July 16, 2020

Should you timeout TikTok and delete the app over data concerns or has the Chinese-owned company become a political football?


Should you give TikTok a timeout and delete the video-sharing app?

Answering this question means revisiting my influencer marketing trends 2020 forecast. There I foresaw that TikTok would be turned into a political football.

Mark Zuckerberg, owner of Instagram and its parent company Facebook, would, I argued, use TikTok as a bait-and-switch move to obfuscate his companies’ poor track record on users’ personal data capture, freedom of speech and the perennial question about whether his platforms are publishers or not.

The forecast saw, too, that President Donald Trump would turn TikTok into a geopolitical issue in the same way that he has campaigned with other national leaders to have Huawei cut from sovereign state technology plans.  

On July 7, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. was considering banning TikTok. To the question: “Would you recommend downloading TikTok? Pompeo replied: "Only if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party".

The timing of Pompeo's statement is interesting. It came  just 10 days or so after Trump was humiliated by poor attendance at a Tulsa, Oklahoma, re-election rally. Brad Parscale, Trump's campaign manager, had boasted of a million ticket requests for the event. Only 6,200 turned up on the night. TikTok users claimed they had registered potentially hundreds of thousands of tickets for the campaign rally with no intention of attending.

Last night  Parscale was demoted from his role as campaign manager. It is rumoured Trump remains furious about the Tulsa incident blaming Parscale and TikTok for the poor supporter turnout.

Is there truth, though, behind the political rhetoric. Is there fire alongside the smoke? For that you must turn to another of my 2020 influencer marketing trends: data must be accompanied by human insight and intellect. 

Writing this week in the Washington Post, technology columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler says:

“TikTok doesn’t appear to grab any more personal information than Facebook. That’s still an appalling amount of data to mine about the lives of Americans. But there’s scant evidence that TikTok is sharing our data with China, and we should be wary of xenophobia dressed up as privacy concerns”.

For Fowler the question of whether to use or not use TikTok centres on who you want snooping around in your data - rather than whether or not anyone is snooping around. 

Fowler goes on to suggest that if you ditch the Chinese-owned app, you should also consider where your smartphone, TV or laptop are manufactured. Chances are it’ll be China, too. And, if you reason you don’t like your app made by a Chinese company. Why draw the line there? Shouldn’t you apply the same logic and rail against an iPhone assembled in that country, too?

TikTok is owned by a Beijing-based company called ByteDance. The app, however, is no longer available in China. And, what could be more American about a firm than being headed up by a former Disney C-suite heavyweight - in this instance: Kevin Mayer?

ByteDance has been valued at $75billion according to the Financial Times. Investors behind the Chinese technology company, however, are multinational and include Japanese conglomerate, Softbank and US venture capital firm, Sequoia Capital. 

Last month India banned 59 Chinese smartphone apps, including TikTok, on the grounds they pose a threat to the country’s security. It’s possible, however, the decision was founded more on political motivations than safety concerns.

The app ban came shortly after the death of 20 Indian soldiers in a brawl with People’s Liberation Army troops - an incident that has inflamed anti-China sentiment, according to the Financial Times.

A few days after TikTok’s ban in India Facebook-owned Instagram started testing TikTok clone - Reels - in the country. Was this coincidence or an arrangement in a market with 200 million TikTok users? A market in which Facebook completed a $5.7 billion tie-up for a 10% stake in Jio Platforms, an Indian mobile leader, a couple of months before in April. 

Last week Amazon told employees to stop using TikTok on work phones before reversing the decision the same day and calling the emailed order an error. A day later US bank Wells Fargo ordered staff to remove the app from their work devices over “privacy and security” concerns. But also because “corporate-owned devices should be used for company business only”.

Time to delete TikTok?

Should you give TikTok a timeout and delete the short-form-video-sharing app? TikTok does take a lot of personal data from users. But no more, and arguably less so, than Facebook or Instagram.

Should you be worried about international security issues? Possibly, but you should also question the motivations behind those rattling their sabres.

Ultimately you should be armed with facts and make an informed decision on those. For marketers the question is further complicated depending on where your audiences are. Currently 2 Billion of them are on TikTok.

We’ve long-known that influencer-generated content on TikTok sells stuff. In the UK 30% of 16-24-year-olds report being influenced to buy a product or service as a result of seeing Tiktok influencer content according to Takumi, an influencer marketing platform. The percentage rises to 40% of Generation Z in Germany. That's a big audience to lose based on hearsay and fearmongering alone.  

Featured Image by Image by krittiyanee thumjaikul from Pixabay

Scott Guthrie is a professional adviser within the influencer marketing industry. He is an event speaker, university guest lecturer, media commentator on influencer marketing and active blogger. He works with brands, agencies and platforms to achieve meaningful results from influencer marketing. That tells you something about him but it's not giving you a lot of detail, is it? So, read more here.

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