In the past few months, the EU, USA, and Canada have all taken steps to ban the popular social media application TikTok. Why? Today, I’m going to explain why countries are considering banning TikTok, and ask whether or not it should be banned!
- To lip-sync (v) – Performers who lip-sync songs pretend to be singing them when in fact they are just moving their lips.
- Actors both sing and lip-sync to familiar tunes.
- Generation (n) – all the people of about the same age within a society or within a particular family
- The younger generation smokes less than their parents did.
- Controversial (adj) – causing disagreement or discussion.
- The book was very controversial.
- Application (n) – a computer program or piece of software designed for a particular purpose that you can download onto a mobile phone or other mobile device.
- There are apps for everything, from learning a language to booking cinema tickets.
- Merger (n) – an occasion when two or more companies or organizations join together to make one larger company.
- The merger of these two companies would create the world’s biggest accounting firm.
- To crack down (phrasal v) – to start dealing with bad or illegal behaviour in a more severe way.
- The library is cracking down on people who lose their books.
- Data (n) – information, especially facts or numbers, collected to be examined and considered and used to help decision-making
- The data was collected by various researchers.
- To manipulate (v) – to control something or someone to your advantage, often unfairly or dishonestly.
- Throughout her career she has very successfully manipulated the media.
Back in 2018, I started to get strange YouTube adverts while I was watching videos. If you currently live abroad, you may also haven noticed how adverts and commercials on YouTube can change a lot between countries – and as an English speaker in Japan my YouTube ads were often strange.
But these ads were different. They featured young people lip syncing to famous songs. Or they would be dancing to popular music. These ads were for a new app that had just launched on the international market. Another social media app known as Musical.ly had been bought and rebranded by a Chinese company: it was now known as TikTok.
Back in 2018, no one had any idea the kind of cultural phenomenon TikTok would become. It has more than 1 billion active monthly users and had been downloaded 3.5 billion times around the world as of 2022.
Although initially popular with children and teenagers, the app is now used by people of all ages. While the silly dances and lip syncing I first saw back in 2018 are still a part of the app, it is now used for almost every type of content: education, news, investment advice, comedy, beauty tutorials, lifestyle vlogs, models, video games, highlights of movies and TV shows, and so much more.
TikTok has created a new generation of celebrities and influencers (often known as TikTokers) who have built communities of millions of followers, launched businesses, and work with major brands.
And its success has pushed other social media sites and apps to “copy” TikTok. Instagram developed Reels, YouTube launched YouTube shorts, Snap Chat did something similar, and even Spotify has recently launched a TikTok-like discovery page! The popularity of TikTok is shaping our modern world and technology.
If this is the case, if TikTok is a super popular and influential app with billions of users, it might seem surprising that the app is controversial and restricted in many countries. But it is controversial and constantly under threat of bans. Canada, the European Union, and the United States all banned TikTok from government owned devices in the last few weeks. And India banned the app back in 2020.
Today I want to look at why TikTok is so controversial. I’ll start by discussing the history and unique selling points of TikTok, before discussing why countries are banning it, and end with a short debate on whether (or not) it should be banned! At the same time as listening to this interesting discussion, you will be able to learn new vocabulary and improve your listening comprehension.
What is TikTok?
TikTok is a free app that allows users to upload short videos to the site. While it started with strict limits to the length of videos (I think around 15 second originally), the app has expanded to allowed videos up to 10 minutes long, as well as live streamed content, and a variety of other features.
Users are able to record short videos using their smartphone’s cameras, edit the videos in TikTok’s app which provides features including sound effects, music, special effects, and filters, and then share to the app.
TikTok was built for the smartphone generation. Videos are filmed and shown in portrait mode – something which other video sharing applications only recently started to do.
The app has become a global social media leader in a relatively short time. It is the internationalized version of a Chinese application called Douyin (owned by ByteDance) which was released in September 2016 in China.
The international version of the app was branded TikTok and launched internationally in 2017. However, it wasn’t until the merger with social media service Musical.ly on the 2 August 2018 that the app’s popularity started growing around the world. TikTok and Douyin (the Chinese version) are almost identical, but have completely separate content and servers. This means TikTok videos are not available on Douyin, and Douyin videos are not available on TikTok.
Why Are Countries Banning TikTok?
Despite its popularity, TikTok has been controversial. So controversial that countries around the world are considering banning the application all together.
Already, the USA, Canada, and the European Union have decided to ban TikTok from government devices like phones and tablets. Taiwan banned the app from government devices last year, and India has fully banned TikTok since 2020.
But why? Why is TikTok being banned around the world?
The primary concern that countries have is data security. Security services in the west are worried that TikTok user’s information is not safe with TikTok. They believe that the relationship between the Chinese government and Chinese companies (including TikTok’s owner ByteDance) could lead to private information falling into the hands of the Chinese governemnt.
Over the past few years, the Chinese government has cracked down on major companies and powerful businesses, ensuring the China’s industries are under strict government supervision. Companies in China are now forced to comply with strict government laws that require the sharing of data with officials. And TikTok, with hundreds of millions of users around the world, is one of the largest sources of information in the world.
TikTok denies all of this. They deny the fact that there is a relationship between the company and the government, and they insist they would never give data from foreign countries to the Chinese government. ByteDance, however, is a Beijing based company that is controlled by Chinese laws – data could theoretically be demanded and manipulated by government officials.
While TikTok insists that there is a “wall” between TikTok data and ByteDance in China, many governments are struggling to believe this.
Why would it be an issue if the Chinese government had access to such information? There two major concerns. First, the information gathered and stored by TikTok could pose a security risk in other countries. Second, the information could be shared with other Chinese companies giving them an unfair business advantage.
Some government officials have even suggested that TikTok could be used to manipulate people around the world by spreading fake information or promoting certain videos that would be against national interests. While this seems unlikely today, there is little understanding of the algorithms and codes that determine and promote content on TikTok – and it is possible this could be manipulated.
For governments, the current and pressing concern is that by downloading the app on government devices (with sensitive email accounts on the same device), government employees could be exposing important information.
And there is real reason for concern. In June 2022, BuzzFeed released evidence that employees of ByteDance in China had “repeatedly” accessed private data of American users. In December, Forbes released further evidence that TikTok was spying of Forbes employees including the author of the earlier BuzzFeed report (the employee had moved to work at Forbes).
Should We Ban TikTok?
Should TikTok be banned on government devices around the world? Should it be banned on every device outside of China? Or is everything an overreaction?
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Yes- It should be Banned
On the one hand, there are a lot of arguments around at the moment that the app should be banned. As I’ve already mentioned, the risk of information being insecurely stored by the app is real. And if the app could be manipulated to promote fake information, that is another major risk.
As far back as 2020, articles were being written about the possibility TikTok could be used in the future to meddle in elections and influence populations. We know that in 2016 Russia carried out an election interference campaign in the US by building large groups of fake social media accounts. If China wished to do something similar, TikTok would be the first choice!
Sensitive data including location information and user viewing patterns is highly valuable to companies – and if this data was leaked to other Chinese companies, it would give them an unfair advantage.
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No – It Should Not be Banned
On the other hand, banning the app is perhaps an overreaction.
The UK, for example, is not following the US, EU, and Canada in banning TikTok from government devices. Instead, the government stated downloading the app should be a personal choice, and if the main concern is data sharing governments should also ban Facebook and WhatsApp.
We know that American social media apps track data. Uber and Facebook followed journalists using their apps. And Facebook was exploited in the past by foreign government s looking to manipulate information and obtain data.
However, these apps were never internationally banned.
It is quite easy to see the anger and fear of TikTok to be a consequence of the increasing fear of China and growing rivalry between Western Countries and China. The main difference between TikTok’s data use and the data use of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter is that TikTok is owned by a Chinese company.
TikTok does collect a lot of data. But no more than other sites. Rather than banning TikTok specifically, perhaps laws need to cover data use and collection by all companies.
And banning TikTok could have other consequences. It may violate rights to freedom of expression and speech. It would take away thousands of people’s jobs, careers, and businesses that rely on TikTok. And it would annoy and anger the millions of users of the app around the world.
What do you think? Should TikTok be banned? Should it be banned for everyone? Do you think it is an overreaction? Do you use TikTok?
Should TikTok be Banned?
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