In our rapidly evolving digital era, the very concept of geographical borders is being superseded by vast digital realms, where power dynamics play out on vast platforms that transcend physical nations. Flint’s (2016) definition of geopolitics highlights the ambition to command international territories for political leverage. With the proliferation of technology platforms, this geopolitical struggle has expanded to the digital arena. The rise of TikTok, originating outside the U.S., serves as a prime example of this shift, illustrating the tug-of-war between tech giants, nations, and global economic dominance. As we delve deeper, we’ll explore the intricate dance between these digital platforms and global power politics, exemplified by TikTok’s interactions with the U.S. and the broader implications for the world.
“Tik-tok-HEAD” by The Daring Librarian is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Flint (2016) defines geopolitics as the effort to exercise control over international and global geographic entities in order to utilise these entities for the purpose of gaining political advantages. A wide range of actors, such as nations, businesses, and terrorist groups, compete strategically to gain political control over geographical areas; this is known as geopolitics (Flint, 2016). In the framework of international diplomatic relations, the previously described element takes the stage. The quest of power in the modern era of globalisation and digitization goes beyond traditional governmental actions to include the management and application of technological platforms. These platforms are now a major source of concern for geopolitics.
3.0 The Impact of TikTok and U.S. Concerns
TikTok’s rise as a non-American social media platform has posed serious problems for established Silicon Valley companies and sparked a geopolitical competition between the US and China (Chin-Rothmann, 2023). A kind of digital hegemony has been established by a number of American corporations that hold a sizable amount of market dominance over digital platforms. However, China’s rise to prominence in the world stage has presented a serious threat to the current hegemonic order, resulting in a condition of geopolitical instability (Chin-Rothmann, 2023).
The Congressional hearings in March 2023 were a culmination of the controversies pertaining to TikTok’s association with China, drug-related concerns, and the impact on adolescent mental health. During the congressional hearings, American lawmakers engaged in deliberations over the perceived risk of TikTok being exploited by the Chinese government for the purposes of influencing the United States and clandestinely acquiring confidential data from American individuals (Jiang, 2023). Nevertheless, it is argued by several sources that the available evidence is inadequate to substantiate these assertions, suggesting that the core of the disagreement may revolve in the United States’ apprehensions around the potential loss of global economic, political, and technical dominance (Jiang, 2023).
(Paul & Bhuiyan, 2023)
The United States government implemented a range of limitations on TikTok, which encompassed prohibiting its usage on government devices and issuing a potential nationwide ban. According to Jiang (2023), TikTok has been compelled to divest its business by the end of the initial quarter of 2023, under the threat of an absolute prohibition within the United States. However, the future of the app in the United States is currently questionable due to the firm conviction of committee members that TikTok might potentially be exploited by the Chinese government (Paul & Bhuiyan, 2023).
“People standing in front of TikTok text” by wuestenigel is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
4.0 The Geopolitical Tug-of-War between the U.S. and TikTok
The Trump and Biden administrations have demonstrated how geopolitics is heavily reflected on digital media. Their position on TikTok is primarily about the balance of geopolitical power, rather than issues with data security or personal privacy.
“Donald Trump” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
4.1 TikTok under the Trump Administration
When the Trump administration first cited concerns about TikTok, they were primarily national security-related. They feared that the Chinese government could use TikTok to collect personal information on American citizens or to disseminate information that could influence the American public. Trump proposed that an American company acquire TikTok so that it could operate independently from its parent company, ByteDance (Matthews, 2023).
The Trump administration threatened to close down TikTok’s operations in the United States in September 2020 unless it was acquired by an American buyer. Oracle emerged as the tech partner for TikTok’s U.S. operations, and ByteDance consented to a deal that would transform TikTok into a global company with its headquarters in the U.S., under Oracle’s supervision (Kent & Byers, 2020). ByteDance would retain majority ownership but abdicate control over the app’s operations in the U.S., establishing a board whose members would require approval from the U.S. government (Kent & Byers, 2020).
“Joe Biden” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
4.2 Biden Administration’s Position
While differing on a number of other policies, the Biden administration adopted a similar stance on TikTok. They, too, voiced concerns, highlighting the potential threats to national security posed by TikTok, and proceeded with Trump’s strategy, considering an American acquisition of TikTok (Allyn, 2023). This suggests that regardless of who is in control, there is a clear understanding of the geopolitical role of tech platforms and a commitment to protecting U.S. interests.
4.3 Blurred Lines Between Geopolitics and Economic Interests
Some argue that the United States’ concerns regarding TikTok are primarily economic. Other social media platforms are threatened by TikTok’s success, which could result in economic setbacks. However, the distinction between economics and geopolitics is unclear. When a nation’s tech company dominates the global market, it not only delivers economic benefits but also strengthens its international influence (Grey, 2021).
5.0 Is the Concern About TikTok Exaggerated or Valid?
TikTok, as the initial prominent social media network established beyond the borders of the United States, has emerged as a substantial competitor to dominant entities in Silicon Valley, including Facebook and Instagram. The app gained significant popularity in the year 2019, and by the onset of 2020, it had achieved the highest number of global downloads (Grey, 2021).
Ever since its emergence, TikTok has faced considerable examination by many governments worldwide, prompting inquiries on the ability of ByteDance, the parent firm of TikTok, to effectively protect user data from potential unauthorized access by the Chinese government. In comparison to its American equivalents, TikTok does not exhibit substantial variations in the management of user data. Limited evidence exists to suggest that the platform presents a distinct and significant threat to national security (Grey, 2021).
5.1 Counterpoint: The Threat of TikTok is Overblown
Although TikTok’s parent company is headquartered in China, its data-handling practises are comparable to those of its American competitors. Consequently, some observers believe the portrayal of TikTok as a severe threat to national security may be exaggerated. Instead, they contend that U.S. apprehensions may be motivated more by geopolitical competition with China than by genuine data security concerns (Grey, 2021).
5.2 Rebuttal: The Issue of Data Origin and Control
Despite the fact that TikTok may function similarly to its U.S. competitors, data control is a significant difference. Given the tensions in U.S.-China relations and China’s data laws, it is reasonable to fear that ByteDance could be compelled to reveal user data. Therefore, even if TikTok’s operational side mirrors other platforms, the political and legal backdrop still presents uncertainties and potential risks for the U.S. (Grey, 2021).
Traditional boundaries are being replaced by digital frontiers in the digital age, with platforms such as TikTok exemplifying the intersection of technology and geopolitics. TikTok, a non-U.S. social media giant, has been scrutinised by the U.S. in regards to data protection and probable ties to the Chinese government. Both the Trump and Biden administrations voiced concern and emphasised the importance of national security. The indistinct lines between economic interests and geopolitical strategies are undeniable, despite the fact that some view U.S. apprehensions as economic in nature due to TikTok’s success. The central debate revolves around data control in the context of global technological obstacles.
Allyn, B. (2023, March 15). The Biden administration demands that TikTok be sold, or risk a nationwide ban. NPR – Morning Edition. https://www.npr.org/2023/03/15/1163782845/tiktok-bytedance-sell-biden-administration
Chin-Rothmann, C. T. (2023, May 19). TikTok: A casualty of US-China geopolitical and economic tensions? Georgetown. https://gjia.georgetown.edu/2023/05/19/tiktok-a-casualty-of-us-china-geopolitical-and-economic-tensions/
Flint, C. (2016). Introduction to geopolitics (3rd ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315640044
Gray, J. (2021, May 21). TikTok and geopolitics: how ‘digital nationalism’ threatens to entrench big tech. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/tiktok-and-geopolitics-how-digital-nationalism-threatens-to-entrench-big-tech-160919
Jiang, H. (2023, March 23). Lawmakers Appear Unconvinced by TikTok Chief’s Testimony. The New York Times. Retrieved March 24, 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/live/2023/03/23/technology/tiktok-hearing-congress
Kent, J. L., & Byers, D. (2020, September 18). TikTok reaches deal that would give Oracle oversight of U.S. operations. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/tiktok-reaches-deal-would-give-oracle-oversight-u-s-operations-n1240326
Mathews, E. (2023, March 15). TikTok mulls splitting from ByteDance if proposal with U.S. fails – Bloomberg News. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/technology/tiktok-mulls-splitting-bytedance-if-proposal-with-us-fails-bloomberg-news-2023-03-14/
Paul, K., & Bhuiyan, J. (2023, March 24). Key takeaways from TikTok hearing in Congress – and the uncertain road ahead. The Guardian. Retrieved March 24, 2023, from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2023/mar/23/key-takeaways-tiktok-hearing-congress-shou-zi-chew
Paul, K., & Bhuiyan, J. (2023, March 24). TikTok CEO shown video threatening committee chair during Congress hearing – video. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2023/mar/23/key-takeaways-tiktok-hearing-congress-shou-zi-chew