TikTok: why the Chinese social network is so scary

Zach King is the king of TikTok. His six-second video of him riding a Harry Potter-style broomstick in a Los Angeles parking lot has been viewed 2 billion times. The 32-year-old videographer, who started out with tutorials for editing software, has built his audience with sub-10-second clips of him portraying himself with clever visual effects. It is now followed by 69 million people.

A star among others. There are more than a billion of “Generation Z”, the 25-30 year olds, to let themselves be engulfed by these videos of less than a minute where we dance, have fun, dress up, spill or explain life. . Everyone is benefiting. Well almost. Five years after its launch by the Chinese group ByteDance, TikTok is technologically and politically terrifying. Even the American giants in the sector (Meta, Google, etc.) feel threatened.

In early September, during a technology conference in Los Angeles, Mathias Döpfner, CEO of the German media group Axel Springer, led a violent charge: “TikTok should be banned in all democracies, he claimed. We are very naive in our dealings with China. We provide personal data to the Chinese government. Which, of course, is a tool of espionage.” During a hearing before the United States Congress, Vanessa Pappas, the American CEO of ByteDance, was accused of traveling to Beijing. “Your company is a walking security nightmare for anyone using your app,” said young Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, claiming that ByteDance employed 300 people affiliated with Chinese state media.

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Geopolitics of data

“TikTok is becoming a hot topic of geopolitical dispute between the United States and China, says an intelligence specialist who works for a cybersecurity firm in Palo Alto, California. The platform is one of the means for China to amass accurate profiles of US citizens.” At the origin of this tension is above all the technological engine of TikTok, at once opaque, dominated and operated from Beijing. Some context to understand. The concept of ultra-short videos is not new. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube stream millions.

They all use the same martingale, that of the recommendation. The principle is simple: you liked it, you are a fan, you “liked” a piece of content or, even better, you shared a video within your community, we will use it for you. ad nauseam similar The fuel of the system is user data: the richer and more granular it is, the better the user profile. TikTok spies on and updates a billion profiles, with a few hundred settings per user. And this system, based on what is called deep learning (deep learning) is constantly improving.

The factor that helps TikTok widen the gap with Facebook, Instagram or YouTube? The tolerance of Chinese citizens to absolute electronic transparency. “If in Europe ou aux Etats-Unis la collecte des données personnelles est relatively réglementée, en Chine, c’est open bar, notice an entrepreneur aujourd’hui based in Californie et qui a travaillé pour un des géants chinois. Toute application qui se lance sur le marché chinois bénéficie d’un immense marché intérieur homogenene où l’unité de compte est la centaine de millions d’utilisateurs. de vie privée. Là-bas, la reconnaissance faciale est vue comme ayant aussi des avantages pratiques au quotidien. L’hypersurveillance permanent n’émeut personne. Alors, collector de la data pour améliorer un service en ligne, ce n’est pas un issue.” Therefore, the fear among Westerners is that ByteDance’s data collection and processing practices will spread to the rest of the world, and that this will result in the creation of the world’s largest mobile app user base.

Donald Trump’s Offensive

This suspicion is not new. In 2020, at the end of his term, Donald Trump, thanks to his intelligence services, developed a solution to TikTok by claiming that its processing of private data undermined the national security of the United States. He had even envisioned an unprecedented industrial mechano in which the IT giant Oracle would have bought TikTok and ensured the integrity of the data stored. China’s ByteDance bought time, flirting with Microsoft and others. For a time, TikTok went unnoticed again.

Two years and a new administration later, TikTok is back in the spotlight. One of the triggers was an investigation by the news site BuzzFeed last June, which revealed that reams of data about TikTok’s American subscribers were spinning toward Beijing. This claim was based on the transcript of dozens of conference calls between TikTok executives.

What is more serious, at the end of August, a Google engineer specialized in the analysis of private data, showed that the TikTok application recorded in real time everything that a user typed on the keyboard of his phone, including ultra-sensitive information such as passwords. o Credit card numbers – the kind of features only found in malware. TikTok denies all these accusations. Practices have evolved, ByteDance says, the servers are located outside of China, and if app usage happens to be carefully monitored, it’s to protect users from fraud.

Even beyond security concerns, TikTok’s commercial potential is scaring American tech giants. Because if the TikTok software manages to offer such addictive content, it is because it is not subject to the same limitations as its American counterparts. The quality of Chinese management is also an important factor, notes a former ByteDance: “They know how to execute very quickly, adapt, change, suddenly deploy gigantic resources in marketing or engineering. They leave nothing to chance. When I got to London, I discovered the existence of a group of thirty technicians dedicated solely to optimizing the sound on the platform.”

New forms of electronic commerce

Meta Platforms (ex-Facebook) has been able to deploy counterattacks, with short Instagram videos, it is unable to fight against the relevancy of the algorithm made in China that makes its ad targeting much more effective. Ditto for YouTube which released its baptized clips Shorts, but whose audience success is mixed.

Google is threatened at the heart of its activities: its search engine. Because TikTok is hailed by Generation Z for exploring the internet and solving everyday problems with syncopated videos like trailers. Last July, at a conference, Prabhakar Raghavan, head of Google’s “Knowledge and Information” division, surprised the audience by stating that 40% of searches carried out by young people between the ages of 20 and 25 to find a restaurant were done more on Google Maps or Google Search, but on TikTok and, to a lesser extent, on Instagram.


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The other danger that TikTok embodies relates to the development of what is called the live trading (Where live streaming trading). These are terms to remember. The principle is as old as teleshopping: influencers promote products to their fans and offer a “flash” sale at the end of the show (ie after one minute). The idea is to monetize impulse buying. In 2017, the live trading began its development in China with a turnover of 3 billion dollars; in 2020, revenues had risen to 171 billion, and in 2021 they reached 300 billion. Officially, TikTok has frozen its plans to live trading In Europe. But no one is really fooled. As ByteDance’s strategy has shown, what characterizes Chinese digital industrialists is their ability to see the long term.


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