Why America Needs to Out-Innovate TikTok

August 25, 2023 Topic: TikTok Region: United States Blog Brand: Techland Tags: United StatesChinaTikTokByteDanceTechnologyGeopolitics

Why America Needs to Out-Innovate TikTok

That a ban of the popular app is unpalatable to Americans right now doesn’t necessarily mean surrendering to a social media diet planned by Beijing.

 

Innovation is the best way to win the TikTok battle. Many liberal democratic states have banned the Chinese-owned platform from government devices, including the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. Despite this, TikTok remains the world’s most downloaded app, continuing to outcompete competitors, such as Meta, in a space they have traditionally dominated. Like all Chinese technology companies, TikTok’s parent company Byteadance is answerable to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), distinguishing it from companies in Western countries.

A global society-wide ban would be the silver bullet solution, but for various reasons—including legal risk and economic liberal cultures in some countries, and fear of Beijing in others—such comprehensive action is unpalatable and unlikely. The U.S. government needs to work in partnership with—not in opposition to—the private sector to encourage the creation of alternative platforms. The technology driving the success of TikTok’s algorithm is here to stay. In the absence of an immediate ban or acquisition of TikTok by an American company, the U.S. government should be devising ways to nurture a competitive U.S.-owned alternative through investment incentives.

 

Analysis by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and other social media researchers has revealed a simple answer for why TikTok is outperforming U.S. alternatives: TikTok’s AI algorithm makes it more attractive. It produces a more personalized user experience than other platforms. The closest competitor is Instagram Reels, where, anecdotally, a large portion of the content is recycled TikTok clips.

Understanding how TikTok’s interest-based AI algorithm functions is the key to grasping the risks of the platform but also the secret to developing alternatives.

TikTok’s algorithm works in two reinforcing ways.

First, it learns by tracking users’ preferences based on how they engage with the content, such as what they “like,” how long they watch, their comments, and preferred content themes. For example, as tech guru Eugene Wei attests, TikTok learns not only whether a user prefers a diet of 20 percent news videos, 30 percent fashion videos, and 50 percent celebrity gossip, but how to alter the balance and how to introduce new preferences to the passive consumer. As an interest-based model, it operates independently of other users' preferences, unlike social networking platforms Facebook or Instagram which recommend related content based on user connections. The result is an addictive, curated experience, which U.S. Federal Communications Commission commissioner Brendan Carr described as “digital fentanyl.” The demand for this addictive social media experience is, unfortunately, not going to go away. Worse, the experience is being administered to American TikTok users by China.

The second way the algorithm works is by learning the characteristics of viral videos—what makes them popular—and providing those lessons to independent TikTok content creators—many of them users themselves—by identifying music, hashtags, and video formats and features likely to appeal to viewers. As a cycle, these TikTok functions can identify and predict the content that consumers crave before they even know they want it. The algorithm collects data on user patterns and creates new ones. By design, TikTok sorts and categorizes users' social, economic, and political preferences, and can either reinforce or alter what users see and hear over time. In other words, TikTok has the potential to become a weapon of mass persuasion.

That an adversary or affiliated company can influence what a large number of Americans see constitutes a national security problem, particularly when considered in the context of the broader threat of malign information and cyber sabotage that China poses to the United States and closely aligned nations such as Australia.

Foreign allies, partners, and some U.S. officials have expressed concerns about the variety of ways in which sensitive TikTok user data might end up in the hands of the CCP. One Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) partner, India, has outright banned TikTok. In early August another Quad partner, Australia, announced findings by a parliamentary Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media, which assessed that Chinese-owned apps, TikTok and WeChat, could corrupt “decision making, political discourse and societal norms,” contributing to foreign interference—one of Australia’s most pressing national security concerns. This focus on the potential for behavioral and political manipulation that the TikTok algorithm enables is the primary threat, though most concerned Americans stress data security—arguably a more manageable problem.

In the United States, state governors have joined federal officials in banning the use of TikTok on some government-owned devices over concerns about data misuse. In December last year federal representatives Mike Gallagher (R-WI) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), alongside Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), introduced a bipartisan bill to ban TikTok in the United States along with other social media affiliated with China or Russia. In May, Montana governor Greg Gianforte signed a bill making his state the first one to outright ban TikTok. However, U.S. tech companies have pushed back in support of TikTok against these measures. The concern from the industry is the substantial risk of retaliatory action from Beijing that could force U.S. tech companies to sell off foreign assets or comply with state censorship.

More broadly, the TikTok debate is also influencing presidential campaigning, with GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis stating that he would investigate banning TikTok if elected, citing the security threat due to the links with China and data concerns.

TikTok says all U.S. user data is stored in Virgina, Singapore, or elsewhere beyond the reach of Beijing. But as the ASPI analysis points out, the location of the data is immaterial if it can be readily accessed from China. ByteDance—the Chinese company that owns TikTok—has admitted on multiple occasions that its employees have access to US TikTok user data and, under pressure, has introduced safeguards such as “Project Texas,” which purportedly isolates U.S. user data so only U.S.-based ByteDance employees have access. However, this policy doesn’t alleviate all concerns as some .U.S-based ByteDance employees are very likely Chinese nationals. As reported in Forbes, as many as 300 ByteDance and TikTok employees either previously worked for—or currently work for—Chinese government-run news media outlets such as Xinhua and China Radio International.

Over the last few years, ByteDance has increased the number of foreign workers brought to the United States from a few dozen to more than 500 employees through the H1-B and Optional Practical Training (OPT) under the F-1 student visa programs. The homelands of these foreign national employees are not publicly known, though logic suggests that many of them are likely from China and India. Senator Tom Cotton has asked Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for a breakdown of these visa holders’ nationalities, revealing a possible point of access for China to tap U.S. user data. TikTok may not presently allow China-based personnel to access this data, but it may allow U.S.-based Chinese nationals to do so on behalf of the CCP.

Creating a compelling reason for users to see the risk TikTok poses continues to be a challenge. Finding another platform to replace TikTok without ties to adversaries and with adequate data protection measures that can be subject to trusted regulatory frameworks in the U.S. and legal recourse, is an alternative that policymakers need to consider.

Commentator and journalist Matt Yglesias’ insightful analogy sets its right by stating that “we wouldn’t have let a Soviet company buy NBC in 1977 and we shouldn’t let a Chinese company own a company that plays a similar content distribution role today.” Risk-averse elected officials keen to maintain voter support may prefer to avoid banning TikTok the way India has done, but the US should play to its own strengths in big tech and social media to encourage the innovation of an alternative platform that naturally overtakes TikTok in popularity.

Assuming a ban of the app is unpalatable to Americans right now doesn’t necessarily mean surrendering to a social media diet planned by Beijing. Innovation through competition is still what the United States does best. It’s time for America’s social media entrepreneurs to roll up their sleeves and offer TikTok users something better.

Bronte Munro is an Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Washington, DC, with a focus on critical technology and cyber.

Greg Brown is Senior Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Washington, DC, and an Adjunct Professor at the Center for Australian, New Zealand, and Pacific Studies at Georgetown University.

Image: Shutterstock.