⏰ Exactly how concerned should we be about TikTok?
Plus – unveiling our learnings on the process of trust and settling into the final days of the season. 🌞
👥 The relationship between China and TikTok is still murky, nearly two years after a deal to separate interests
⚙️ TikTok's recommendation engine and creator tools set it apart and make it difficult to moderate
📏 It's hard to measure the exact effects of TikTok on tens of millions of US teens who use it
A year ago, I went down a rabbit hole in the newsletter and tested how well TikTok could get to know me and my preferences in just two hours of use. Since then, I’ve continued to use the app on a regular basis, and its popularity has skyrocketed.
Serious concerns have persisted about TikTok and 1) its relationship with the Chinese government, 2) the deluge of mis- and disinformation on the app, and 3) its possible effects on teenagers. Let’s take a quick look at each, and I’ll offer my thoughts about the state of TikTok in mid-2022.
“Nothing to do with China”
The above phrase is how President Trump characterized TikTok’s future after the September 2020 deal meant to insulate US users from TikTok’s corporate parent, ByteDance, which is partly owned by the Chinese government. But as we’ve seen in the last two years, this is an extraordinarily complicated situation. There’s a ton of overlap between the app we use in the US and the Chinese company that created it, with some employees coming from Chinese state-owned media and some TikTok developers still working in China. According to Buzzfeed, the idea that the Chinese part of ByteDance doesn’t have access to American TikTok user data is fiction:
“Everything is seen in China,” said a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety department in a September 2021 meeting. In another September meeting, a director referred to one Beijing-based engineer as a “Master Admin” who “has access to everything.”
For me, it’s hard to know exactly how much to worry about this. The company may still be transitioning towards a new, unprecedented ownership and management structure, and these are uncomfortable yet temporary problems.
But for NYU professor and tech pundit Scott Galloway, the more significant risk is something more subtle: it would be tough to detect discrete Chinese manipulation of TikTok. Suppose the Chinese government wanted to sow resentment and division within the US, as Russia attempted to do on other platforms during the 2016 election; Galloway fears they would be able to do so without us noticing. Even small changes to TikTok’s recommendation engine could influence the watching habits of millions because of the gargantuan scale of TikTok in the US.
We truly are in uncharted territory – a geopolitical rival of the US is interwoven with a major source of news and entertainment for millions of Americans, including two-thirds of teenagers.
Algospeak from your FYP?
There are more teens on TikTok now than ever. According to a recent Pew study, TikTok is now the top teen social media platform (after YouTube), with “16% of all teens saying they use it almost constantly.” But generalizations are only so helpful, and it’s worth noting they found that girls use TikTok at higher rates than boys and that Black and Hispanic teens use it more than white teens. Also, kids ages 15-17 use it more than 13 and 14-year-olds.
It’s critical to be specific because research on the effects of social media on teenagers is not conclusive. It’s a highly complicated topic, but we have far more information than a few years ago. We now know that the “teenage experience” online is not equally distributed across all demographic groups. So, for teenagers who want to avoid some of the most harmful effects of social media, including depression and self-harm, it seems important to keep their complete identities in mind: who they are, how old they are, and everything else that is going on in their lives.
I’d love to see more research on TikTok specifically and more efforts to avoid replicating some of the problems that Frances Haugen highlighted with Instagram. For more research, we need more data. The other significant issue for younger users is that content moderation remains very difficult on TikTok.
Mis- and Dis-
All large social media platforms have a major problem with viral falsehoods and propaganda. Still, TikTok may have a uniquely tricky challenge with moderation because of the nature of video and audio. Unlike Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, where content is mainly text and still images, TikTok is exclusively short-form video. The tool that makes TikTok so powerful for creators — an advanced video-editing suite in your pocket — makes examining content exponentially more complex and demanding.
Just as with various other social platforms, there have been falsehoods on TikTok about COVID, the war in Ukraine, the 2020 election, and every other topic prone to misinformation. For example, according to the New York Times:
“TikTok has been ‘failing its first real test’ in Africa in recent weeks, Odanga Madung, a researcher for the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation, wrote in a report. The app struggled to tamp down on disinformation ahead of last week’s presidential election in Kenya. Mr. Madung cited a post on TikTok that included an altered image of one candidate holding a knife to his neck and wearing a blood-streaked shirt, with a caption that described him as a murderer. The post garnered more than half a million views before it was removed.”
All platforms, including TikTok, could be more transparent about their efforts to fight the spreading of lies on their app, and they should be sharing more of their data with experts and academics. It’s not sufficient that they passively offer access to their data — federal law should be revised to compel platforms to provide data transparency.
A full year of watching TikTok
As previously noted in my initial experiment, two hours was enough to draw me in and keep me excited about the platform. A year later, I’m not a super user, especially on the road here in Asia, but I still turn to it often. For the most part, I still don’t really like videos or follow users. I just let my For You Page be shaped by the most important metric on the platform – how long you watch each video.
It’s worth emphasizing that a lot of the videos are good! I think there’s a misconception for people who don’t actually watch TikTok that it is mindless entertainment that ensorcells the user with the lowest common denominator crap they can’t help but keep watching. But that’s wrong — it’s not all just chocolate cake! There’s substantive, educational content and meaningful, creative expression. If that’s the kind of stuff you’re drawn to, you’ll find it on TikTok.
This relates to my one significant caveat about all three areas of concern addressed above: It’s always important to remember that users have agency. Just because TikTok shows you misinformation, that doesn’t mean you’ll watch it, believe it, be persuaded by it, or act on it. Again, the research on this is still very much evolving. (More on this subject here.)
And don’t forget that users, not TikTok, actually create the content that makes up TikTok. According to Galloway, more than half of TikTok’s users are also creators on the platform (even me). For me, this significantly punctures the myth about TikTok being a passive medium, like streaming television.
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Don’t get me wrong: I think we should demand transparency, enhanced moderation, and as much separation from Chinese influence as possible. But at the same time, we must acknowledge that the single largest factor affecting what American teens watch on TikTok is the content that other American teens are creating for TikTok.
— Josh Kramer
Trust: The Process
The Trust events we held in June were part of intern Jasmine Lewis’s introduction to the editorial space and abundant community of New_ Public. They reaffirmed that the act of building trust requires being intentional with collaboration and embracing responsibility. Jasmine shares our key learnings from the events below.
Trust is one of the most crucial components of how we build community. To complement our TRUST Magazine Issue, last month we hosted a series of online events of insightful conversations within our broader community.
“Investing in trust is sort of the overhead if you want to build and deploy a tech solution, you have to think about the cost of trust as key.”
Throughout the month of July, we invited our New_ Public community members, collaborators, and partners to join us in three TRUST Events that consisted of the following themes: Public Institutions, Infrastructure & The Digital Age; Trust-Driven Approaches to Embracing Queerness; and Coding Trust. In the 90-minute learning seminars, we examined the human-centered and community-based aspects of trust and the ways that they empower our livelihood – both collectively and as individuals.
We must remember not to take our access to these spaces for granted. The ways that we engage with our personal stories and the narratives of others, especially in the digital spaces that we create, cement the multi-colored tiles that ground how we interact with one another. When we are given the opportunity to work and idealize within the company of others, we create a network of knowledge that contains a place for all of our different experiences and identities to be fully present – amplified by genuine generosity and gratitude.
“I’ve been thinking about more than just ‘how are these spaces in analog to each other,’ but actually ‘how do they influence each other.”
Having these immersive discussions on the basis of trust has shined a light upon how essential it is to prioritize socio-emotional dynamics online and to be responsible with our interactions. We must treat each other as peers; each and every one of us is learning as we live. The only way we can sustain digital worlds that support every person, and do so in respect to their humanity, is to make space for one another — practicing equity and meeting people where they are. Our responsibility is to root the ways that we show up online in maintaining healthy conversations (remember, there are real people existing behind the screen) and allowing interdependence. The shaping of our social fabric must display the complex collaboration of who we are — diverse, multifaceted, whole human beings.
“What would it look like to imagine these systems [of technology] in a very human-centered way?”
Practicing and developing trust is what enables us to coexist with one another. We trust our friends and family to love and hold compassion for us; we trust our peers to learn and work alongside us, and we trust our teachers to educate and uplift our children — trust is what makes every system within our lives possible. The ways that we trust each other are how we share and cement our power.
Here at New_ Public, we choose trust.
— Jasmine Lewis
Jasmine Lewis is the social and editorial communications intern at New_ Public. She is devoted to crafting equitable systems for community, indulging in art, and sharing a sense of empowerment and authenticity through her work — both online and IRL. You can explore more about her work and passions here!
A few more reads for the last weeks of summer:
Learning in Public - Courtney Martin Book Launch: We recently ran a school design sprint with author Courtney Martin and the school caregiver community. Her book, Learning in Public, comes out in paperback tomorrow — Monday, August 22nd. The memoir details how enrolling her daughter in a predominantly Black public school led to a self-awakening and personal discovery of the racial injustices that are ingrained into our educational and societal systems. It is sadly all the more resonant with the public school exodus and the lack of confidence numbers that are coming out.
This week in our #discuss Slack channel, our team shared links about using tech responsibly for the benefit of not only ourselves but the world in its entirety. A 2016 “Cognitive bias cheat sheet” written by Buster Benson (that has a follow-up piece published in 2019) calls us out on our internet inclinations and ways that they can help us address issues such as “information overload, lack of meaning, the need to act fast, and how to know what needs to be remembered.” Also, an article by Divya Siddarth ponders how we can “radically update democracy” and addresses the stifling effects of how technology shapes our society.
NPR Life Kit | How To Reset Your Digital Life: In this episode of NPR Life Kit, host Mayowa Aina speaks with Sammy Nickalls, the author of Log Off: Self-Help for the Extremely Online, about detaching from the concept of the “digital detox” and embracing “digital minimalism” when setting healthy online boundaries. Listen to it here!
Lunch & Learn: “How can we connect the dots between digital and physical spaces to better serve the public good?” Continuing the Center of Humane Technology’s Foundations of Humane Technology course series, On Thursday, August 25th, two of our New_ Public team members — Community Architect, Deb Schultz, and Community Partner Intern, Stephanie Yen — will be discussing practices and strategies to build a healthier democratic society both online and in real life. Register to attend the webinar here!
Contributing Writers: Your perspectives on building healthy digital public spaces have informed the way we think about building them, and we want to bring your viewpoints and ideas to our broader community. If you are interested in becoming a contributing writer in one of our upcoming issues, please fill out this form, and we will be in touch if we feel there is a fit!
Open Positions: Do building programs, crafting product visions, and people management spark your creativity? We are hiring to recruit a Head of Product! We have multiple positions open for brilliant minds that want to explore building digital spaces for public social good. Apply today!
The Community Corkboard is our place to help build awareness about all the exciting goings-on in the healthy digital spaces community. Do you have an upcoming event or happening you would like us to list on the Corkboard?
☀️🌻 Relishing the last drops of summer sun,
New_ Public is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin, and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America.