The video app from China is the most popular app in the world. It is a threat to the US government. What’s behind it?
Short dance performances, Dadaistic sketches or cute cat clips: If you click through the flashy video cosmos of TikTok, you get an idea of why the Chinese app is currently the most popular platform among young people. It’s cheerful, shrill and never boring.
The analog world of realpolitik appears in stark contrast to this: Corona plunges the global economy into a severe recession, subliminal conflicts between states come to light.
TikTok now appears to be the youngest victim of geopolitical fronts. However, this is not just any online platform, but the most popular app in the world: According to the analysis company App-Annie, which measures the number of downloads for both the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store, no app became more frequent in the first quarter of 2020 downloaded as TikTok. WhatsApp and Facebook only follow in second and third place.
Behind TikTok is the company ByteDance from Beijing. At around $100 billion, the start-up founded in 2012 is considered the most valuable of its kind. Last year, sales were $17 billion, and the trend is rising. No wonder, since the short videos in quick succession create the ideal environment for advertising. A further 30,000 are expected to join 60,000 so far this year.
Little is known about the founder of ByteDance: Zhang Yiming was born in the southeastern province of Fujian, studied computer science and, according to Forbes, at 37, is already on the list of the ten richest Chinese.
Before his meteoric rise, the skinny entrepreneur had to suffer defeats with the nerd glasses: Zhang hired Microsoft for a short time in the late nineties, but he soon gave up because he felt restricted by the strict corporate culture. His first own start-up failed.
Zhang’s prophetic feat, however, was to anticipate the early migration of users to mobile devices. He also recognized the key role of artificial intelligence in the selection of user-relevant content.
But now the company is becoming a second case of Huawei. After a border conflict between China and India with dozens of soldiers killed, India has banned the leading Chinese apps, including TikTok. Until then, India was by far the largest market for the video app. And now the second largest market may soon follow – the US. Bills have already been passed in Congress that prohibit government officials from using TikTok on their cell phones.
The allegations against the Chinese app follow a well-known pattern: Washington fears that the Beijing-based parent company ByteDance could forward user data to the Chinese government and spread Chinese propaganda and misinformation.
Donald Trump also seems to be taking personal revenge: When he gave an election speech in Oklahoma a few weeks ago, the ranks in the event hall remained surprisingly empty. Thousands of TikTok users, mostly K-Pop fans, had agreed with each other via the app to order mass tickets without actually wanting to come. Trump embarrassed himself in conspicuously empty ranks.
He has already launched anti-TikTok advertising on Facebook, which claims: “TikTok was caught red-handedly spying on what is in the memory of my smartphone.” The fact that this is also the case with many US apps is not mentioned. Trump also makes no secret of using a ban on TikTok as a tactical economic sanction: “It is a large company. Look what happened to China with this virus, what they did to this country and the world is a shame.”
ByteDance is now trying above all to miss an international image that is supposed to forget potential connections to China’s Communist Party: For example, former Disney board member Kevin Mayer was recruited as the new CEO and a whole horde of PR lobbyists was hired.
But TikTok does not come out of its dilemma of origin: If Beijing actually requests information from the start-up, there would be practically no legal basis to act against it.
ByteDance founder Zhang has also felt Beijing’s perseverance: The first news app from ByteDance was banned by the authorities, Zhang himself admitted in a public apology that the app “is not compatible with the basic socialist values” – and promised improvement. At that time, Zhang promised to “deepen” cooperation with the Communist Party.