Tik Tok and the News: A paradoxical relationship?

Natalia Vasnier is from France. She is a second year History student at King’s and has a strong passion for journalism and obviously history. Her interests are gender, politics and foreign policymaking in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. 

[Featured Image: The Tik Tok logo alongside the Chinese flag. Source: Photo illustration by Slate. Images by TikTok and Sergio Amiti/Moment via Getty Images Plus.]

When we think of Tik Tok, we generally think about a video-sharing social media platform with millions of users all around the world. The original concept was for people to take short videos, add music to them, dance and then post them back. The app show videos in an algorithmic “for you” feed, and it has been N°1 in app store for five consecutive quarters. As a result, Tik Tok has become a new place for people to share awareness and information about current affairs. It has taken a revolutionary turn in some ways. Social media and especially Tik Tok have become major platforms to make young generations aware of worldwide issues, in a way it was never done before. Our generation, today, is more connected than ever before to the internet where information travels at unprecedented speed. Reading newspapers, watching the news on TV, or even listening the radio have become unattractive and ancient ways to keep up to date with current affairs for this generation.

The paradoxical side of Tik Tok comes when thinking about its creator, Zhang Yiming the CEO of ByteDance, which is a Chinese tech company. The app is the first consumer app from China that hugely succeeded in the West. As of today, an exponential number of allegations are made against the Chinese government, who is accused of restricting freedom of speech in the country. Freedom of expression is a crucial and universal human right that must be implemented in a country to sustain a democracy. However, for the past few years tensions surrounding this right have been increasingly high in Hong Kong since the Umbrella movement.

One might ask, how are the links between China and TikTok paradoxical?

It all started after a video by a young American teenage girl went viral. She talked about an issue that profoundly offended China and was conscious about the danger of posting political content on the app since it was led by a Chinese company. Therefore, she started her video as a random make-up tutorial to avoid raising suspicion, to then start talking about the suppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang, China. This video was posted in 2019 and in it she says to “ use your phone that you’re using right now to search up what’s happening in China […] This is another Holocaust yet no one is talking about it”. She shared a series of three posts to invite her viewers to see what is happening, stating “they’re getting concentration camps, throwing innocent Muslims in there, splitting families from each other, kidnapping them, murdering them”. Such strong statements do not come without consequences, and her videos have been censored from the platform but still amounted around five million views.The paradox can be seen here as how a Chinese-led app is used to raise awareness about an important issue that involves and condemns China. In a statement in the US about free speech, tech giant CEO Zuckerberg, called out TikTok for suppressing content that offended Beijing, and questioned its censorship policies.  However, a spokesman for Bytedance said that these allegations were false and that the app does not filter and censors what they deem harmful for China. He says that even though the app is led by a Chinese company its values are highly western. But moderators have been told to remove references to Tiananmen Square, to Taiwanese Independence, the Uighurs, and Hong Kong protest because the platform did not want any political engagement to be seen on the app. However, once you look at the specific themes and events that were asked to be taken down, they all seemed to be subjects that tarnish the Chinese government’s image.

Recently, the US President Donald Trump has challenged the app by threatening to ban its use. In result, the company has attempted to distance TikTok’s operations from Chinese ownership by encouraging US investors such as Walmart to become stakeholders. On October 9, 2020, Pakistan banned the video-sharing app and called its content indecent and immoral. All this shows the looming controversies surrounding a Chinese led app.

Our current generation has a tool that past generations did not have access to, i.e. social media. The internet and social media have given so much power to young voices and have become an easy way to reach millions across the world. This channel of communication makes it easier to influence, gather and organise.  With this advantage anyone can catch the attention of those who have power to change the world.

However, amidst the ban of political videos offending the Chinese government TikTok has allowed other movements to thrive amongst a large audience, such as feminism. Active feminists have been posting videos on the app advocating for equality and raising awareness about injustices between sexes. Since the #metoo movement, online feminism seems to keep gaining importance, it has created a kind of online collective community of feminists who share the same thoughts and values. This has transcended into what has been called the Sisterhood trend.  An example of this is “the sisofficial” account, led by two feminist sisters Florence-Olivia and Emma Genesse. They now have around 200k followers on TikTok and over 10 million views. They post videos dancing to viral dance trends in order to attract viewers. To these videos they add shocking statistics about sexism in the world and their strong views on current issues. Recently, they informed that in 2020: “70% of women worldwide have experienced sexual violence, over 700 million women alive today were child brides, 47% of transgender people have been sexually assaulted in their life time and 189 countries do not require equal pay for equal work”. Such intense declarations have impacted the Tik Tok’s viewers, who have been reposing the feminist’s sisters’ videos. I think that this movement has grown so much because people who would have not engaged in the past are now finding it easier to engage due to the facility of posting on Tik Tok. Some argue that social media has allowed the existence of a fourth wave feminism.

Another major issue highly covered by Tik Tokers was the Black Lives Matter’s movement. Hundreds of accounts have posted videos over the summer of people attending demonstrations in the street, advocating for equality, and denouncing injustice On the down side, the main problem of TikTok is that information circulates so quickly, like its viral videos, and people are quick to forget.

Once we look at the world around us, this platform has become the major way to educate and raise awareness amongst the younger generations about current affairs, and injustices and make them active actors in the society. This association of TikTok as a news platform can seem paradoxical if we look at the founder of the app and the allegations of censorship that violated freedom of speech. Indeed, this association is paradoxical, but it is only logical that a viral app becomes a way to vehiculate news amongst an increasingly active generation. TikTok has allowed people to be aware of the present while making them think about the past and the origins that led to current injustices. This is true with the Black Lives Matter’s movement, feminists’ movements, the Uighurs, and many others. Therefore, TikTok has permitted users to be part of what scholars call public history and this is revolutionary.



Bibliography:

The Guardian. 2019. TikTok Make-up tutorials conceals call to action on China’s treatment of Uighurs.(https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/nov/27/tiktok-makeup-tutorial-conceals-call-to-action-on-chinas-treatment-of-uighurs)[Accessed 1 October 2020].

Onati International Institute for the Sociology of Law (http://www.iisj.net/en/workshops/fourth-wave-feminism-sisterhood-and-social-networking-towards-new-citizenship )[Accessed 1 October 2020].

BBC NEWS. (https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-54316992 ) [Accessed 13 October 2020].

Has#tag Activism. (https://wpmu.mah.se/nmict191group4 ) [Accessed 2 October 2020].

Tweet from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, Oct 9, 2020.

The Guardian.(https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/sep/25/revealed-how-tiktok-censors-videos-that-do-not-please-beijing) [Accessed 13 October 2020].

 CNBC.(https://www.cnbc.com/2019/10/17/facebook-ceo-zuckerberg-calls-out-tiktok-censorship-in-china.html). [Accessed 13 October 2020].

 Cityyam. (https://www.cityam.com/press-freedom-is-under-fire-in-hong-kong-its-time-for-britain-to-take-a-stand/). [Accessed 13 October 2020].

Tosh, John, Historical scholarship and public memory in Britain in History, Memory and Public Life (2018).

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