The video-sharing app avoids scrutiny because politicians don’t take it seriously.
Many people think of TikTok as a dance app. And although it is an app full of dancing, it’s also a juggernaut experiencing astronomical growth. In July, TikTok—a short-form video-sharing app powered by an uncannily good recommendation algorithm and owned by the Chinese company ByteDance—became the only social-media mobile app other than those from Facebook to ever pass 3 billion downloads. At the end of last month, TikTok announced it had more than 1 billion monthly users. It was, by some counts, the most downloaded app in 2020 and remained so into 2021. Not bad for an app launched only in 2016!
Of the social-media platforms around today, TikTok is the likeliest to represent the future. Its user base is mostly young people. But if you look for TikTok in news coverage, you’re more likely to find it in the lifestyle, culture, or even food section than you are on the front page.
It’s not that social-media platforms aren’t newsworthy—Facebook consistently dominates headlines. But TikTok is all too often regarded as an unserious thing to write or read about. That’s a mistake, and it’s one that Congress is making as well.
So TikTok is not a passing fad or a tiny start-up in the social-media space. It’s a cultural powerhouse, creating superstars out of unknown artists overnight. It’s a career plan for young influencers and a portable shopping mall full of products and brands. It’s where many young people get their news and discuss politics. And sometimes they get rowdy: In June 2020, TikTok teens allegedly pranked then-President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign by overbooking tickets to a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then never showing.
TikTok is not the only platform that tries to avoid scrutiny by quietly backing into a hedge while Facebook takes the heat—YouTube is the undisputed master of this strategy. But TikTok has the dubious privilege of being one of the few platforms that, according to polls, people dislike and distrust even more than Facebook. Maybe reports of Facebook’s imminent death are greatly exaggerated, but reports of TikTok’s rise certainly aren’t. If lawmakers want to address the problems that social-media platforms cause for young people, they should care about the platforms young people care about.