One evening in late December last year, I received a cryptic phone call from a PR director at TikTok, the popular social media app. I’d written extensively about the company for the Financial Times, so we’d spoken before. But it was puzzling to hear from her just before the holidays, especially since I wasn’t working on anything related to the company at the time.
The call lasted less than a minute. She wanted me to know, “as a courtesy”, that The New York Times had just published a story I ought to read. Confused by this unusual bespoke news alert, I asked why. But all she said was that it concerned an inquiry at ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company, and that I should call her back once I’d read it.
The story claimed ByteDance employees accessed two reporters’ data through their TikTok accounts. Personal information, including their physical locations, had been used as part of an attempt to find the writers’ sources, after a series of damaging stories about ByteDance. According to the report, two employees in China and two in the US left the company following an internal investigation. In a staff memo, ByteDance’s chief executive lamented the incident as the “misconduct of a few individuals”.
When I phoned the PR director back, she confirmed I was one of the journalists who had been surveilled. I put down my phone and wondered what it meant that a company I reported on had gone to such lengths to restrict my ability to do so. Over the following months, the episode became just one in a long series of scandals and crises that call into question what TikTok really is and whether the company has the world-dominating future that once seemed inevitable.
During the internet era that roughly began with the dominance of Google Search, most of us have implicitly traded access to our data in exchange for often marginal digital conveniences. By the time ByteDance was founded in Beijing in 2012, Google had been reading our emails over our shoulders, Amazon had been watching us shop and Twitter and Facebook had been mediating our messages to friends and foes for years. Indeed, Zhang Yiming, the millennial software engineer who set up ByteDance, modelled himself and aspects of his new company on Silicon Valley. Zhang, who briefly worked for Microsoft before going out on his own, was once fond of quoting Steve Jobs and Jack Welch.
His first hit app, an endlessly scrolling news site called Toutiao (Today’s Headlines), built the foundations for the company’s future growth. Existing platforms such as Facebook and Instagram relied on users manually following friends, celebrities and companies, whose posts then made up the content they saw on their feeds. Toutiao wasn’t interested in who its users knew, just what they clicked on, which articles they read the whole way through and which ones they commented on. ByteDance’s underlying technology began generating a profile of what each reader liked and refined that picture every time they opened the app. Within four months of Toutiao’s launch in 2012, it had a million users, and ByteDance had a blueprint for a new kind of non-social social network.
In 2016, ByteDance released Douyin, an app for watching short videos in China. It quickly grew to have more than 100 million users and was launched internationally with a new name: TikTok. The app only took off after ByteDance merged it with another Chinese social site, Musical.ly, which it acquired for $1bn in 2017. TikTok’s ever-learning algorithm, which collected location and information on the content of videos (as well as biometric data such as faceprints and voice recognition in the US) was combined with Musical.ly’s video editing tools, which allowed users to easily replicate and repost clips.
All of it went into a product perfectly suited for a generation raised on smartphones. (Sixty per cent of users are between 16 and 24 years old, but many are younger.) TikTok’s content is more minutely tailored than other platforms’, meaning each user can feel like they’re finding their own little corner of the site in the form of their “For You” page. My 17-year-old sister has BookTok; I get cooking videos, Marie Kondo-style organisation tips and cats. (When I originally set up my TikTok account to test features on the app I did it in the guise of my fluffy black and white cat, named Buffy after the Vampire Slayer. Technically, it was Buffy’s account that TikTok employees accessed on my phone.)
Almost overnight, TikTok became one of the fastest growing companies in an industry famous for growing fast. It has been downloaded more than three billion times. In 2021, TikTok had more site visits than Google and more watch minutes in the US than YouTube. Globally, users spend 52 minutes per day on TikTok, almost double the time spent per day on Instagram. That made TikTok China’s first app to break out on a truly global scale.
It also made it a target for Beijing’s recent crackdown on Big Tech. In 2018, one of ByteDance’s other apps was accused of promoting immoral content by state media. When it was eventually pulled down, Zhang wrote a public letter of apology, pledging greater censorship of ByteDance content. Along with other prominent tech founders, Zhang stood down as chairman in 2021. (He retains a 20 per cent stake in ByteDance, with a separate class of shares that give him additional voting rights and veto powers.)
China possesses considerable power over technology companies. It controls export of ByteDance algorithms, including TikTok’s, and can mandate that companies disclose user data to the state. TikTok has said it has never given data to the Chinese government and wouldn’t do so if it was asked.
Yet, around the world and particularly in the US, TikTok’s biggest market, there is alarm about the security of this data. “This is a tool that is ultimately within the control of the Chinese government… to me, it screams out with national security concerns,” was the assessment of FBI director Christopher Wray earlier this year. In October 2022, Forbes journalist Emily Baker-White reported that a China-based team at ByteDance “planned to use the TikTok app” to pinpoint the precise locations of “specific US citizens”. After the story was published, the company posted a tweet that read: “TikTok has never been used to ‘target’ any members of the US government, activists, public figures or journalists.” As The New York Times made clear a couple of months later, employees at TikTok had already accessed Baker-White’s phone, as well as my own.
When TikTok’s current CEO, Shou Zi Chew, appeared before US lawmakers in Washington in March, he managed to pull off the rare feat of uniting Democrats and Republicans. During a testy hearing lasting five hours, Shou was asked about everything from the negative impact of TikTok on teens’ mental health to the selling of drugs on the app and, in an echo of age-old moral panics about Elvis and The Beatles, the corruption of the nation’s youth.
TikTok has legitimately given rise to some dangerous trends, often in the form of daily challenges. A TikTok spokesperson said it prohibits content that shows or promotes dangerous acts. Children’s safety is a particular problem. That is the case with other social media networks too, but since TikTok currently has the most cachet with youth, it has more kids to protect. It has repeatedly failed to do so. Last month, the company was fined £12.7mn in the UK for misusing the personal data of children under 13 and allowing them to access the platform, despite that being against its own rules.
ByteDance’s corporate culture has come under scrutiny too, after reports in the FT and elsewhere. Last spring, I met an employee at a London pasta restaurant, which is popular with foodie accounts on Instagram and TikTok. For weeks, she’d been deciding whether or not to come forward, and she was visibly nervous about meeting. But then she began to detail her experience at the company where, she said, she was given unachievable targets, asked to work all hours of the day to communicate with staff in China, sometimes putting in 18-hour shifts, and bullied and shouted at by managers when she tried to speak up. TikTok said harassment and bullying in its workplace was completely unacceptable, and that it had since taken steps to “support a positive employee experience”.
She wasn’t alone. TikTok employees around the world are asked to embody a set of company values known as “ByteStyle”, as well as use software employees claim tracks their performance and makes almost everything, including user data, visible to ByteDance offices in China. This is accepted in Chinese tech companies but has caused friction with staff in the US, UK and Europe. As its popularity has soared, TikTok has hired thousands of people in these regions, but it has also experienced a high churn of employees, many leaving the company after less than a year.
In the week after my lunch meeting, I wrote a piece about the clash between staff in London and the company’s leadership, characterised by a previously unreported comment made by Joshua Ma, a ByteDance executive who ran the European ecommerce team. At a dinner in London, he told employees that, as a “capitalist”, he “didn’t believe” in maternity leave. After the story went online, a staffer shared an internal document which suggested censoring terms including “Financial Times” and “maternity” from TikTok live broadcasts, something the company said it never put into practice.
Unsurprisingly, my relationship with TikTok’s press office was tense. Though I was unaware of it, at the same time TikTok was pushing back on reports of a toxic workplace, several employees had decided to surveil my phone, tracking my location in hopes of finding my sources.
After the revelations, I sent ByteDance a list of 15 questions, seeking to know more about what exactly had taken place. I asked for the specific dates and times tracking had occurred; precisely what data was obtained and what was done with it; which location inquiries were made; and how this had been possible when TikTok has always maintained that access to user data from staff in China was highly restricted. I also wanted to know more about the internal investigation and why there had been a delay disclosing the wrongdoing. The company has never fully answered.
Concern about TikTok’s opacity is what brought Shou to the seat of US democracy. Specifically, American fears of a Chinese threat to national security. This has been building since the US Committee on Foreign Investment opened an investigation into TikTok’s Musical.ly acquisition in 2019. Not long after, then President Donald Trump, who had already banned the Chinese telecoms company Huawei, told reporters he would ban TikTok unless ByteDance sold the app. Three years on, the Biden administration is applying pressure in different ways. TikTok has been banned from federal government devices, following many state governments. Shortly before Shou’s appearance, the FBI and the US Department of Justice announced they were investigating inappropriate access to user data in the US.
During his testimony, Shou, who is Singaporean, repeated the company line: ByteDance is private; 60 per cent of the company is owned by “global institutional investors”; it is officially headquartered in Los Angeles and Singapore. Then, half an hour in, he was asked by the chair, Cathy McMorris Rodgers: “TikTok spied on American journalists. Can you say with 100 per cent certainty that neither ByteDance nor TikTok employees can target other Americans with similar surveillance techniques?” Shou looked assured as he replied: “First of all, I disagree with the characterisation that it is spying.” When pushed for a yes or no, he gave neither.
When I returned to London after the Christmas break, what had happened hit me. In a busy pizza restaurant, as I told some of my friends, I became increasingly conscious that I was in a public place. My ears seemed to fill with the conversation from other tables, and I found myself convinced that anyone could be listening in. At times I have struggled to sleep, thinking about what ByteDance employees might have found out about me. For a while, I often cancelled plans out and, whenever I spoke to or met new sources, I felt on edge.
The FT’s cyber security team has helped me take extra precautions. On a practical level, my old device was relegated to being a dummy phone only to be used for accessing TikTok for work. Switching it on one day in February, I received a verification code, which I had not requested. Often this is sent when you log into a new device. I looked at the logged-in devices on my account and, curiously, saw an iPhone that I do not own. This suggested that a device that was not mine, was at that time, logged into my TikTok account without my knowledge, possibly monitoring activity. TikTok could not explain why another device was logged into my account at the time but said it “did not identify inappropriate access or inauthentic account activity in January and February”.
Over the past few months, and not always by choice, I’ve thought a lot about the question legislators, regulators and many others have been asking: what is TikTok? One answer is that it is the synthesis of American start-up ideals and Chinese technological ambition, the product of decades of free exchange between the world’s two most powerful countries. In this version of the answer, TikTok was the first and last of its kind, born before Xi Jinping’s authoritarian turn and the US push to decouple from China. Another answer is much simpler: TikTok is the future. In which the artifice of previous social media is stripped back, and we are forced to acknowledge these algorithms are purpose-built to hold our attention, while we scroll alone, for as long as possible.
It could be both. Or neither.
New regulations, based in part on aspects of these definitions, are coming through slowly in the UK and EU. Despite the belligerent tone of US politicians, a total ban for TikTok seems unlikely. It would undoubtedly cause an uproar among free speech advocates, not to mention an enormous number of young people who love the platform. It is also hard to imagine an app as thoroughly embedded in popular culture being erased from our lives overnight. Except, maybe, in China.
Cristina Criddle is an FT technology correspondent
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