After barely a month, the TikTok account @checknu of NU.nl already has more than ten thousand followers – and that with only ten videos. It says something about how big the two-year-old TikTok already is. The app has 800 million users, mostly teenagers, of which 3.5 million are in the Netherlands. They upload videos with dance, singing, playback, sketches, and especially a lot of memes as their main components. An unfathomable culture for most people over twenty.
Why does a news site like NU.nl go here? ‘We are always curious about what new platforms can bring us, how we can bind a new target group to us’, says editor-in-chief Gert-Jaap Hoekman. ‘When TikTok came up in the newsroom, I said: go and try something. We are now exploring what we want to do with it.’
@checknu is aimed at teenagers, just like the eponymous account on Instagram. On the account, funny videos from the editors and more serious content alternate. A post about a ghost village in Groningen reached 724,000 users. Others are only a few thousand, such as a meme video with an editor in Sinterklaas outfit. Hoekman: ‘For the time being, it’s hit or miss. It’s an elusive platform.’
NOS Stories and NOSop3, the biggest online news providers for young people, have not yet ventured into TikTok. ‘Every new platform where our target group resides is interesting, but at TikTok, we still have to explore how we can be of value there’, says editor-in-chief of both platforms Karina ter Horst. ‘We don’t rule it out, but the plans aren’t concrete yet either.’
In the US, there are already many more media on TikTok: including The Washington Post (315,000 followers) and The Daily Show (61,000 followers). But there’s also a lot of criticism of TikTok, and that largely focuses on the fact that the app is owned by a Chinese company: Bytedance. And china’s human rights violations and lack of press freedom are amply documented.
“Of course, you have to consider whether you can use TikTok to reach your audience, but there are more important questions, which I don’t think are being asked enough,” media professor Julie Posetti told SVDJ this week. ‘What are the risks to our privacy? Shouldn’t we fear censorship from a Chinese app that wants to dominate video journalism?
Recently, a video was removed in which an American girl denounced the situation of the Uyghurs, an oppressed ethnic minority in China. Her account was also blocked. Bytedance stated that it was a mistake and that the company would never censor topics sensitive in China. “We’ve never been asked by the government to do that and we wouldn’t do it. Period.’ Earlier, The Guardian revealed that TikTok censored content on topics like Hong Kong in the past.
Gert-Jaap Hoekman of NU.nl understands the scepticism in part. He found TikTok’s response to the removal of the Uighurs video sounded “like an easy excuse.” But he also wants to nuance the negative image. ‘It is a fast-growing company that is extra under a magnifying glass. We are not deaf to the criticism of TikTok, but I think it is too easy and perhaps unwise to do nothing with it.
Hoekman points out that Western tech giants such as Facebook are also under constant fire for privacy violations. He finds it ‘in a way remarkable’ that TikTok is extra distrusted because the parent company is Chinese. ‘Of course, the system in China is different from here, but at the same time it is also a bit stereotypical to automatically think that TikTok reports information to the government.’
There is already a NOS Sport account on TikTok. “We went with sports on TikTok with the sole purpose of learning how the platform works,” says deputy editor-in-chief of the broadcaster Giselle van Cann. She finds that the platform is controversial ‘reason to do it very consciously and deliberately, at the moment we are only investigating.’
Bo Zhao is a researcher at the Institute for Technology, Law, and Society of Tilburg University. Like Hoekman, he states that the criticism of TikTok also applies to Western platforms such as Facebook. To underline that the situation is not black and white, he points to the news from a few weeks ago that Apple shared browser data from Safari users with Chinese companies. ‘The collection and resale of personal data are simply inherent in the revenue model of these types of companies.’
TikTok is headquartered in Los Angeles and isn’t even available in China. Still, the app cannot be seen separately from owner Bytedance, who is located in China, says Zhao. “China has jurisdiction over Bytedance. It is not the case that TikTok is exempt from the Chinese government requesting data because it is not in China.’ But, he says: ‘For the time being, it is no more than an assumption that this is actually happening.’
He also points out that in all countries, not just China, the intelligence services monitor social media traffic. ‘You have to approach both Chinese and Western governments and data-driven companies with suspicion.’
Zhao adds that TikTok as an international company must comply with many local privacy laws, and TikTok does not yet have the legal expertise that Google and YouTube do. ‘Then things quickly go wrong. Don’t write them off because they’ve made some mistakes.” He even thinks it’s good that Western tech monopolies have a competitor. ‘Then people can compare the data policies of different providers and make a choice.’
NU.nl will soon find out whether TikTok is actually a censorship machine. As soon as a topic like the persecution of Uighurs or the protests in Hong Kong is back in the news, @checknu will post an item about it. If that were to be censored, NU.nl leave immediately, Hoekman swears. ‘Then, as an independent, free medium, you shouldn’t want to sit on it.’