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06/08/2020 The Communication Science magazine

TikTok: The new political tool?

TikTok: from user-created entertainment videos to a platform for political protests in China


TikTok has intercepted into every corner of the youth culture on the Internet. From goofy lip sync videos to cringy self-flattering clips, the Chinese-owned multi-million platform unleashes a creative outlet for users around the world. Although the company’s model seems harmless, some users have utilized TikTok to voice their political opinions and mobilize against the Chinese government. But this is only one side of the coin. The company has also been accused of submitting to the notorious censorship of the Chinese Communist Party. 

How the flames ignited
It all started with the 17-year-old Feroza Aziz exposing the Chinese concentration camps of the Uighurs through her masqueraded eyelash curling tutorial. In her video, Aziz elaborates on how the Chinese government is setting up concentration camps targeted towards “innocent Muslims” where the victims are ripped from their families. She also claims how the attained are being kidnapped, murdered, raped and ends the video with a foreboding warning: “This is another Holocaust.”

In recent years, China is believed to have developed “a vast network of detention camps and systematic surveillance” to “convert Uighurs into loyal, secular supporters of the Communist Party,” according to The New York Times. The Chinese government, however, has denied these allegations as they claim that the camps are created for “vocational training.”

To raise awareness of this issue and reach the youth population, Aziz decided to post her video through TikTok. The fact that the app that has been questioned for receiving growing content censorship directives from the Chinese government did not stop her. As Vox reports, Aziz exploits Tiktok’s loophole to “circumvent censorship she anticipated from the platform.” Nonetheless, Aziz’s account was blocked and her video was temporarily removed from the app until online backlash forced the tech giant to apologize and retract their decisions.

TikTok and The Chinese Communist Party: A Partnership
This seemingly minute incident led to a greater international discussion about the unexpectedly dangerous side of TikTok. ByteDance (the owner of TikTok) is suspected of their practices of complying with the content criteria set by Beijing. Some topics that have been removed from the platform by moderators include the Tiananmen Square incident, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong.

With the growing virality of TikTok in North America, the US government also raised concerns regarding how the company might exploit user data and impose censorship guidelines to the advantage of the Chinese government. This accusation was quickly shut down by Alex Zhu, the TikTok head in America, and the founder of Musical.ly before the acquisition of ByteDance. He argued that TikTok “wasn’t really a platform for politics” but rather a “creative and joyful experience.” However, according to The Washington Post, TikTok has (in)advertently become a powerful tool to disseminate the Communist Party’s propaganda messages and further their objectives in the Xinjiang area. It was reported that Xinjiang Internet Police “collaborated” with Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok) to build a “new public security and Internet social governance model.” Furthermore, the app is used to propel the region’s “new image” based on the ideals of the Party against the Uighur minority.

TikTok: The Rise of the People
However, the “social media” function of TikTok has allowed users’ defiance against the system, making the platform a commonplace for raising sociopolitical awareness. Aziz had tweeted how TikTok’s suspension would not silence her and expressed how, as a Muslim herself, she felt the urge to “spread awareness about this” as the Uighurs are “going through much more than [she] could ever imagine.”

Aziz is, by far chance, the only one who has taken up the course of challenging the CCP through this app. William Temple, another 17-year-old, created a video where he jokingly stated how “he’ll dance every day until the Uighur Muslims are freed” and later took a serious turn after seeing photos within the detention camps. The TikTok user Roze Dautova, who is a Uighur Muslim living in New York, spreads her message through TikTok videos with text over her face detailing the current situation in Xinjiang. Although TikTok, in your imagination, might be the last place on the Internet for advocacy, this approach has proved to be effective. Who knew? As Dautova states: “I have people contacting me and commenting on the video saying that it is great that I’m spreading awareness and that they had no idea this was going on.” She also adds how she does not feel threatened by TikTok’s censorship, as she will “just make another and continue posting” in the case of her account being removed.

Even the Uighurs have mobilized support and awareness through the video app by posting videos showing photos of missing members of the Uighur community. Although this method is thought to be extremely risky, their candid move indicates “the willingness of people inside Xinjiang to defy the party-state and express opposition to what’s going on” and go public.

Will TikTok become the next Facebook or Twitter in terms of political effectiveness?

Can TikTok change the political world?
Contrary to my initial belief of TikTok being somewhat useless, the new and creative approach to this platform has me genuinely surprised. Although the majority of the platform is fun (sometimes equally ridiculous) and not directly aimed at political discussion, the double use of TikTok can result in major repercussions. On the one hand, the app is allegedly tied to government censorship, which can limit the content their users are allowed to publish. On the other hand, the revolutionary creators have repurposed the functions of the platform to broadcast their objectives. Will TikTok become the next Facebook or Twitter in terms of political effectiveness? Debatable. Can it? This might sound crazy, but yes. It just might.

Cover: Futurism

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