The emergence of the social media landscape over the last few decades has presented some interesting ways for the public to interact with the world. Some, like Facebook, have long been mainstays, while others are enjoying momentary popularity. Few have had the same impact as TikTok.
As one of the most well-known platforms in the market, TikTok enjoys positive relationships with users and businesses alike. But it’s not all easy. Its popularity has also caught the attention of government regulators. In some cases, this is the result of legitimate concerns. Still, the way regulators are trying to limit the platform’s impact and influence deserves some attention.
Let’s take a look at why governments are concerned about TikTok and attempts to contain it.
The rise of TikTok
Looking at governments’ attempts to contain TikTok, it helps to see how rapid its rise has been. The platform usually moves at the same level of metrics as platforms like Facebook and Instagram. From the outside, this may not seem like a big deal. Facebook and Instagram have been around for 19 and 12 years respectively. TikTok only launched internationally in 2018.
That the platform quickly reaches the heights where others have fallen in such a short time is impressive.
Nonetheless, this rapid rise poses challenges for both the platform and governments. Many authorities are already struggling to navigate the media forms that have long been part of the digital and traditional communication space. Such a sudden increase means that unexpected elements can affect the populace in ways they are unprepared for.
For better or worse, it seems governments are trying to address this by reining in TikTok through regulation. It sure is a delicate balancing act. Too little action can be viewed as a failure to counteract the negative elements of social media. Too much amounts to state-sanctioned censorship.
Disinformation and disinformation
One of the top concerns about social media right now is its role in spreading misinformation and disinformation. TikTok’s large user base means there is a wide variety of people on the platform. This is great for giving users multiple perspectives. However, a side effect of this is that it is prone to spreading false and unreliable data, especially when linked to trending topics.
There is clear evidence of this in relation to important information that can affect people’s lives. A recent study of prominent news topics like COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine found that 1 in 5 videos automatically suggested by TikTok contained misinformation. Particularly given that some videos promoted unsubstantiated claims related to vaccinations, the potential of these elements to influence users as a result of being advertised by the algorithm is worrying.
However, it appears that the government’s regulatory response to this challenge stems less from health concerns and more from policy interference. The potential for foreign actors to use disinformation to provoke voting or dissent seems to worry the US government in particular.
This comes at a time when relations with China and Russia are under intense scrutiny. The idea that China could push political or harmful content onto the platform means TikTok is battling the potential for a wholesale ban in the US
This seems like an exaggeration, especially when other platforms are introducing measures to combat misinformation, with varying degrees of success. Part of TikTok’s approach here is to demonstrate that they can regulate independently in a way that doesn’t alienate users while satisfying lawmakers’ concerns.
While misinformation about COVID-19 on TikTok is a cause for concern, other areas of wellbeing are also relevant. The most prominent issue here is the mental health of users. The regulatory focus is on a few areas.
The first is the perception that content on the platform could potentially encourage self-harm and suicide. This is not to say that TikTok intentionally distributes harmful material. Rather, research suggests that vulnerable people may find that their behavior on the platform prompts the algorithm to serve them more content about videos they’ve enjoyed, namely about self-harm, suicide and weight loss.
Another mental health issue on TikTok is the self-diagnosis of medical conditions. There is a proliferation of memes that lightheartedly describe the symptoms of disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), among other things. While this can be understandable and even help normalize stigmatized conditions, it can also be problematic. Some people can self-diagnose without the nuanced expertise of medical professionals. This prevents them from accessing the right treatments and information that could transform their lives.
Of course, these are difficult problems to solve. Having content on the platform about suicide, self-harm and mental health in general can be a positive and powerful form of information and support. Still, it’s important to prevent people from being caught in loops of malicious content. While no legislation has been introduced recently, lawmakers and regulators in the US, UK and EU have been pressuring the platform to provide solutions.
TikTok is not only a popular platform for users. Its increasing usage also makes it a powerful tool for businesses. As a particularly popular platform among younger consumers, companies can better understand how to market to Gen Z by using and studying TikTok. There is a significant amount of data available on the generation’s preference for brand integrity and user-generated content.
However, TikTok’s status as a source for collecting such large amounts of user data also puts it in the crosshairs of government regulators.
This is often referred to as a concern for user privacy. The statewide ban on using TikTok on government devices in Texas was reportedly due to concerns about data security on the platform. While this may be an extreme response, there is certainly a legitimate need to ensure user protection. Finally, TikTok openly admits that it collects and stores users’ names, phone numbers, and satellite location information. It would be right to ensure that this is done in a safe and responsible manner.
Governments have been relatively slow to respond to regulations that go beyond the broader privacy laws that already apply to all digital outlets. However, some regulators are increasingly focusing on the platform, holding them more accountable for potential violations and even proposing targeted legislation. However, using TikTok as a business tool is likely to face resistance from influential business owners, which may well delay or limit the effectiveness of such moves.
Some aspects of TikTok’s rapid rise have prompted world governments to consider more regulation. The spread of misinformation can certainly harm users. There is also a need to protect both the mental well-being and privacy of TikTok’s audience.
However, it is important to recognize that there is a fine line between effective action and government or regulatory overreach. It may be preferable for governments to better enforce existing legislation and encourage better self-regulation rather than risk censorship.
The next few years will likely show how TikTok is handling the situation and how harshly governments are responding.
Image: Cottonbro Studio