TikTok, developed in China, undoubtedly stands as one of the most popular social media platforms worldwide today. People of all age groups across the globe are using this application.
Why has TikTok managed to distinguish itself from the myriad of other video and social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter?
Firstly, unlike social media apps such as Facebook and Twitter, TikTok presents content solely in the form of videos, which are clear, concise, and highly engaging. Furthermore, unlike video platforms like YouTube, TikTok videos are displayed in a vertical format that fills the entire mobile screen, making navigation as simple as swiping up or down (Lu & Pan, 2022). Lastly, TikTok owes much of its success to its precise algorithm, which tailors content recommendations to individual users. On TikTok, you can find anything that piques your interest, from current affairs and novels to TV shows, music, and more.
Two Versions of TikTok
Although TikTok is used globally, it essentially has two versions: the Chinese version and the overseas version, which can be used in any countries excluding China. And in China, it goes by another name, known as ‘Douyin’. While the two versions may have similar interfaces, their actual content is vastly different. The Chinese version does not include access to all international content. In other words, any content originating from China is excluded. This situation arises due to the interference and restrictions imposed by the Chinese government.
How does the Chinese government interfere with the content on TikTok?
Firstly, content on TikTok undergoes review and filtering to delete or restrict materials that violate Chinese regulations. This includes limiting discussions on politically sensitive topics, religion, human rights, and more. Secondly, as mentioned previously, there are restrictions on international content. The Chinese version of TikTok restricts access to international content, preventing users from browsing all international materials. This is a measure taken by the Chinese government to control the dissemination of overseas information. Lastly, the Chinese government shares TikTok user data and platform activity information to monitor content and user behavior. This helps the government to conduct real-time monitoring of information dissemination on the platform. Additionally, at the request of the Chinese government, TikTok has implemented a real-name registration and identity verification system to ensure the ture identities of the users.
In fact, it’s not just TikTok; all public social media platforms in China are rigorously regulated by the government to prevent what they perceive as inappropriate content and behavior. Their relentless and systematic interventions have had a significant impact, both on public discourse and the experiences of the users (Gillespie, 2018).
The Authenticity of the Content We See on TikTok
TikTok, with its hundreds of millions of users, is undoubtedly a platform for free expression of thoughts and opinions. However, under the influence of the Chinese government, there are legitimate reasons to question the authenticity of the content we encounter. What we witness on the platform may not always represent the unadulterated truth.
Firstly, when it comes to politically sensitive topics, TikTok undergoes political scrutiny under the influence of the Chinese government. Content related to politically sensitive subjects may be deleted or restricted, leading to the suppression of certain political viewpoints and hindering users from freely expressing their political opinions. A prime example of this is the Chinese presidential election. Unlike democratic elections in other countries, Chinese presidential elections do not provide users with comprehensive political information, nor do they facilitate open political discussions. If you raise questions or express dissenting opinions, you may face consequences such as being silenced or having your account suspended.
Another striking example that cannot be overlooked is the incident surrounding the international singer Coco’s passing. When the news of Coco’s death was announced, some of her recorded audio files from her lifetime surfaced on the internet. Coco had participated in a program called ‘The Voice of China’. And in these recordings, she mentioned the unjust treatment she faced on the show, the lack of respect she received, and how she was compelled to yield in the face of power. Her health deteriorated during this process, ultimately leading her to choose to take her own life. After these recordings were exposed, they spread like wildfire on TikTok, with countless users expressing their support for her and condemning the alleged misconduct behind the scenes of ‘The Voice of China’. However, just a day later, all related videos and discussions vanished, brought under control. The government and capital interests manipulated the direction of public opinion, and the deceased still did not receive the respect she deserved.
And in this overarching context, the fear of government scrutiny has led some users and content creators to engage in self-censorship and self-restriction, avoiding discussions on political or sensitive topics. This has inadvertently diminished the diversity of viewpoints presented on the platform. What was originally founded as a platform for the expression and sharing of diverse perspectives and the advocacy of free speech seems to have deviated from its initial purpose.
Users find themselves passively isolated from the truth, often hesitant to express their authentic selves openly. The extent of the Chinese government’s power and control over public discourse becomes strikingly apparent. The right to freedom of expression and the ability to freely exchange information face significant challenges within this environment.
Balancing Freedom of Speech and Government Regulation
Governments can subtly but significantly influence the speech and self-expression of users on platforms like TikTok. In such a highly controlled online environment, the complexity of freedom of speech becomes evident. While TikTok offers a platform for creative expression, entertainment, and opinions, the influence of the Chinese government raises questions about the authenticity of content. Users are consistently in a digital environment where information may be filtered, manipulated, or controlled to fit specific agendas. TikTok’s Chinese version restricts access to international content, limiting Chinese users’ exposure to information about global events, news, and diverse perspectives. They may only see government-approved perspectives, which can lead to increasingly limited perspectives and hinder critical thinking. In this era, we should allow for the coexistence of different voices and viewpoints. However, absolute freedom has its limits. Government intervention, when appropriate, remains necessary to ensure societal stability and national security. This includes combatting fake information, online fraud, explicit content, and malicious behavior.
Freedom of speech and government regulation are complex and sensitive issues. We need to approach this topic with dialectical thinking, striving to find a balance between preserving freedom of expression while ensuring societal stability and public interests. This requires cooperation between governments, technology companies, and citizens to establish a more just and healthy digital space. Users should also utilize the platform with critical thinking, be aware of potential limitations and biases, and seek diverse sources of information to form a comprehensive understanding of the world. In the ever-evolving landscape of the digital age, the pursuit of this equilibrium between freedom of speech and responsible governance becomes both a challenge and an opportunity for our global society to thrive in a rapidly changing world.
Death Of Pop Star Leads To The EVIL Truth Behind The Voice Of China. (n.d.). Www.youtube.com. Retrieved October 5, 2023, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WdwG84gl-LM
Douyin vs Tik Tok: What are the Key Differences Between Chinese and Global Tik Tok Apps? – Marketing China. (2023, January 10). https://marketingtochina.com/differences-between-tiktok-and-douyin/
Gillespie, T. (2018). Governance by and through Platforms. In The SAGE Handbook of Social Media (pp. 254–278). SAGE Publications.
How China Uses TikTok To Spy On You. (n.d.). Www.youtube.com. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8U12nZQBKck
Lu, Y., & Pan, J. (2022). The Pervasive Presence of Chinese Government Content on Douyin Trending Videos. Computational Communication Research, 4(1). https://doi.org/10.5117/ccr2022.2.002.lu
Maheshwari, S., & Holpuch, A. (2023, March 3). Why Countries Are Trying to Ban TikTok. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/article/tiktok-ban.html