As TikTok gains influence with advertisers and users alike, some marketers and security experts say they welcome lawmakers’ efforts to limit the platform’s influence via government-owned devices.
Last week, lawmakers at the national and state level moved forward with legislation to ban government employees from using the app on government-owned devices and computer networks. In addition to the passage of a bill in the U.S. Senate, lawmakers in Alabama and Utah also banned TikTok on government devices, following moves by other states such as South Dakota, Texas and Maryland. Meanwhile, a new bi-partisan bill even went so far as proposing an outright ban on the app in the U.S.
A TikTok spokesperson did not immediately return a request for comment. However, the flurry of legislative action comes as top officials — including National Intelligence Director Avril Haines and FBI Director Chris Wray — raise new concerns about how the Chinese government could use the app to spy on Americans by collecting data or influence users with content. Many of the issues stem back to TikTok’s parent company, China-based ByteDance, which some have said has deep connections with the Chinese Communist Party. Although federal legislation still has a ways to go before becoming law, some say the action is long overdue despite its rapid growth as a marketing platform.
Concerns about TikTok aren’t entirely new. In 2020, then-president Donald Trump signed an executive order to ban the app unless it was sold to a U.S.-based company. However, despite reports of potential buyers, the order also faced legal challenges and never went into effect. Since then, the concerns have become more of a bipartisan issue. Last year, U.S. President Joe Biden revoked Trump’s order but still directed the U.S. Dept. Of Commerce to review apps designed and developed in China. (In June, TikTok announced it would move all U.S. data to Oracle’s cloud platform.)
Members of Congress have also raised concerns including Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Warner, who even suggested that taking action when Trump suggested it might have been easier than two years later. Last week, Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Brendan Carr praised Republican Senator Marco Rubio’s bi-partisan bill to ban TikTok entirely.
“There is now widespread consensus in the U.S. that TikTok presents an unacceptable risk both to our national security and to the safety and privacy of millions of Americans,” Carr said in a statement. “That is why a broad cross-section of national security experts have gone public in recent weeks to express their concerns with TikTok’s unchecked operations in the U.S. The question is no longer whether TikTok’s ongoing operations will come to an end, but when.”
As marketers eye TikTok, so do security experts
Despite TikTok’s rapidly growing appeal with advertisers, some marketers say it’s smart for U.S. officials to take action on issues of national security. Among those supportive of banning TikTok on government devices is Kevin Renwick, media director at the creative and media agency Mekanism, who explained that there should be limitations to people watching content on government-issued devices.
“I think that TikTok has been busted enough doing things they shouldn’t be doing,” Renwick said. “I can’t even imagine the stuff that hasn’t really been seen yet in the larger ecosystem, especially with everything going on geo-politically.”
Marketers should expand their vision of brand safety beyond media placement, said Mea Cole Tefka, a former head of content and creative who’s worked with companies such as Facebook, Mondelez and the New York-based agency Huge. Despite TikTok’s capabilities around creativity, community-building and its ease of use, she said advertisers should also be concerned about the accessibility of TikTok’s platform data overall.
“There’s an ethical question as to how that data is being used and what are the consequences of engaging,” said Tefka, who now works independently as a consultant building online communities for brands. “The known censorship and propaganda of the [Chinese Communist Party] been compartmentalized by global brands of the business opportunities there, but with TikTok, the waters are very muddy and the lack of transparency needs to be a primary concern.”
In addition to worries about whether TikTok is collecting U.S. user data, government officials also raised concerns about TikTok’s algorithm and how artificial intelligence is used to recommend videos.
The potential for AI to influence people whether they know it or not is one reason to ban government officials from using platforms TikTok, said Vince Lynch, co-founder and CEO of the AI startup IV.AI. According to Lynch, tech companies that deploy AI should also be required to be more transparent about their intentions for using AI — such as disclosing why and how people are targeted with content — and also be required to train employees how to build ethical data models.
“It’s a real thing because AI influences humans,” Lynch said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Chinese or not. The same could be said for Meta or for Twitter.”
Lawmakers need to also consider threats posed beyond TikTok, according to Zach Edwards, a data privacy researcher at Human, a cybersecurity firm that works with marketers. He mentioned the example of Pushwoosh, a Russian software platform that was reportedly disguised as a U.S.-based company and whose code has been used by many mobile apps including some used by U.S. government organizations.
“Most Americans are protected by minimal data privacy laws and so from that perspective alone,” Edwards said. “Companies targeting U.S. consumers with products who have deep ties to foreign governments should be looked at skeptically by many people, and potentially avoided.”
Despite the concerns, the number of brands using TikTok continues to grow, according to app analytics company AppsFlyer. In November, U.S. brands and publishers saw a 206% year-over-year increase in actions — which includes likes, shares and comments — while video views for brands and publishers grew by 166% and total followers grew by 427%, according to AppsFlyer, which did not share specific numbers.
TikTok’s popularity with users also continues to grow. AppsFlyer said more than 119 million U.S. users visited TikTok in October, a 12% increase from October 2021. And despite its appeal with younger users, the fastest growing groups are older than the average TikTok user. According to AppsFlyer, total users over 65 grew 27% while users between 35 and 44 grew 23%.
Lynette Owens, vice president of global consumer education at the cybersecurity firm Trend Micro, said legal action can help bring about change but doesn’t entirely ensure user safety. According to Owens, people need improved digital literacy and transparency related to how platforms like TikTok work and what data they collect.
“Many may choose not to [use the platforms] if they are not comfortable with the amount of privacy and data that we give up in order to use them,” Owens said. “A great analogy here is that of putting the ingredients, calories, and other nutritional information on food packaging and seeing people change their eating habits once armed with this information.”