The TikTok Trojan horse

Chinese-owned social media app TikTok has made its way into homes around the world — or at least in those countries that have yet to ban it. We ask why it is so popular among young people and whether it is harmless entertainment or a hidden threat.

Georgina Hand, Investment Director, Rathbones

A man stands with a phone by his window for hours on end, filming the traffic lights changing on the dual carriageway below. In the videos, streamed through TikTok, he provides voiceover commentary, urging viewers to guess which car at the lights will be the first to set off when they turn green.

In the world of TikTok, the social media platform that specialises in short-form videos that often last no more than 15 seconds, this counts as entertainment. The creator of @redlightracinguk has 67,000 followers, and his guessing game attracts hundreds of viewers at a time. This form of bizarre distraction is exactly what TikTok’s predominantly young userbase is looking for.

What is TikTok?

The most recent social media sensation, TikTok is a video-sharing app developed by Zhang Yiming, founder and CEO of Beijing-based tech company ByteDance. It is the second iteration of the now-defunct Musical.ly, an app used primarily to share lip-sync and dance content.

“With an estimated 1.1 billion active monthly TikTok users worldwide, the potential audience for advertisers is huge.”

Musical.ly was the recipient of the largest fine ever issued by the Federal Trade Commission, handed down for mishandling the private data of young users. ByteDance bought the app for around $1 billion in 2017 and officially merged it with TikTok in August 2020.

TikTok retains some of its predecessor’s fundamental elements — as well as its data concerns. It is still full of lip-sync content and dance challenges. But the variety of content has expanded to include anything from niche humour and viral memes to educational clips and cookery demonstrations.

How does it work?

You do not need an account to access the app and watch other people’s videos, but you do need one to create and post videos of your own. As a creator, you can film videos of up to 60 seconds and edit them to include visual filters, text, special effects and audio from songs, movie clips or other sources.

You post videos on to the app and wait for other users to watch, like and comment on them — and you hope they ‘follow’ your account. Your ‘followers’ are more likely to see your new content, thus encouraging engagement.

You can film original content or recreate a popular trend or challenge. A recent trend saw the revival of sea shanties — and if this is not to your taste then there will be something else that is. You will not even have to search for it — TikTok will find it for you.

The algorithm

It may have felt unsettling when social media apps began generating adverts seemingly tailored to our specific interests, but it is now commonplace to collect and use data in this way. That said, TikTok takes the concept to a new level.

It monitors what you are watching and promotes content from other accounts you might enjoy — and it does so with uncanny accuracy.

In a blog post from June 2020, the company explains how its ‘For You’ page works. The content each user sees is curated using a wealth of data, including interactions (videos you like/share, accounts you follow and content you create), video information (captions, audio, hashtags) and device/account settings (language/country). Even the tiny detail of how long you watch each video for is noted and used.

Anyone who has browsed this ‘For You’ page — even for research purposes — will attest to just how quickly the content starts to follow a certain trend. The effect is that you keep getting pulled back in. Why stop at one video when the following clip is also entertaining and to your taste? It is easy to while away an hour without moving — except to scroll with your thumb.

How does it make money?

The app is free to download, but by February 2020 TikTok users had spent $300 million within the app through Google Play and Apple’s App Store. Users have the option of in-app ‘coin’ purchases, which they can gift to friends or to favourite creators as recognition for quality content.

Then there are the ads, which brands can pay to run among the regular content. With an estimated 1.1 billion active monthly TikTok users worldwide, the potential audience for advertisers is huge.

However, many companies take a different route to advertising, instead sponsoring creators with large followings — TikTok ‘influencers’ — to promote their products.

Meet the stars

A number of content creators have become viral sensations, casting the likes of @redlightracinguk in the shade. As of January 2021, Charli d’Amelio had the highest number of followers, with 107 million. Fellow dancer Addison Rae came in second, at 75.2 million. Their estimated annual earnings as of June 2020 were $4 million and $5 million respectively.

The main income stream for these influencers is sponsored content, but d’Amelio and Rae have also benefited from outside opportunities as a result of their celebrity. After her videos went viral on TikTok, d’Amelio was invited to join American singer-songwriter Bebe Rexha in opening a concert by the Jonas Brothers, a hugely popular US band. She then agreed to be the new ‘face’ of clothing brand Hollister.

A Trojan horse?

The success of these individuals, however, may not send the best message to their audiences. Statistics suggest a change in young people’s career aspirations and expectations as a result of exposure to platforms like TikTok. A handful of influencers may rake in millions — but not the vast majority of users. Even if individuals do manage to make money, the early months of the pandemic highlighted just how unreliable the most common influencer income sources are, as brands pulled sponsorships in an effort to reduce ad spending.

Another worry concerns the long-term effects on users’ brains. The short-form content purposely caters to to young people's attention spans, making them ever shorter.

Politicians have more pressing concerns, as they deliberate the potential threat to user data and national security. In an interview for The Atlantic, Yiming said he wants TikTok to “become a window into a bigger and bigger world”, but authorities are asking whether the app is really a surveillance window for the Chinese government. India banned it in June 2020, and Donald Trump signed and then backtracked on an executive order to ban it in the US.

TikTok claims to store American data in the US and Singapore, and there is no evidence that it shares private data with China. However, it is considered a potential threat because Chinese companies must hand over data to the government by law.

Moderating your children’s TikTok time

"Statistics suggest a change in young people’s career aspirations and expectations as a result of exposure to platforms like TikTok."

While policymakers debate the geopolitical threat, parents may be more concerned simply by how much time their children are spending on TikTok. Most phones have a function to help tackle this problem.

For iPhones, you can go into Settings > Screen Time > App Limits to set daily time restrictions on certain apps. Android has similar options under Settings > Digital Wellbeing & Parental Controls. Set a one-hour limit and your child will need a passcode to enter the app once that hour has been used up.

It may be reassuring to know that you can stop the clock on TikTok.