TikTok’s days seem numbered in Australia, with the first step towards restricting the app’s use already underway. The Federal Government is set to announce that the app will be banned from government devices, and the ACT has already indicated it will follow suit in the interests of national security.
Whether or not further restrictions will be imposed on the app’s availability for the general public in Australia is yet to be seen, but it’s clear that TikTok’s aggressive data mining is a cause for serious concern.
I’m obviously all for decisive action from the government to protect national security and get ahead of the potential threat of the app’s access to users’ activities beyond their use of TikTok itself. The issue isn’t just the actual data that is being collected, it’s about the potential for TikTok’s Chinese-owned parent company, ByteDance, to be compelled to abuse the data by the Chinese Government.
But even with this potential threat clearly identified, and with government taking action on a national level to combat it, as an individual user of TikTok, I’m conflicted.
It isn’t just because I enjoy using the platform on a general basis. It’s because, as a content creator and communications expert (believe it or not, I don’t just write opinion columns for a living, I’m a qualified strategic communications advisor), the way TikTok has revolutionised communications, access to information and community building is genuinely really exciting.
The reason why I am such a regular user of the app is that unlike other social media or other media sources, TikTok’s functionality democratises content creation and viewing in a way that has allowed for some really incredible community-building and global connections.
Take, for example, the significant activism that has taken place in Iran over the past several months as citizens are speaking out against the regime and fighting for their freedom of expression and women’s rights. Citizens have been able to combat the state’s propaganda by sharing their live and real footage of incidents via TikTok, reaching millions of people internationally and keeping the international spotlight on the issues. Even as the Iranian Government bans TikTok, content is leaked to activists outside of the country to continue to be shared.
Similarly, I am regularly served wonderful content from creators across the world who can represent diversity across all spectrums to incredibly large audiences where they have been excluded from mainstream media sources for decades. I see people of different cultural backgrounds, living with disability, existing outside conventional beauty standards, gender diverse people – the full gamut – and the impact this representation has on marginalised communities is genuinely incredible.
Yes, there’s always a balance in the other direction with a platform that allows such freedom of expression, but with continuous evolution and growth of the community guidelines and rules for use, these kinks are constantly being ironed out.
I’m uncomfortable about my data being mined, but not enough to forgo the positives of accessing this incredible global community. And unfortunately, I’m yet to see another app or platform that can genuinely recreate what TikTok has managed to achieve.
So what’s the right course of action here?
I don’t want to be naive about the potential threat TikTok poses, but I also don’t want the unintended consequence of limiting its use more broadly to be the loss of this vibrant and diverse media environment.
Is it time to turn off TikTok for good, or should I wait until the decision is inevitably made for me as policymakers grapple with what the app might mean for our broader security and safety beyond just government devices?