
Alan also cites Karen Ho in his story, who's a journalist at Quartz. And I hadn't realized until Angela came on our podcast a few weeks ago, Mike, that Karen Ho is the person who coined the phrase doom scrolling that we've all been using to describe just that endless scroll of bad news you can't stop reading at night. So she contributes to this piece too, and talks a little bit about how important it is to take a step back and really think about what "staying informed" means.
LG: And that might not mean just looking at the news 24/7, but actually are there trusted news sources, a couple of trusted news sources you can go to for your information? Acquire that information and then move on from it rather than constantly scrolling. And I thought that was really good advice. And also, if you're looking for a trusted news source, why not consider WIRED as your trusted news source while I'm at it?
MC: Smash that subscribe button.
LG: That's right. WIRED.com/subscribe. But yeah, so that's on WIRED.com. The story is written by Alan Henry. Go check it out if you get a chance. All right, that's our show. Thanks Louise, for joining us on Gadget Lab. It's been great having you on.
LM: It's been so much fun.
LG: And thank you all for listening. If you have feedback, you can find all of us on Twitter. Just check the show notes. Send us your feedback, we'd love to hear it. This show is produced by Boone Ashworth. Our executive producer is Alex Kapelman. Also, please follow Mike on TikTok. Mike, what's your TikTok handle?
LG: All right, @snackfight. And just as a reminder, we also have another podcast now called Get WIRED. You can hear the first episode of Get WIRED with myself and Boone Ashworth in this feed, in the Gadget Lab feed. However, it also has its own feed. So don't forget to subscribe to Get WIRED. Thanks so much, and we'll be back next week.
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