The modern dilemma of TikTok journalism

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This week, Bloomberg reported that members of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign were instructed to delete the social media app TikTok from their phones. The wildly popular video app has now been the subject of bipartisan censure. On July 6, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the administration was looking at an outright ban of the app, and days later White House adviser Peter Navarro said the Trump administration will take “strong action” against it and WeChat for “engaging in information warfare against the US.”

As analysts have pointed out, “banning” TikTok lies beyond the realm of possibility for the current US government, but the saber-rattling against the soft power of software accountable to the Chinese government is likely to get louder.

The growth of the Chinese tech sector, and its reach and influence in the US, will be key talking points for Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg when he appears (virtually) in congressional hearings tomorrow to defend the size and power of large American technology companies.

The rise of TikTok has also recently kicked off a debate among journalists and publishers about the safety and ethics of using and promoting the platform without giving adequate weight to the myriad of ways it might ultimately be compromised.

Although more heinous data breaches have occurred recently at Twitter, and the consensus is that Facebook is at least as leaky with personal data, TikTok’s status as a Chinese-owned company puts use of the app—and attendant risks and ethical concerns—in a different category. TikTok’s parent company, the Chinese internet giant ByteDance, is based in Beijing; under China’s 2015 National Security Law, the Chinese government can compel ByteDance to share user data that is deemed relevant to perceived national security threats. To avoid the appearance of being compromised, TikTok was separated from ByteDance’s Chinese version of the app, Douyin, which exclusively operates in China. TikTok stores data in the US and Singapore, so theoretically it doesn’t have to comply with Chinese law. However, there is no way of knowing whether data might in the future be passed to servers in China, or how robust ByteDance would be in response to domestic government pressure.

In comparison to other social platforms, journalists and news outlets rarely use TikTok as a way of reaching audiences of their own. Two notable exceptions, each with hundreds of thousands of followers, are Taylor Lorenz, the New York Times technology reporter, and the Washington Post, whose official TikTok account is run by Dave Jorgensen. It is hard to imagine how anyone could maintain a job as a technology or culture reporter at the moment without spending at least some time on an app that has been downloaded two billion times and is growing far faster in popularity with US teens than any other platform. 

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Francesco Zaffarano, senior social media editor at the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, curates a list of publishers and journalists who have created a presence on the platform, and says that such growth on the platform has been sporadic and slow. Over direct message, Zaffarano told me he thinks the slow uptake on TikTok owes to a number of factors—not least that it is hard to make an app primarily known for singing and dancing a core part of a newsroom strategy. While the Chinese ownership of the app is definitely a concern for publishers, he says, the lack of an obvious business strategy attached to the app is more pressing. 

“This might be a stretch,” Zaffarano says. “But I am not sure that publishers are happy to dive into a platform that requires you to produce video you cannot easily use for other purposes.” 

With the Trump administration in full-throated pursuit of Chinese trade on a number of fronts, it is tempting to write off the social media aspect of this as a xenophobic and partisan witch hunt. But this would be just as simplistic as assuming that US companies are accountable and transparent in their own practices by default. I asked David Kaye, the outgoing UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, how he viewed the arguments that place TikTok in the same category as Facebook.I think both kinds of companies raise serious concerns,” he said, “but they are different ones. While our sharing with Facebook, and its mining of our data, ultimately seems inconsistent with the public’s interest in regulating these kinds of activities (and involves a lot of personal and social compromises), TikTok introduces the problem of governmental surveillance and data sharing. I have to say that I do not know how much access the Chinese government enjoys. So that’s a big empirical question. But assuming government access as with other companies, it is a serious security concern.” 

Kaye notes that those at risk are not necessarily those outside China (with important exceptions), but journalists should still make special considerations when using the platform. “Can my kids be on the platform and make goofy videos without worrying about China’s access to their data? Sure. Can a journalist covering China or things of interest to Beijing? That’s harder to say. I think we, or at least I, don’t know enough about TikTok’s relationship with the government to know. But I would be cautious and, as a journalist, do my own analysis of the potential concerns I’d have. In some ways that’s not all that different than considerations regarding Facebook. Make your decisions according to your own threat concerns.”

One of the beneficial aspects of the current political arguments over social media is that they force more newsrooms to confront what, in the long term, corporate relationships with third-party platforms might entail. Only a small handful of newsrooms to date—most notably, the recent startup The Markup—have made ethical and privacy concerns regarding the use of technology central to how to design and run their operations. The TikTok debate within newsrooms might have a generational aspect to it, but it also forces more important conversations about what relationship journalism should adopt with technology platforms. And that concern is universal.

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Emily Bell is the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.