By Jess Hwang
There’s been much talk about how social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are damaging the public sphere. The latest platform that is continuing this process is TikTok, a video-sharing social media platform founded in 2012 and owned by the Chinese internet company ByteDance. In 2019, TikTok surpassed 1.5 billion downloads, making it the second-most downloaded app in the world; a third of those downloads were in the United States (123.8 million). With its vast popularity, the American government has subjected the app to significant political scrutiny due to national security and privacy concerns, especially because of ByteDance’s cozy relationship with the Chinese government. These concerns have in turn motivated the federal government to try (unsuccessfully) to ban its use. Some commentators, meanwhile, have pointed out that the TikTok ban was also motivated by xenophobia as well as security reasons. Both of these concerns have merit, but what seems missing from this debate is the fact that the design of the platform is inherently harmful to our system of democracy.
First, the design of TikTok undermines civic participation— a cornerstone of democratic life. The app nudges (to borrow Cass Sunstein’s term) users towards superficial material and shallow distractions, rather than deep, informative content. Usually, TikTok videos take the form of very short films mixed with music. As users watch these videos, TikTok identifies and cleverly utilizes the user’s behaviors by presenting yet more content for the user to discover based on their “fear of missing out”. To fill that void, users follow everyone they see, and those who have been followed also follow others in the same manner, thereby creating a chain of followers. TikTok’s endless scroll feature also allows users to continually discover new content, with the content being organized and displayed in various sections, giving ample options for users to enjoy. The concepts are organized in the following sections: (1) Following (that is to say, the content of the accounts the user follows), (2) For You (viral or soon-to-be viral content that TikTok suggests), and (3) Discovery (a page containing trending hashtags and popular branded content of the week). Hence, the result is that users fall under the spell of influencer culture, where influencers are constantly branding themselves as a product on social media. This branding is a marketing tool to gain more social value as gauged by the number of followers. This process breeds a “me-first culture” rooted in individualism that is detrimental to a responsible civic society.
TikTok’s platform, with its seductively simple design and user-friendliness, discourages users from critically exploring the information bombarding them. Because TikTok features only short videos that are less than a minute in length but practically unlimited in quantity, the app invites the users to get lost within the influx of videos. The format means that users do not have to perform any effort for their entertainment. They also do not need to make any effort in determining what their next video should be about either. Unlike other apps such as Twitter and Instagram, TikTok’s hashtags have immense power by determining which content the app will display to any given viewer. The hashtags also provide suggestions on the next types of videos for users to produce by introducing various “challenges”, jokes, or repeating formats. Hashtags have the power to tell users which videos they should make and watch. Consequently, users lack the ability to critically formulate their own thoughts with available information; instead they must rely on tools like TikTok to feed the information to them. TikTok’s simplicity hurts its users’ ability to think critically, making them less informed democratic citizens.
TikTok is becoming a powerful force shaping our politics. It’s a space where ideologies are formed and spread at lightning speed. It’s yet another platform that drives the spread of fake news and propaganda across the political spectrum. The very design of the app hacks our mind and erodes the thinking capacities that we need as informed citizens. We become ever more susceptible to propaganda both on the app and from other media sources. It takes away our ability to think rationally and prevents us from deciphering truth from fiction. Given the scope of the app’s popularity, we should remain especially aware of the danger apps like TikTok continue to present to our democracy.