With over 800 million active users worldwide, TikTok’s growth since its $1 billion rebrand of Music.ly in 2018 — a number thought to have been bolstered by the coronavirus pandemic — has been nothing short of exponential.
The short-form video app has a huge user base in the U.S., which could now be in jeopardy after a handful of comments from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said he is “looking into” a ban on the platform and other Chinese-made apps following scrutiny over security.
The comments come on the heels of India’s recent ban; a huge blow to the social media app given that India is TikTok’s biggest market for new downloads, as well as access to one of the world’s fastest growing tech markets. The ban has meant the loss of approximately 120 million users from the platform, and has seen view counts and “likes” fall across all regions as a result.
TikTok’s thousands of influencers are somewhat concerned, with many opting to form contingency plans in case the worst should occur. Many are shifting their efforts over to Facebook-owned Instagram. The recent controversy around TikTok is a huge boon for Facebook, who sees a big rival in TikTok for social media supremacy, especially in the youth market. Facebook has already made moves to fill the void left by TikTok in India, expanding their own short-form video app Reels into the region. It formally tried to launch Lasso; a TikTok clone which failed to make any impact.
In the wake of the U.S. announcement, TikTok is scrambling to explore ways to create distance between the company and their Chinese roots. TikTik’s parent ByteDance are considering changing the corporate structure, as well as relocating company headquarters outside of China in order to distance the app from possibly being compromised by Chinese authorities.
That said, unlike India and China, the Trump administration lacks any precedent for blocking software, so it’s unlikely the White House can realistically go through with any kind of severe censorship. That said, Trump isn’t usually overly concerned with following the rules, meaning that any motion to block the app would result in swift legal action. All this said, the threat alone is enough to dissuade future investors and users, which in itself is a concern for TikTok’s U.S. growth.
It’s impossible to ignore the political implications of such a threat. TikTok censorship could be huge for the upcoming U.S. election, and while TikTok struggles to prove it isn’t compromised by the Chinese government, Facebook has a proven history of troubling decision making in regards to the spread of misinformation, which has been especially helpful to the Trump campaign.
The fact that the Trump administration is considering banning TikTok — an app predominantly used by under 24s, where there is little republican presence at all, but not Facebook — is largely unsurprising. After all, it is theorized that TikTok users played a large role in helping to tank attendance for Trump’s recent Oklahoma rally. We can only speculate at this point, but as the 2020 election looms, the online war over social media discourse will play a huge role in its outcome.