On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the U.S. is “looking at” banning Chinese social media apps, including the Chinese-owned company TikTok, comparing it to other Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE that have been deemed national security threats by the current administration. “With respect to Chinese apps on people’s cell phones, I can assure you that the United States will get this one right, too,” Pompeo said.
The fear is the app could be used to surveil or influence Americans, or else that TikTok parent ByteDance could be made to provide the Chinese government with TikTok’s data on its U.S.-based users — of which there are at least 165 million. India, calling TikTok a “threat to sovereignty and integrity,” decided to ban the app late last week, saying it had similar concerns.
Though security experts disagree over how concerned the U.S. should be about TikTok, the move would would undoubtedly hobble what has become one of the fastest-growing social media businesses on the planet, with 800 million monthly active users worldwide, half of whom are under age 24. In the meantime, the mere suggestion of a ban is proving a boon to TikTok’s biggest rival, Facebook — and notably at a time when the U.S. company faces growing scrutiny over its decision not to take action on multiple controversial posts from Donald Trump.
The threat is already prompting some to speculate that Pompeo’s warning was politically motivated, in fact. In a new interview with Axios, for example, L.A.-based talent manager John Shahidi, observes that TikTok users have said they were partially responsible for a Trump rally in Oklahoma two weeks ago that failed to deliver huge crowds (yet still “likely contributed” to record number of new coronavirus cases, according to the Tulsa City-County Health Department Director).
For his part Shahidi — whose internet talent management company currently oversees nine “channels” on TikTok that collectively enjoy than 100 million followers — doesn’t doubt the two are related. “I’m on TikTok a lot,” Shahidi says of the short-form video app, and “there are no Trump supporters, no official Trump account, no one who is from his team is on TikTok.” Is it “just coincidence that we’re heading toward [the election], and the one app that doesn’t support him — with everything happening in the world — we’re going to talk about taking down TikTok?” he asks.
Already, TikTok influencers are more actively promoting their other social media channels to their followers as a kind of contingency plan. Soon to join them is Pierson Wodzynski, a 21-year-old who ran track in high school and was taking a break from studying communications in college when, in January, a friend invited her to participate in a show on AwesomenessTV, a YouTube channel that has more than 8 million subscribers.
The show’s set-up centered around nabbing a date with social media star Brent Rivera, who has 13 million YouTube subscribers, 19.8 million Instagram followers, and more than 30 million TikTok fans. But afterward, Wodzynski found herself with the L.A.-based talent agency that Rivera cofounded two years ago called Amp Studios and in recent months, aided by special guest appearances by Rivera, she has built a substantial fanbase herself, with 500,000 subscribers on YouTube, 455,000 Instagram followers, and a stunning 4.1 million fans on TikTok.
Wodzynski says her followers seem to like the comedy bits she develops, such a recent series on the “things that go wrong when you’re running late,” and another on the “Appdashians,” wherein each character is a different social media company. (Notably, Facebook is the old grandmother character.) Says Wodzynski, who comes across as both confident and affable, “I’m so unbelievably myself [on social media], it’s crazy.”
She is also concerned about the TikTok’s future in the U.S. Partly, she simply enjoys it. (“It’s just a great app to escape, and it’s so different, with a vast music library and editing software that other apps don’t have.”) But it’s also the source of most of her income, she says, explaining that she helps promote the brands with which Amp Studios works, including Chipotle. (“A lot of times it’s me dancing to a popular song and holding the product, or developing a creative advertisement so it looks enjoyable.”)
Wodzynski says she is “ready for anything,” and that if the U.S. bans the platform, she trusts it will do so for legitimate reasons. “There are many other roads to take your content,” she says. The importance of diversifying across social platforms is something that Max Levine, who cofounded Amp with Rivera, gives to all of the firm’s talent, he says.
“‘Diversify’ is a good mantra for life,” says Levine, who claims he learned this lesson early when Vine — the once-popular video app that Twitter acquired, then subsequently shut down — “fizzled and died.” Levine points to early Vine stars like Logan Paul and Rivera himself who “were smart and focused on building platforms on Instagram and YouTube” and who not only emerged unscathed when Vine was shuttered but whose popularity ballooned afterward.
He says that Amp’s clients have always “promoted other socials on TikTok,” to steer them to YouTube videos, for example, and that he’d prefer that they not start being more aggressive on this front. “They’ve been doing it naturally over time. I think if every other TikTok mentions [a call to action], it could be a lot” and “not ideal.”
Still, a few minutes on TikTok underscores that growing percentage of its users has begun talking about Instagram, which requires far less effort than does developing a fan-pleasing YouTube video. With the threat of a ban in the air, Wodzynski — who says she saw her view count go down with India’s recent ban of TikTok — isn’t immune to the impulse. “Actually, later today I will be posting something on Tiktok about this whole banning thing and reminding people that if they want to follow my Instagram and Youtube that ‘this is what I post there,'” she says. “I do that pretty regularly, but I’m gong to step it up in more in the coming days and weeks.”
In the meantime, Facebook is already putting together its newest playbook. Just yesterday, in India, Instagram rolled out a video-sharing feature called Reels to fill the void left by TikTok that sounds very much like a clone. The in-app tool invites users to record 15-second videos set to music and audio, then upload them to their stories. As CNN notes, Facebook began testing the feature in Brazil last November. The feature is now available in France and Germany, too.
India not only indefinitely banned Tiktok but 58 other apps and services provided by Chinese-based firms, including Tencent’s WeChat. But the country’s government enjoys a good relationship with Facebook, which recently nabbed a 10% stake in local telecom giant Jio Platforms.
In fact, in February, before a trip to India, Donald Trump talked about Facebook and ranking that both he and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoy on the platform. He said Modi is “number two” on Facebook in terms of followers, and that he is number one as told to him directly by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
As reported in the Economic Times, Trump said at the time: “I’m going to India next week, and we’re talking about — you know, they have 1.5 billion people. And Prime Minister Modi is number two on Facebook, number two. Think of that. You know who number one is? Trump. You believe that? Number one. I just found out.”