TikTok app logo.
An attempt by US lawmakers to make ByteDance divest TikTok has wider ramifications for the internet. Image by AP PHOTO
  • technology (general)

Warnings TikTok could usher in a ‘digital cold war’

March 30, 2024

Social media platform TikTok could become the frontline of a “digital cold war” that splits the internet between the West and the rest of the world, experts say.

The short-form video app is one of the fastest growing platforms in the world, with more than 170 million users in the US and 8.5 million in Australia.

But, citing national security concerns, the US House of Representatives in March passed a bill giving TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, six months to divest the app and sell the asset to a company not based in China.

TikTok logo on a mobile phone in front of a computer screen.
 The short-form video app TikTok is one of the fastest growing platforms in the world. Image by AP PHOTO 

Failing to do this, Apple’s App Store and Google Play store would be barred from hosting TikTok, meaning the app would be banned across the US.

The move has raised questions about TikTok’s future in Australia, as the federal opposition calls for similar action.

University of Sydney digital cultures lecturer Chunmeizi Su says any ban could transform the internet from a globalised source of information into a platform splintered along geopolitical lines.

“If we’re voting yes for a TikTok ban, we’re voting for a new digital cold war,” Dr Su said.

ByteDance is viewed as being inseparably tied to the Chinese state, fanning concerns about the impact of the TikTok algorithm’s influence on Western users, and its data collection practices. 

A worker walks past a TikTok sign in Singapore.
 TikTok was launched into the international market in 2017, expanding beyond China’s borders. Image by EPA PHOTO 

Australian National University political science associate professor Graeme Smith says calls for a ban in some ways reflect broader geopolitical tensions.

“Congress is filled with old white men and this is one way to signal that they’re tough on China – even if most of them don’t understand the app,” he told AAP.

The app is already banned on Australian public servants’ work-issued phones but the federal government says it has “no plan” to emulate the US.

Prof Smith says this allows Australia to demonstrate a more nuanced approach to geopolitics and proves the government doesn’t always move in lockstep with the Americans. 

But there are other concerns about the app. 

TikTok’s algorithm presents content on sensitive issues like violence in Gaza and unrest in Hong Kong in alignment with the Chinese government’s interests, opposition home affairs spokesman James Paterson says.

But the company has previously denied allegations its algorithm takes political sides, saying it reflects users’ interests.

University of Melbourne technology researcher Suelette Dreyfus says it isn’t clear whether TikTok exerts influence on news content because the algorithm is not open source.

This is an issue for all tech companies, regardless of where they are based.

“The algorithms don’t set out to give you an accurate picture of the world and if you believe that they do, then you’re being manipulated,” Dr Dreyfus told AAP.

A TikTok signage in the TikTok office in Singapore.
 The opposition claims TikTok’s algorithm is aligned with Chinese government interests. Image by EPA PHOTO 

TikTok’s highly sophisticated recommendation system can proliferate misinformation and often sends users down a rabbit hole of biassed online posts, Dr Dreyfus said.

Previous reporting has found TikTok instructed moderators to suppress posts from users deemed too ugly, poor, or disabled, for example.

There are also anxieties about the lack of transparency behind its data collection practices.

In 2022, an internal investigation by ByteDance found employees had tracked multiple journalists who reported on the company.

Meanwhile, all Chinese companies are legally required to hand over their data to the government.

TikTok’s data is stored in Malaysia, Singapore and the US, and it’s unclear whether ByteDance has been compelled to share this information with China.

But a TikTok spokesperson for Australia and New Zealand told AAP the company has “never shared user data with the Chinese government, nor would we if asked.”

“Some of the best-known and trusted Australian companies, including banks and telcos, openly state in their privacy policies that they share Australian user information with employees and third parties around the world, including China,” they said.

In 2020, Facebook was sued for failing to protect users’ personal data after British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica was found to have harvested data from 87 million profiles for political advertising. 

But politicians in the US and Australia are less concerned by these companies because they are headquartered in western countries – and beholden to privacy legislation and direct regulatory intervention.

Referencing China’s persecution of Uighur people, Senator Paterson also argued there were differences between a travel company buying data from a social media company to advertise holiday deals and “giving my data to an authoritarian government, which has been credibly accused of genocide”.

US-owned company Meta, which operates Facebook, has also played a role in ethnic cleansing with an Amnesty International report revealing the website’s algorithm fuelled the Myanmar military’s atrocities against the Rohingya people.

But even this is not comparable, Senator Paterson said.

“(Facebook) is not perpetuating genocide like the Chinese government is in Xinjiang,” he said.

“But of course, we should look at regulation of social media companies to deal with the unintended and adverse effects, there’s no question about that,” he said.

Senator Paterson is not calling for a ban on TikTok, but is advocating for Australia to follow in the US’s footsteps in encouraging ByteDance to sever the app’s relationship with China.

But Dr Dreyfus maintains the main issue goes beyond any one particular app.

“This is a debate about who gets to use the newest tool of geopolitical influence,” Dr Dreyfus said.

“Invisible persuasion of entire populations by an attack platform may become every bit as powerful as traditional weapons, when it comes to evoking a particular desired change.” 

All this threatens to divide the internet into geographical spheres – a concept referred to as “the splinternet”, RMIT cybersecurity professor Matthew Warren said.

China and Iran both have firewalls that block websites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

Russia has an internet censorship list that initially barred sites with drug, suicide and child sexual abuse content but has expanded to include “extremist” government criticism.

Meanwhile, India and Nepal have banned TikTok.

The internet was originally pitched as a globalised and free information-sharing platform, but Prof Warren says this may be a thing of the past.

Caught amongst this Big Tech tempest are ordinary TikTok users: the millions of young people who use the app to share memes with their friends and the thousands of small businesses who rely on the platform as their main marketing tool.

If governments are truly worried about privacy and data, Dr Dreyfus says they should regulate for greater transparency in social media.

“We, as a society, have a lot of work to do in figuring out the nuances of the relationship between technology and democracy,” she said.

This means protecting free speech while also letting users know when and how their personal information is being used instead of allowing it to be “secretly slurped away”.