ANYONE under the age of 21 will tell you that TikTok has achieved success as Generation Z’s trendiest new social media platform. Despite this success, the platform has been embroiled in controversy and come under fire from charities, global organisations, MPs, and world figures such as Narendra Modi and Donald Trump.

What is TikTok?

TikTok is a social media platform allowing users to connect with each other from all over the world, like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. There’s two big reasons TikTok has achieved the whirlwind success it has in an already busy field: Firstly, TiKTok provides a suite of surprisingly capable video-editing tools, free of charge on your mobile phone. You can create, edit and modify videos up to 60 seconds long, as well as add on popular music, songs and audio from a large library of recordings. Popular genres include comedy sketches, dance routines, make up, and fitness, alongside all sorts of other niche content creators.

Secondly, it acts as a social media platform by sharing users’ videos to each other. Over time, the platform develops an understanding of what sort of content each user enjoys, and creates a curated “For You” page full of videos it thinks you’ll like. While most users are unlikely to reach a wide audience, successful creators can go viral and become “TikTok famous”. It may seem a little complicated but my 14-year-old sister insists it’s really quite simple.

So why has it been so controversial?

TikTok stands accused of mistreating its underage users: fostering addiction, damaging attention spans, and failing to protect children from cyberbullying and inappropriate messages from adults. In February 2019 the platform was fined over $5M by the US FTC for collecting data on users under 13. Since then, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office have opened an investigation, alleging that the app fails to adequately protect children.

Last November, TikTok admitted that it suppressed the content of disabled, ugly, deprived and LGBT users, allegedly in an effort to cut down on cyberbullying. Most damaging of all accusations has been that the app is influenced by the Chinese government.

So is TikTok owned by China?

It’s complicated. Ostensibly, ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company) is a private company based in mainland China. In reality, however, the Chinese Communist Party maintains a management committee over ByteDance and collaborates with it on CCP initiatives, blurring the line between the state and private sector in typical Chinese fashion. TikTok has been repeatedly accused of assisting the Chinese state by suppressing information about Chinese human rights violations, the Uighur genocide and the ongoing repression in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong, as well as promoting pro-CCP propaganda.

Worst of all, the app has been charged with passing along personal, biometric and location data to Chinese intelligence services, an allegation the company strongly denies. Citing these reasons, the app has been banned by organisations such as the US Army, Joe Biden for President, and the Australian Defence Forces. The app has been banned entirely in India, and Donald Trump and several British Conservative MPs have made very clear their desire to do the same.

Will the app be banned in the UK?

Under threat of a nationwide ban, ByteDance have scrambled to find a solution, and it’s looking as if the app will be sold off in a cut-price deal to Washington’s Microsoft. Initially this deal will only affect US operations, but if the British government continues its crackdown on Chinese tech companies (such as they have with Huawei), it seems likely the app will pass into Microsoft’s hands in the UK as well. Of course, only time will tell if Microsoft do a better job of managing TikTok’s PR issues, especially concerning children's safety.