TikTok: a social network even more dangerous than Facebook, Instagram or Twitter?
On Friday, March 24, the French government banned its state officials from using "recreational apps" such as TikTok on business phones. © AP - Michael Dwyer / AP
Text by: Louise Huet
Between fears for national security, suspicions of spying by China, and dangers to the mental health of young people, TikTok is in the storm. For several months, the Chinese network has fueled all the criticism of the West, with the United States as its figurehead. But is TikTok even more harmful than the American giants Meta or Twitter, which are already not exemplary in terms of data protection?
The Chinese platform TikTok is more than ever in the hot seat. After the European Commission, US federal agencies, the United Kingdom and Canada, it is the turn of the France to ban its 2.5 million state officials from using "recreational applications", including the controversial Chinese social network TikTok, on their business phones.
A decision that comes the day after the muscular hearing of Shou Zi Chew, boss of TikTok, before the US Congress. For several hours, the CEO of the subsidiary of the Chinese group ByteDance tried to defend his platform and reassure as best he could the concerns of American elected officials. On Wednesday, March 22, at a press conference, Democratic Representative Jamaal Bowman asked: "Why so much hysteria around TikTok?", arguing that the platform presents the same risks in terms of data privacy or misinformation as "Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter".
Is this really the case? Is TikTok really a social network apart? RFI put the question to Fabrice Epelboin, a specialist in social media and cybersecurity, and professor at Sciences Po.
RFI: Does the Chinese app TikTok pose an even worse threat than Facebook or Twitter?
Fabrice Epelboin: In terms of privacy and data protection, no. The risk is similar. There are fears on the part of TikTok of espionage, mass surveillance, influence for political purposes or the instrumentalization of data by a third party. But these are things we have seen in the past on US networks, such as with the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2016, the Facebook Files in 2021, or the Twitter Files in 2022, which revealed operations of interference in foreign public opinion between Twitter and the US Pentagon. So on the issue of TikTok, the issue is above all geopolitical. The only real difference is to assess the danger of entrusting the protection of privacy and our data to China, or to the United States. And from what we have observed over the last ten years, Europe is leaning towards the second option.
So why have the France, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, all chosen to prohibit the use of this platform by its state agents?
From a geopolitical point of view, these countries represent, with the exception of France, the "Fives Eyes", an alliance formed after the Second World War around the sharing of information from the intelligence services. And these English-speaking countries know perfectly well that if the Chinese imitate what the American cybersecurity services have done for the last ten years with social networks, the Americans risk very big. As the National Security Agency (NSA) has already interfered with data from social networks, Washington is well aware of what Beijing could do with similar data. That's what scares them. So the U.S. wants to end TikTok as soon as possible. The concern is that they cannot justify this position other than by implicitly admitting that they have done the same thing.
Is this more of an ideological battle between the West and China?
No, we are not yet at a cultural battle, but rather at the stage of attack, with Facebook on one side and TikTok on the other. For now, there are no suspicions of particularly disturbing cases involving the Chinese network or tangible evidence that TikTok serves as a data vacuum cleaner for China. But this ideological war is precisely what Europe fears: that Beijing injects certain values, Washington others, and that Europeans will find themselves in the middle.
It is also a huge economic issue. Meta has every interest in not being overtaken by TikTok, which is much more efficient on certain aspects, such as its algorithm, which offers a qualitative flow of information even when you still have no friends. From a purely financial point of view, the Americans have every interest in removing the Chinese from the market, if only to support the stock price of Meta or Twitter.
The UnitedStates speaks of a "national security" issue, is this a well-founded fear?
Quite because with the data obtained from TikTok users, the ByteDance subsidiary could pass it on to other companies, the Chinese government, intelligence services... who could then do whatever they want with it. For now, these are assumptions. But what is certain is that with an update to the application, TikTok could have access to information that a platform is not normally allowed to see, by infiltrating security holes. It is a classic of espionage. This has already happened with the Pegasus case, which used a security flaw on phones to scrutinize Telegram or WhatsApp discussions. So in the minds of Western policymakers, it is possible that the Chinese could update TikTok to spy on foreign officials. From a cybersecurity perspective, it's credible. And in this environment, we do not wait for legal proof to act. Seeing several countries take precautions by banning the app sends a strong signal to society: there is indeed a problem of data protection and interference on social networks. And this dated problem certainly didn't appear with TikTok. The case of the Chinese network only reveals this.
And if TikTok is so scary, is it also because of its effect on young people?
Exactly. This is the second key issue around TikTok: its designers have managed to connect all the brains of teenagers and children. And Americans are extremely privileged consumers [Editor's note: nearly half of Americans visit the platform each month, according to an analysis by Digimind in 2023]. Except that it can become very problematic if Beijing decides to export certain information or propaganda to young people, via the network. On mental health specifically, I don't think the effect of TikTok is necessarily different from the effect that Instagram or Facebook can have.
But what raises questions are the monumental consumption rates of TikTok, its speed of penetration on the market, the time spent on the application or the engagement, that is to say the number of times a user opens the network per day. It's one of the fastest growing social apps in the world, and all indicators show that TikTok is even more addictive than Instagram or Twitter. It is this strength that the platform holds that worries.
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