TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee today amidst rare bipartisan agreement that the app poses a national security threat to the US and should be banned.
A TikTok Ban Is Preemptive, Based On Suspicion, Not Substantiation
The statements made and questions asked by members of Congress today are indicative that the ship has sailed on TikTok’s fate. Nothing Chew could have said in his testimony would have changed the pre-judgments of the committee — including project Texas, TikTok’s plans to move US user data to Oracle servers stored in the United States. Nearly all concerns cited by congressional committee members are not unique to TikTok — they’re issues that permeate all social media platforms: misinformation, moderation, mental health, data privacy, child safety, ad targeting, addicting algorithms, and Section 230.
What isolates TikTok from its peer set is that its parent company (ByteDance) is a Chinese company. This makes the politics and policies of this situation squarely about trust and lack thereof. Among US lawmakers, TikTok is mired in a trust deficit — only exacerbated by last December’s news of four ByteDance employees who attempted to track reporters. Congress is universally suspicious of the intentions of ByteDance, though there remains a lack of evidence of nefarious activity. Any action against TikTok in the US would be to prevent hypothetical, potentially malicious scenarios.
No Surprise, TikTok Users Largely Don’t Support A Ban
Today’s hearing comes at a time where TikTok continues to see strong user growth in the country, especially among Gen Z teens. Forrester’s Youth Survey, 2022 (of close to 5,000 US youth ages 12 to 17) shows a 19-point increase (from 50% in 2020 to 69% in 2022) in weekly usage of TikTok. This makes TikTok the most popular social media app among Gen Z teens with Instagram (at 61%) slotting in at second place.
Forrester asked TikTok users within its ConsumerVoices Market Research Online Community (MROC) how they feel about the possibility of a TikTok ban. Sentiment was mostly “sad,” while fewer users were neutral or pragmatic. As one TikTok user put it, “Given the Chinese Communist connection, it is probably a good thing.” Another said, “I would like to see the proof that TikTok info is going to China first.”
TikTok’s Loss Is Meta’s Gain: Users Will Settle For Second Best
While Meta eyes the metaverse and AI, the company also continues to double down on Reels — Meta’s answer to short-form video. And although Reels has seen increasing quarter-over-quarter user engagement, it pales in comparison to the success that TikTok has had with Gen Z. And because of that, brands want to be present on the platform. According to Forrester’s Q1 2023 B2C Marketing CMO Pulse Survey, 44% of US B2C marketing executives say they run paid media on TikTok and over half (54%) say that TikTok helps them achieve their sales goals.
Yes, if TikTok gets banned in the US, there are short-form video alternatives. TikTok users and creators will take to Instagram (Gen Z’s second favorite social media platform) via Reels as well as YouTube Shorts — corroborated by a quick “pulse check” poll Forrester ran today in its ConsumerVoices Market Research Online Community (MROC). And, make no mistake, marketing dollars will follow suit.
However, let’s acknowledge that TikTok defined the entire short-form video category and has set the pace of innovation that its competition merely copies. But what can’t be easily copied is community, something that makes TikTok stand out from the pack. Like the myriad Twitter alternatives that continue to crop up, TikTok alternatives will never be the same as the original. This means that for short-form video platforms, users will have to settle for second best.