There is a new focus of tensions between China and the West, and it is the favorite short video application of the youngest, TikTok. This social network has more than a billion active users around the world and has managed to position itself, in a matter of five years, as the sixth most used on the planet, an extraordinary success that is even more notable for the fact that it is the product of America’s biggest geopolitical rival. The meteoric rise of the platform owned by the Chinese technology group ByteDance has gone hand in hand with an increase in mistrust on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean due to fears that Beijing could use it, as if it were a Trojan horse, to access to user data and promote their own interests. Amid growing scrutiny, Washington, Brussels and Ottawa have banned its use on the corporate phones of their officials, a decision that has infuriated the Asian giant, which considers the measure a “politically motivated” ploy to intensify the “repression against corporate Chinese” in order to “contain” the development of the world’s second largest economy.
“How insecure must the world’s first superpower feel to be so afraid of the favorite application of teenagers?” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said during a daily press conference on Tuesday. A day earlier, the White House had given US government agencies a 30-day period to remove the TikTok app from all federal government-owned devices.
The turn for criticism of the European Union came a day later, after the European Parliament joined the steps taken by the Commission and the Council of the EU to veto the application of electronic terminals for their workers, alleging that carries a risk to privacy and security. “The EU claims to be the most open market in the world […], but this practice undermines global confidence. The EU should honor its word and promote an open, fair, transparent and non-discriminatory business environment for foreign companies”, Mao pointed out.
an old threat
Concerns about whether TikTok presents cybersecurity threats are not new. Donald Trump nearly forced his removal from the United States in the summer of 2020, and since Joe Biden became president, the Commission on Foreign Investment (CFIUS) is conducting a review of his technology. . In all this time, TikTok has only grown in influence and popularity: even though it was banned in India, it was the most downloaded social network globally in the first quarter of 2022 and, according to a Google study from July last year, , is the search engine par excellence for 40% of young people born between the late 1990s and mid-2000s (popularly known as Generation Z). In Spain there are more than 15.5 million registered accounts and it was the application that experienced the greatest growth in downloads last year.
Part of TikTok’s appeal is its ability to perfectly predict what videos a person wants to watch thanks to its sophisticated algorithm. The application offers users the content that best suits their interests thanks to the collection of data about their tastes and viewing patterns. Independent investigations have discovered that, for this, the app has the capacity to store contact lists, calendars, hard drives and locations every hour. Although this does not differ from the practices of large US technology companies, such as Google or Meta, the concerns of some governments have focused on the fact that Beijing could use the national security law to require ByteDance to share that information. TikTok’s parent company has repeatedly denied these accusations.
a social phenomenon
Douyin, the version of TikTok available within the borders of China, is a true phenomenon in the homeland. 80% of its 600 million daily users are between the ages of 19 and 40 and around 65% live in secondary cities. “It is not an exaggeration to say that we Chinese inform ourselves through Douyin. My mother sends me news every day that she sees on the app,” says a thirty-something resident of Beijing whose family lives in the south. But despite belonging to the same house, Douyin and TikTok are completely separate entities: their users cannot interact and the two platforms are subject to different policies and registration processes, which means that the same search in both applications returns different results. . Douyin does not publish figures, but according to estimates from the Chinese digital the paperin 2022 it was valued at about 46,000 million euros.
In the elevator, in the subway, in a cafeteria, anywhere there is usually someone using the application, whose functionalities go far beyond those of TikTok. The Chinese version has become a powerful platform for e-commerce and consumer services, which even has its own payment method. Carrie Feng, a streamer 26-year-old from Wuhan, says that during the pandemic she got a job selling clothes live with which she doubled the salary she earned in a previous job at the university. It is a path that many other young people took during the health crisis. What he earned depended on his sales and non-return orders from customers. Three clicks were enough during one of his broadcasts to buy a product through Douyin. In seven hours the order was on its way, and in a matter of days, at the destination.
“The work of streamer It is very hard. You have to be talking more than five hours a day and it is very tiring for both the mind and the body,” shares Feng. “I started recording at 06:30 in the morning, which meant getting up at 04:00 to put on my makeup. I finished work at 3:30 p.m. That pace affected my health.” He admits, however, that he “felt passion” for his work: “I love sharing the things that make me feel good with other people.” Today, he still runs his own channel where he makes water sports recommendations.
China is very critical of the movements that, from the West, try to curb the reach of its flagship application. “The United States is creating a new scandal over the threats Facing: At the beginning of the month, it was the balloons; Now, it’s TikTok,” an editorial from the Chinese nationalist newspaper lashed out on Tuesday. Global Times. Analysts close to Beijing believe that Washington’s real concern is “the huge market share that TikTok occupies with its unique technology and the enormous benefits it brings.” According to eMarketer, 45.3% of US social media users use the app, compared to 24.2% globally. “The United States intends, on the one hand, to cut off high-tech exports to China to weaken its manufacturing and technological competitiveness and, on the other, to unite with its allies to expel Chinese technology from the international market,” he opined on Wednesday in Global Times Ding Gang, editor-in-chief of the Communist Party-owned People’s Daily.
But, in addition to cybersecurity, the power of TikTok is such that there is a second added fear: What type of content dominates the international youth market and to what extent does it manage to shape the thinking of the new generations? More than a billion people access the TikTok and Douyin platforms daily. Although it has not been shown that censorship is as recurrent on TikTok as it is on Douyin, pro-human rights associations accuse ByteDance of regularly obeying orders from Beijing: videos related to the 2019 Hong Kong protests were hardly published on TikTok and those who denounce the alleged crackdown on the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang often end up eliminated. Although in the international application the access of Russian state media has been blocked Russian Today and Sputnikin China they have tens of thousands of followers.
The role that the platform has played in forming points of view among its users around the world has been so important that many have come to call it “the TikTok war.” Despite the fact that ByteDance, the company that owns the TikTok and Douyin brands, has tried to position itself from the beginning as an “impartial” agent, and that only four days after the start of the invasion it had removed from Douyin more than 3,500 videos and 12,100 “inappropriate” comments or that “spreading disinformation”, to this day, the only message circulating in China about the war in Ukraine is the official one from the authorities, in which the main culprit of the conflict is NATO.
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