Still, TikTok’s popularity — if you’re the parent of a teenager, that teenager probably has it on her phone — blazes uncharted territory. Its unexpected rise is forcing Americans for the first time to consider living in a world influenced by a Chinese-backed social media network.
That invites the public to take a closer look at Bytedance. It is not an arm of the Communist Party. However, it owes much of its success to its ability to navigate Beijing’s political currents, as well as its skills in delivering harmless fluff that could pass muster with censors.
In fact, its founder, Zhang Yiming, has echoed the comments of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg that he runs a technology company, not a media company. And yet that hasn’t stopped Facebook from influencing events around the world, with profound and troubling consequences.
No other Chinese tech company has succeeded on the global internet like Bytedance. The country’s vibrant social media platforms and viral video apps have had little success elsewhere beyond the Chinese diaspora. In a time when some in Washington are trying to pry apart the close economic ties between the United States in China, the two countries already live in different worlds when it comes to cyberspace.
TikTok, however, is ascending on the global internet scene just as the technological Iron Curtain is drawing. It has had nearly 1.5 billion downloads globally and 122 million in the United States, according to the data firm Sensor Tower.
That alarms some in Washington. In a letter to American intelligence officials, Senators Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton said the TikTok platform was “a potential target of foreign influence campaigns like those carried out during the 2016 election on U.S.-based social media platforms.”
TikTok disputes the allegations, saying that it stores its American user data locally and doesn’t “remove content based on sensitivities related to China.”
“We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content, and we would not do so if asked,” it said. “Period.”
That statement doesn’t cover the breadth of the pressure Beijing puts on media companies in China. Rather than outright censoring content, Chinese officials often set broad guidelines for media companies and then let them censor themselves.
TikTok at times has avoided uncomfortable topics entirely. A look at the guidelines on the app when downloaded in Hong Kong shows that they forbid politics-related content and comments.
TikTok updated the guidelines after it was asked about them by The Times, saying that they were supposed to be taken down in May and resurfaced by error. Its Hong Kong content moderation team is partly based in mainland China but is moving to Hong Kong, and it will follow the same rules that the company sets everywhere else, TikTok said.
All that said, TikTok’s critics have yet to offer evidence that Beijing is using TikTok to spread propaganda to young minds, or that it is misusing user data. That may not help its fortunes in the United States: The American government has never offered proof that Huawei’s equipment is a security threat, yet its equipment has been essentially banned from telecommunications networks anyway.
Mr. Zuckerberg, whose company is busily trying to emulate TikTok, argues that the Chinese-owned app represents a competition of values.
“Until recently, the internet in almost every country outside China has been defined by American platforms with strong free expression values. There’s no guarantee these values will win out,” he said in a recent speech at Georgetown University, where he specifically cited TikTok.
Of course, his company once tried to develop software that would allow potential Chinese partners to block content they didn’t like. But the comments strike at a broader truth: To do business on the Chinese internet, any company there has to abide by the government’s wishes, whether it wants to or not.
Bytedance is no different. It was founded in 2012 by Mr. Zhang when he was 29. A geeky programmer, Mr. Zhang says the day in second grade when he received a Tetris hand-held game device was one of the happiest of his life. In college, he was known for his skills in repairing personal computers.
Some people in China compare him to Mr. Zuckerberg. Like the Facebook boss, Mr. Zhang had said machines do a better job than people at distributing content. When Bytedance introduced Toutiao, a news aggregation app that became hugely popular in China, it was run by software instead of an editor in chief. Mostly, it delivered headlines to users based on what they had clicked before.
“I can’t accurately decide whether something is good or bad, highbrow or lowbrow,” Mr. Zhang told a Chinese business magazine in 2016. “I may have my judgment, but I don’t want to impose it on Toutiao.”
For many users, that system delivered a steady stream of pablum, depending on what they had clicked before: bikini photos, silly videos, pet memes. Soon a backlash developed.
“Zhang Yiming and his engineers train the machine to understand your heart,” a blogger, He Jiayan, wrote. “At the same time they’re training you so you’ll be addicted to the machine.”
The TikTok spokesman said the app and other Bytedance apps had a time management feature that allowed users and parents to set limits of 40, 60 or 120 minutes.
The algorithm-driven approach has worked well for Bytedance. By the end of 2016, Toutiao became China’s No. 2 app after the messaging app WeChat, based on the time users spent on it per day, according to QuestMobile, a Chinese data firm. Last year, it raised a new round of funding from investors including SoftBank that valued it at $75 billion, making it one of the most valuable start-ups in the world.
Toutiao also attracted the attention of Lu Wei, China’s heavy-handed internet czar at the time, according to industry executives. When other internet companies complained that Toutiao was stealing their content, one of Mr. Lu’s top lieutenants told them that he was a fan and that they should stop complaining and work with the company, said two of them. They asked for anonymity because discussing the work of China’s censors in public is tantamount to corporate suicide.
Bytedance denies that it had a close relationship with Mr. Lu or benefited from any connection with him. Mr. Lu stepped down from his post in mid-2016 and was sentenced this year to 14 years in prison for corruption.
Then the company had its own run-ins with the censors. In April 2018, Bytedance and a few other star start-ups were punished for running “unhealthy” content. The company was ordered to shut down an app called Neihan Duanzi for hosting vulgar jokes and videos.
Mr. Zhang apologized, saying in a letter that he took responsibility for content that was incompatible with “core socialist values.” He vowed to strengthen party building at Bytedance and announced that he would enhance the role of the editor in chief and expand the content moderation team to 10,000 from 6,000. Like other online outlets, Toutiao also began featuring stories about Xi Jinping, China’s leader, at the top of its feed.
His apology seemed to be well received. Within two weeks, he delivered a keynote speech at a technology conference hosted by internet regulators. His topic: Bytedance’s global expansion strategy.