The widespread use and expansion of social networking platforms in contemporary society have contributed to the unsurprising phenomenon of extensive information dissemination occuring on these platforms. The contemporary digital platform industry is mostly controlled by a few of enterprises that have significant economic, cultural, and political influence. Consequently, in light of the recognition by governments in several countries of the significant impact exerted by digital platforms, regulations pertaining to these platforms have been strengthened in each respective nation where they operate. There is an emerging trend whereby online platforms are increasingly serving as a domain for the mobilisation of geopolitical forces. TikTok is a widely popular social networking platform that has a substantial global membership base. The platform has the responsibility of disseminating an immense quantity of short videos. The Chinese version of this platform is referred to as Douyin, which was released earlier while retaining the same functionalities and both are from ByteDance (Yeung & Wang, 2023). Why, therefore, does ByteDance feel the need to split them up into two distinct applications if they serve the same purpose and perform the same function, and how has this affected the geopolitics?
The story about TikTok and Douyin
Back to the days during the early 2010s, China implemented measures to limit the availability of Western social networks. Following the eruption of demonstrations in July 2009 inside Xinjiang, an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese government implemented restrictions on accessing Google, Facebook, and Twitter (which has since been renamed X) (Zucchi, 2021). In 2009, the Chinese government implemented a ban on the usage of Twitter inside its borders. This decision was primarily motivated by the platform’s use by democracy advocates during the Tiananmen Square protests (Julianto, 2023). Twitter served as a crucial tool for communication and the transmission of information related to the demonstrations. Consequently, China subsequently cultivated a multitude of indigenous social networks as substitutes for Western social networks, notably including Weibo, WeChat, QQ, Bilibili, among others.
During the years 2015 and 2016, Musical.ly had a significant surge in popularity among the younger demographic, with a substantial portion of this age group downloading and actively using the application. In September 2016, ByteDance introduced the Douyin application, which enables users to share concise videos like to those on Musical.ly. However, it is important to note that the Douyin app is only accessible inside the confines of China. In 2018, the company known as Musical.ly underwent an acquisition by ByteDance, resulting in a subsequent rebranding of the platform as TikTok (Lee, 2018). TikTok has identical interface and functionality to Douyin, however with the added capability of being accessible in all global regions.
The Geopolitics of TikTok and Douyin
According to Gray (2021), posits that the digital landscape is increasingly emerging as a contested arena for global power struggles. The exertion of authority over the platform economy, the formation of rules and regulations within the digital realm, and the acquisition of data and infrastructure have emerged as significant factors of power and rivalry among states. The aforementioned transition highlights the increasing significance of digital geopolitics.
The emergence of Chinese technology presents a direct confrontation to the United States, whose Silicon Valley enterprises have long had a dominant position in the realm of the internet. TikTok, a platform that had previously positioned itself as politically neutral, found itself unexpectedly embroiled in discussions pertaining to both cultural and political matters, extending beyond the borders of the United States (Stokel-Walker, 2021). Nevertheless, the 2020 prohibition of TikTok in the United States was predicated on apprehensions about the potential exploitation of American user data by the Chinese government to further its national interests. In 2020, the former President of the United States, Donald Trump, dedicated a significant amount of time and effort to implementing a ban on TikTok, a video-sharing website of Chinese origin, or alternatively, compelling its acquisition by an American entity. Although there were assertions that Trump’s reaction was triggered by an alleged prank orchestrated by adolescent TikTok users, an examination of remarks made by US government officials throughout the year indicates that geopolitical considerations were the primary motivating factor (Gray, 2021).
According to a report by CNBC (2023), Douyin functions only inside China and is subject to Chinese restrictions, which include censorship policies. Additionally, the data of Douyin is stored within China. In contrast, TikTok works globally, excluding China, and has never been operational within the Chinese market. TikTok is subject to the jurisdiction of United States legislation, and its data is stored both inside the United States and in Singapore. Currently, there is a lack of shared material between the two entities. In the context of China, TikTok may be seen as a Western social networking platform like to Facebook or Instagram. However, it is important to note that TikTok is subject to a ban in China, necessitating the circumvention of the country’s internet censorship measures, often referred to as the firewall, in order to access the platform.
Multi-dimensional perspective on using TikTok and Douyin
From a favourable perspective, this particular social networking platform serves as a source of amusement and efficiently disseminates information to its users, particularly the younger demographic of today. This platform offers a diverse range of short movies that serve several goals, including entertainment, knowledge dissemination, information sharing, and fostering user connections. The fundamental right to freedom of expression and video production is universally recognised. The Douyin platform features political material released by official Chinese government channels in its top trending part and the first videos shown on the ‘for you page’ section (Lu & Pan, 2022). These videos serve as a valuable resource for anyone seeking political insights. Individuals have the ability to promptly get the most up-to-date information pertaining to a certain nation. Nevertheless, the videos that are prominently shown on the ‘for you page’ portion of TikTok are only those that align with the user’s personal interests and are often accessed on the platform.
The proliferation of films espousing inaccurate political perspectives has been facilitated by the ability to generate and articulate individual beliefs. These factors might potentially lead to misinterpretations and have significant influence on both the populace and political landscape of a nation. The enhanced direct response functionalities available on TikTok enable young people to engage in political discourse by providing comments and feedback on political content, hence reducing their reliance on traditional news outlets. The ease of expressing political viewpoints on the TikTok platform has made the problem very sensitive and challenging to engage in discourse. Consequently, governments of several nations, outside the United States, have expressed concerns over this matter.
Data privacy and national security are significant geopolitical issues associated with TikTok. TikTok accumulates extensive quantities of user data, including location data and browsing history. There have been voiced concerns, notably by the United States government, over the potential for accessing or sharing this data with the Chinese government. Nevertheless, it is evident that TikTok presents a more significant danger to its consumers. Numerous social media networks, including TikTok, pose a significant risk to the privacy and security of its users. The competition between TikTok and other American services such as Instagram Reels has on a geopolitical aspect. Nations often exhibit a vested inclination to endorse their indigenous technology enterprises, so engendering a rivalry that may be seen as a contest for worldwide influence inside the realm of digital technology.
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