America needs to out-innovate TikTok

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 members of 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 ByteDance is answerable to the Chinese Communist Party, distinguishing it from companies in Western countries.

A global society-wide ban would be the silver-bullet solution, but for various reasons—including legal risks and economic liberal cultures in some countries, and fear of Beijing in others—such comprehensive action is unpalatable and unlikely. The US 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 US government should be devising ways to nurture a competitive US-owned alternative through investment incentives.

Analysis by ASPI and other social media researchers has revealed a simple answer for why TikTok is outperforming US alternatives: TikTok’s algorithm makes it more attractive. It produces a more personalised 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 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 their preferred content themes. For example, as tech guru Eugene Wei attests, TikTok learns not only whether a user prefers a diet of 20% news videos, 30% fashion videos and 50% celebrity gossip, but also 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 and Instagram, which recommend related content based on user connections.

The result is an addictive, curated experience, which US 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 categorises 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 US and closely aligned nations such as Australia.

American allies, partners and some US 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 Quad partner, India, has outright banned TikTok. In early August another Quad partner, Australia, announced findings by a parliamentary committee, which assessed that the 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 behavioural 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 US, 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 and Raja Krishnamoorthi, alongside Senator Marco Rubio, introduced a bipartisan bill to ban TikTok in the US 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, US 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 US tech companies to sell off foreign assets or comply with state censorship.

TikTok says all US user data is stored in Virgina, Singapore or elsewhere beyond the reach of Beijing. But as ASPI senior analyst Fergus Ryan points out, the location of the data is immaterial if it can be readily accessed from China. ByteDance 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 US user data so only US-based ByteDance employees have access. However, this policy doesn’t alleviate all concerns. For example, some US-based ByteDance employees are very likely Chinese nationals. And, 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 past few years, ByteDance has increased the number of foreign workers brought to the US from a few dozen to more than 500 employees through US 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 US user data. TikTok may not allow China-based personnel to access this data, but it could allow US-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, and that can be subject to trusted regulatory frameworks in the US and legal recourse, is an alternative that policymakers need to consider.

Commentator and journalist Matt Yglesias’s insightful analogy sets its right: ‘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 that 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 US does best. It’s time for America’s social media entrepreneurs to roll up their sleeves and offer TikTok users something better.