Global Affairs Opinion

We should boycott TikTok. Here’s why.

**Trigger warning**: violence, sexual assault, racism, Islamophobia  

TikTok is a video-sharing social media app owned by parent-company ByteDance, based in Beijing, China. It has over 800 million downloads, 40 million active users, and projections of 15 million new users by 2024. Lockdowns across the globe created the perfect conditions for users to spend hours consuming 15-60 seconds of challenges, vibe checks, recipes, dances, makeup tutorials, pranks, reactions, duets, again and again and again. Do not write TikTok off as a new version of Vine, a 2012 video-sharing app bought and shut down by Twitter. As well as being a place for entertainment, the 2017-released platform is a golden ticket for catchy new music, an establishment for the spread of information (be it accurate or not), a growing space for education, and a bugle for the rallying cries of activists (as long as TikTok doesn’t feel like shadow-banning BLM accounts, suppressing Hong Kong independence videos or censoring LGBTQ content in homophobic countries, of course).  From singers to chefs to activists to you: TikTok is not just big, it’s massive.

So you need to listen up.

Although it is an alarming topic, TikTok’s data protection practices are not what we should be most concerned about. You signed the terms and conditions: “By accessing or using the Platform, you acknowledge that you have read this policy and that you understand your rights in relation to your personal data and how we will collect, use and process it”. That means that you are aware that TikTok, where local law allows them to, “collect and process your messages, which includes scanning and analysing the information in those messages through the Platform’s messaging functionality” (TikTok Privacy Policy for EEA, UK or Switzerland usual residence, July 2020). You might have heard that before the 27th June 2020, TikTok could access the clipboard (copy and paste area) of any connected device, but that’s okay because you never copy bank details or passwords. You might know that in 2019, the app was fined $5.7 million by federal trade regulators for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, that TikTok is currently banned on government-issued devices of the US army and navy, that TikTok is banned in India, and that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is pushing for a ban across all of America. You might also know that the European Data Protection Board is soon to amass a task force for TikTok’s processes and practices across the EU.

This is something you need to know:

The Chinese Communist Party, the government of China under leader Xi Jingping, is conducting a genocide in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. Right now. As you read this. Uighurs or Uyghurs are a Turkish-speaking minority group in China who mostly identify as Muslim. As early as 2015, an estimated 1-2 million Uighurs have been routinely forcibly detained in what the CCP calls ‘re-education camps’. Confirmed by “the testimony of former camp detainees, satellite imagery, and official leaked documents”, the US Congress calls them “a system of extrajudicial mass internment camps”. We should all call them concentration camps. In a Joint Statement calling for Xinjiang Resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council of February 2019, Amnesty International and other human rights organisations cite “forced political indoctrination, renunciation of their faith, mistreatment, and in some cases torture” of prisoners, who are also denied contact with their family members. The New York Times has reported that detainees are forced to sing hymns praising the CCP and write ‘self-criticism’ essays”, and that they are subject to physical and verbal abuse by prison guards. The aim of these camps is to force Uighurs to adhere to the ideology of the CCP, says Amnesty. When first confronted, the CCP denied the existence of the camps, however they are now propagating a guise of “counter-terrorism”.

This is the chilling audio transcript of a video made by 18-year-old Feroz Aziz last year, who says she was locked out of her account by TikTok immediately after the video went viral. TikTok has since restored her account and released a timeline of events detailing why Aziz was blocked.

“Hi guys, so I’m gonna teach you guys how to get long lashes. So the first thing you need to do is to grab your lash curler, curl your lashes obviously, then you’re gonna use your phone that you’re using right now to search up what’s happening in China, how they’re getting concentration camps, throwing innocent Muslims in there, separating their families from each other, kidnapping them, murdering them, raping them, forcing them to eat pork, forcing them to drink, forcing them to convert different religions if not or else they’re gonna, of course, get murdered, people who are going to these concentration camps don’t come back alive, this is another Holocaust yet no one is talking about it, please be aware, please spread awareness, yeah so you can grab your lash curler again…”

On 11th March 2020, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act was introduced to the US Congress, with the goal of “Ensuring that goods made with forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China do not enter the United States market, and for other purposes”. According to reports, as stated in the bill, companies such as Adidas, Calvin Klein, Coca-Cola Company, H&M and many more “are or have been suspected of directly employing forced labor or sourcing from suppliers that are suspected of using forced labor”.

Why, then, is this article primarily about TikTok? Because TikTok is fast becoming a social media giant whose content and jargon will soon be common social currency. Because millions of children and adults are using it daily. Because Xi Jingping’s term in office has seen a dramatic strengthening of the CCP’s role in private business, and TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, must cooperate with that. The law here includes supporting and cooperating in “national intelligence work”, according to The Guardian. By supporting TikTok, you are supporting ByteDance. ByteDance operates a range of platforms: TikTok is one and Toutiao is another. In 2018, CEO of ByteDance, Zhang Yiming, issued a public apology over Toutiao, stating, “I profoundly recognise that the company’s development must stick closely to the era and to the main theme of national development” and that Toutiao will be “Strengthening the work of Party construction” in future (translated by David Bandurski.) And please note that TikTok “may share your information with other members, subsidiaries, or affiliates of [their] corporate group” (TikTok Privacy Policy for EEA, UK or Switzerland usual residence, July 2020).

When the work of a party includes genocide, we cannot look the other way. It is absolutely not enough to know about these horrors, to have “awareness”. We need to take action, now. Do not let yourself lazily consume. Whilst silence is complicity, consumption is affirmatory action. As said by LBC presenter Maajid Nawaz on the Uighur genocide, “Genocide trumps everything. All other bets have to be called off at this moment, because genocide is a zero-sum game by definition”. If you continue to mindlessly consume, you will, without a doubt, be on the wrong side of history.

This is the least we can do.

To exercise your right to request your personal data be erased from their server, or to withdraw your consent to TikTok’s disclosure of personal data to third parties, contact privacy@tiktok.com.

Main references and sources:

[1] https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/6210/text?r=7&s=1

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/25/china-business-xi-jinping-communist-party-state-private-enterprise-huawei

https://chinamediaproject.org/2018/04/11/tech-shame-in-the-new-era/

Becky Whant

Rebecca Whant is an opinion writer for The Oxford Blue. She is studying English at St Edmund Hall College and will hopefully go on to become a lawyer. As well as the UK, Rebecca is originally from The Seychelles.