UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.
AMANDA ARONCZYK, HOST:
Can you introduce yourself and tell me what your job is?
JACK CORBETT, BYLINE: Yeah. My name's Jack Corbett. My job is PLANET MONEY TikTok guy. I make videos for PLANET MONEY on TikTok.
ARONCZYK: Are you our intern?
CORBETT: No, I'm not. I'm not. I'm not. I never was the PLANET MONEY intern. I was the music video intern last year. But, no, I'm a production assistant for the video team.
CORBETT: I answer to no one at PLANET MONEY.
ARONCZYK: (Laughter) So bold, but not exactly true. Jack officially works for and is paid out of NPR's video team's budget, not by PLANET MONEY, not by TikTok. But full disclosure - last spring, TikTok approached PLANET MONEY, and they said that they wanted our brand of edutainment on the platform. They gave us a small grant. It was part of their Learn On TikTok initiative.
CORBETT: I think the wording is TikTok helps fund some of the videos that PLANET MONEY posts on the platform. But, yeah, they have, like, no - they have no, like, editorial say. They're just like, make something educational.
ARONCZYK: And by the way, our boss who handles our TikTok contract - he has recused himself from this episode. He didn't see a script. He didn't approve the angles or the sources - none of it.
So this past May, making TikTok videos became Jack's full-time job. My favorite video is the one about the price of coffee. You can see Jack. He's looking maybe a little more shaky than usual.
(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)
CORBETT: Coffee doesn't ask silly questions. Coffee understands. I'm a Hufflepuff. I do weekends, comfy clothes, messy hair, a whole lot of coffee and a whole lot of coffee.
ARONCZYK: Because making videos like this one is Jack's job, he was pretty alarmed when last July, President Trump made this announcement.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're looking at TikTok. We may be banning TikTok. We may be doing some other things. There are a couple of options.
ARONCZYK: President Trump declares a ban on TikTok.
CORBETT: At first, I was like, oh, no, this is horrible, just 'cause I love the platform so much. And also, I was just getting the hang of it.
ARONCZYK: The stated reason for the ban is national security concerns that the app, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, is essentially a piece of spyware, that it's a source of disinformation, that it suppresses free speech. Then, Trump signs two executive orders that essentially say TikTok has 45 days to sell itself to an American company or get banned. TikTokers prepare for the worst. They post these, like, weepy, what if this is really the end kind of videos. This is one from a guy named Old Time Hockey (ph). He lives in a cabin in the Upper Peninsula.
(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)
OLD TIME HOCKEY: It's been a tough year, eh? They say the hottest fires make the hardest steel. Maybe TikTok does go away. Maybe it doesn't.
ARONCZYK: This guy - he's really going to miss TikTok.
(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)
OLD TIME HOCKEY: Where else can a man and his dog living in a cabin in the woods make so many buddies?
ARONCZYK: The ban - sad.
CORBETT: Like, everyone was doing, like, goodbye posts. They were like, you know, follow my Twitter, follow my Instagram, follow my YouTube channel. But, you know, it just doesn't - it's not the same. It's not the same as TikTok.
(SOUNDBITE OF BENSON TAYLOR, ET AL.'S "GREETINGS PROGRAMS")
ARONCZYK: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Amanda Aronczyk. So originally for this episode, Jack was just going to be, like, my interview subject. But then I realized without Jack, I'm just momsplaining (ph) TikTok to you. So, Jack.
ARONCZYK: How's it going?
CORBETT: Good, good. Thanks.
CORBETT: Today on the show, the U.S. versus TikTok. That's TikTok - one word, no spaces. It's not the Kesha song.
ARONCZYK: In this show, we are not going to talk about Kesha, but we will look at why the ban was threatened, where it stands now. And then we will visit a country where TikTok has been banned for months.
(SOUNDBITE OF BENSON TAYLOR, ET AL.'S "GREETINGS PROGRAMS")
ARONCZYK: This past week, there has been what you might call a banning bonanza. Twitter banned President Trump. So did Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat. And TikTok kind of banned Trump. He doesn't actually have a TikTok account. It was like the one major social media platform that he wasn't dominating.
CORBETT: His dancing has gone pretty viral on the app.
ARONCZYK: Yes, it has. But instead, what TikTok did was ban Trump's incendiary speeches and hashtags like #stormthecapitol. This has made for a strange faceoff, TikTok banning Trump before Trump can actually ban TikTok. And it's meant that this Georgetown law professor who specializes in tech law - he's been getting a lot of calls.
ANUPAM CHANDER: So I felt like I should be making TikToks about the TikTok ban - you know, one of those things where you go like this - you know? - et cetera.
ARONCZYK: As we're talking, Anupam Chander is kind of dancing, sort of waving his arms.
What are you doing with your hand? What do you mean? Like...
CHANDER: So, like, you know, you point to different - Jack knows what I'm talking about.
CORBETT: This is a classic. And we talked about it. As you're dancing, you point to text that appears over the video. So you're, like, doing a really cool dance move, and then, bam, you point to a text box that reads, there are several lawsuits challenging the ban. You keep on doing a dance, and then you point to another box that reads, the Trump administration banned eight more Chinese apps last week.
ARONCZYK: Which is true.
CHANDER: Yeah, exactly.
CORBETT: Those do well. Those do pretty well.
ARONCZYK: Anyway, has TikTok been banned or not?
CHANDER: TikTok is still very much allowed in the United States. There are rules that say that TikTok should have been banned by now, but those rules haven't been enforced. The requirement that ByteDance was supposed to have sold itself - the deadline for the sale came and went, and nothing happened.
ARONCZYK: Still, the possibility of a ban has not actually gone away. Clearly, the government and Big Tech are on a collision course. And this is important. TikTok is really the first superstar social media out of China. The owner is based in Beijing. And that is what has added a whole new pathology to our already growing anxieties over Facebook and Twitter.
CHANDER: The worries are simple - one, that TikTok is engaged in propaganda and censorship, and two, that it's engaged in surveillance. Those are the claims made about TikTok.
ARONCZYK: So first, let's talk about the claim about surveillance. The current administration suspects that the Chinese government is using TikTok to spy on its users. There's actually a class-action lawsuit that's underway right now that says TikTok is using facial recognition on minors. And the fear is that because ByteDance is in Beijing, that it's beholden to the Chinese government's laws and that they could be pressured to hand over user data.
CORBETT: The next claim is about propaganda and censorship. TikTok has been accused of shutting down people's accounts and censoring people's videos.
CHANDER: The Chinese version of the TikTok app, Douyin, is very much a censored app. And it is certainly true that TikTok early on censored material that the Chinese government did not like.
CORBETT: So videos about the protests in Hong Kong were censored, or about the Uighurs and other ethnic minority groups in China. One of the most famous was posted in 2019. It's by a 17-year-old in New Jersey who started out by doing a tutorial on how to have longer lashes.
(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)
FEROZA AZIZ: Hi, guys. I want to teach you guys how to get long lashes. So the first thing you need to do is grab your lash curler. Curl your lashes, obviously. Then you're going to put them down and use your phone that you're using right now to search up what's happening in China, how they're getting concentration camps...
CORBETT: A lot of people have this notion that TikTok is just dancing. It's not. It can be really political. From a TikTok-making perspective, this is like the gold standard. This TikTok belongs in a museum.
You start with a simple premise or a trend. And as soon as some people might start to scroll past because they're like, I don't need longer lashes, you turn the whole video on its head, and you start explaining something totally unrelated. Subversions like this inspire so many of our TikToks.
Anyway, TikTok didn't like the video as much as I do. The 17-year-old says that TikTok suspended her account because of this video. And she says it wasn't the only time.
ARONCZYK: TikTok apologized and reinstated her account.
As a user, it's clear to you if your account gets suspended. You get a little message that says, your account was permanently banned due to multiple violations of our community guidelines. But the real mystery is in TikTok's secret sauce - how the algorithm works, how it promotes videos or banishes them.
CORBETT: So the way to browse TikTok is on the For You page. This is a feed of videos. Once you start browsing, it'll see what kind of videos you're watching or liking. Based on that, it'll populate your For You page with other videos it thinks you'll like. And it's really good. Like, the secret sauce is not just mayonnaise and ketchup. Like, it's scary good. Like, if you really love beekeeping and you scroll long enough, like, eventually, the algorithm is going to find out and put you on beekeeping TikTok.
ARONCZYK: Which is a thing.
CORBETT: It is a thing. But TikTok occasionally foregoes the algorithm and manually yoinks (ph) certain videos out of circulation, essentially killing the chance of people seeing them. Videos are still available to your followers, so it will get some kind of engagement, but it certainly won't go viral. On TikTok, this is what users call a shadow ban. You don't know your video has been suppressed. You're in the dark.
ARONCZYK: We decided to see if we could get a video shadow banned by TikTok's mysterious algorithm. So we made a video about surveillance. You can go see it on our TikTok account.
(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK VIDEO)
CORBETT: Over the last several years, China's been ramping up its surveillance of the Uighurs.
So we posted this yesterday. But already, the comments are like, wow, you can already see they suppressed this video, and I hope they don't take this down. But none of the users know whether the video is being suppressed. The thing is, we don't know what the algorithm is doing with the video either.
ARONCZYK: We called TikTok up, and they pointed us to their website for an explanation on how the recommendation system works. It says that a video might not get promoted if it's too shocking or under review or if it's spam content trying to artificially increase traffic.
Yes, other social media does this, too. But with TikTok, the ability to promote or banish content is being done by a company with ties to the Chinese government. All of this history is what led the current administration to say - you know what? - we need to force the sale of TikTok to an American company or ban it.
CORBETT: But actually, banning a super popular social media app that hundreds of millions of people are using all of the time - more complicated than you might expect.
ARONCZYK: That is coming up after the break.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN FLORES, ET AL.'S "GOSPEL TRUTH")
ARONCZYK: The U.S. isn't the only country that has considered banning TikTok. Pakistan, Japan, Indonesia, Australia - their governments have all debated it, too. But this past summer, one country went for it.
CORBETT: The country that had more users than anywhere else in the world - India. Their government said, we are banning TikTok.
ARONCZYK: Up until then, TikTok had been really big in India.
CORBETT: For a while, I had friends who were getting TikToks from India in their algorithms, stuff like someone carving a carrot into a little, tiny slipper (ph). My favorite was this guy who does the traditional TikTok thing, like lip-syncing and dancing, but he did it underwater. His name was Hydroman. There really was all kinds of stuff - like thousands and thousands of trends and just endless memes.
ARONCZYK: When we started to look at what happened in India, I messaged a bunch of journalists who live there, and they said we should call up Snigdha Poonam. She's a journalist, and she's an author. And her beat is youth.
SNIGDHA POONAM: I mean, social media is very popular in India. Name any platform, whether it's (ph) Facebook and WhatsApp, India happens to be either the first or the second in terms of how many people use it globally.
ARONCZYK: So, yeah, the population is very large, but it's also because data is very cheap, phones are very cheap. So even families who might live in places that don't have, say, indoor plumbing, they might still have TikTok.
CORBETT: The app was really accessible. It worked in 15 of the languages spoken there. It was popular in rural areas, cities. There were all these different trends - cricket TikTok, making tea TikTok, grandma TikTok, which my friends are on. But...
ARONCZYK: What's grandmother TikTok?
CORBETT: You know, it's just grandmas hanging out, doing grandma stuff. People who have been left out of the mainstream could become instant celebrities.
ARONCZYK: But then, this past June, a fight broke out on the disputed border between India and China. It's near what's called, without irony, the Line of Actual Control. Both sides have soldiers there. Tensions escalated. Twenty Indian soldiers were killed.
POONAM: There were some casualties on both sides, but only India confirmed that its soldiers had died.
ARONCZYK: Is that incident common? Does that happen at that border - like, skirmishes and people getting killed - regularly? Or was that really unusual?
POONAM: That was really unusual. Like, on the India-China border, usually that kind of aggression doesn't happen.
ARONCZYK: These two countries have been fighting for decades, but there hasn't been a fatality at that border since, like, 1975.
CORBETT: Within two weeks of this, India decided that the response would be an economic one. India banned TikTok plus 58 other Chinese apps. Now that ban includes over 200 Chinese apps.
ARONCZYK: It's essentially a new kind of trade war. Instead of banning drones or TVs built in China, which sucks if you're trying to buy a drone or a TV, when you ban an app that people spend, like, three hours a day on - which, of course, I would never do. I don't do that. No. I would never.
CORBETT: I mean, in the R&D phase for our TikTok, I did.
ARONCZYK: When you ban a popular app, people really notice. It's like someone walked into your house and took your TV.
Did people think, oh, this'll never happen? Like, there's no way.
POONAM: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I think that people thought that because it just seems so unreal. This doesn't happen in today's world because here's a thing that, like, 200 million people were using.
ARONCZYK: Two hundred million people were using TikTok?
POONAM: Yeah. I mean, how could they just ban something like that out of the blue? I'm sounding calm now 'cause it's been so many months. But I was quite shocked, and I kept thinking this was, like, a week's thing or two weeks' thing. Maybe the government will talk, and it'll be back. But it just didn't come back. So I just kept thinking of what's going to happen to all of these people.
ARONCZYK: One of these people is a woman named Balpreet Kaur (ph).
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).
ARONCZYK: Balpreet is 30 years old, and she lives in New Delhi. And she's a dance teacher. So in her videos, you can see her belly dancing sometimes or lip-syncing or sometimes both.
CORBETT: It's not just lip-syncing, though. The appeal isn't trying to make it look like you're actually the one who's singing. It's capturing the emotion of the song or the trend with your face or with the video somehow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).
CORBETT: Balpreet was really good at this. And she had a cast of characters, often her slightly reluctant-looking husband, who were willing to commit to the bid.
ARONCZYK: Are you a TikTok star in India?
BALPREET KAUR: I was, yeah.
ARONCZYK: Did you have a lot of followers?
KAUR: Yeah, I had 400K something, yeah.
ARONCZYK: And were you able to make money off of TikTok?
KAUR: Yeah, I made lots of money from TikTok, even.
ARONCZYK: Balpreet got sponsors. She could sometimes make, like, a thousand rupees per video, which is pretty good. It's about 14 bucks. But there, that's a day or half a day's wages. She didn't quit her teaching job, but a significant piece of her income was coming from her TikTok videos.
On the day when it happened, like, did the app disappear off your phone? Or, like, what happened to the app?
KAUR: Suddenly, it was closed. I mean, I was very upset.
CORBETT: Balpreet says she opened the app, and a message popped up. It said, TikTok is complying with the government's ban. And then that was it. The app didn't work anymore. It was removed from the App Store and Play Store. TikTok gave users a grace period to back up their videos, but Balpreet missed it. Everything she had ever posted was gone.
KAUR: I lose all of my videos. I just did not save even in my phone. There was also my memories, my first video, which I made with my husband and I got famous. So even I don't have that video, even, in my phone.
CORBETT: One of the truly odd things about trying to ban a social media that's used all over the world - while Balpreet can't see her own videos, the rest of us can.
ARONCZYK: You know, I think I can see your videos.
ARONCZYK: Yeah. I mean, I can try. Like, I have TikTok. Do you want me to see if I can find them?
KAUR: Oh, nice. Yeah, please.
ARONCZYK: I search for her username, and there she was.
CORBETT: It feels very post-apocalyptic. All of India's TikToks stop on June 29, 2020 - no new comments, no new videos. It's a land frozen in time.
ARONCZYK: On Balpreet's channel, her last video shows her pregnant. She's waiting for her baby to be born. And so I held up my phone so she could see that final video that she hasn't seen in months.
KAUR: Oh, my God (laughter). You know, that was, like, the eighth month.
ARONCZYK: And now that pregnant lump is a 6-month-old baby boy.
KAUR: Do you want to see?
KAUR: (Unintelligible), come here. Here's my husband, and here's my little one.
ARONCZYK: The whole family comes into view, and the baby - kind of stealing the show.
KAUR: Say hello.
CORBETT: The baby does not, in fact, say hello.
ARONCZYK: Two weeks later, Balpreet finally gave up waiting for TikTok to come back. She signed up for this app that's called MX TakaTak, which is very fun to say - MX TakaTak. She has replaced her main sidekick, who was her husband, with a new star, her baby boy.
Has there been anything good about the fact that TikTok has been banned or has it all been bad?
KAUR: If I talk about India - because I'm Indian, if I talk about India - so this is really good. This is really actually good. It is totally fine because we are not using any - another country app.
ARONCZYK: She's working on it, but she's not MX TakaTak famous yet.
CORBETT: Now there are dozens of TikTok-like apps filling the gap. And this appears to be the real point of India's ban.
ARONCZYK: It's about economic nationalism. India is kind of trying to build its own Internet, one that does not rely so heavily on China. And so here is the big question. Does it make sense to do what India did here in the United States - go ahead, ban TikTok? Anupam, the law professor who specializes in tech law, he says no.
CHANDER: The worry is that if you proceed down this route, what you do is you essentially say, you can only have apps that are run by domestic companies that are inside our country. And you've removed the global Internet entirely. You basically kneecap global information flow 'cause every country then says this about every other country. That is not a playbook we should borrow.
CORBETT: A ban is extreme, and the U.S. government's case that TikTok is spying and censoring isn't even all that strong if you compare what Facebook or Google knows about you.
CHANDER: Versus TikTok, which has a very limited amount of information that you are feeding to it, largely consisting in things that you are publishing to the world. So the nature of the data that TikTok was gathering is so much less worrisome, so much less the stuff of blackmail. And the risks are so highly speculative in this case as to be kind of shocking.
ARONCZYK: He says that the government's case against TikTok doesn't actually have a ton of hard evidence. And every time the company gets accused of censoring or surveilling its users, they do respond by changing their policies, updating their community guidelines. They admit guilt and promise to change, which is not unlike YouTube or Twitter.
CHANDER: TikTok is a California corporation. It's governed by California privacy law, which is actually fairly robust. It's the same rights that you have against Facebook and Google and Twitter. It's not any less because it's owned by a Chinese company.
CORBETT: Anupam says that this doesn't have to be all that complicated a problem. The U.S. is the only country in the Western world that still doesn't have a federal privacy law that protects users' data. That can be fixed.
CHANDER: The simplest piece of the puzzle is a federal privacy law - right? - so companies that collect massive amounts of data don't abuse that information - abuse that information by selling it willy-nilly or abuse that information by using it in ways that are antithetical to our interests. This, of course, hurts Chinese companies, which have incredible ambitions, global ambitions. And TikTok is the one Chinese company that has become a kind of global champion.
ARONCZYK: Even if it is proven that TikTok is doing some of the things that it's been accused of - it's handing our data over to the Chinese government or using facial recognition or cherry-picking social movements to promote or banish - ultimately, Anupam thinks that the banning of TikTok seems kind of arbitrary. Like, there are no shortage of issues with social media right now, but banning just this one app is not going to solve them.
CORBETT: And with the new administration coming in, it seems like I might get to keep being PLANET MONEY TikTok guy after all. I don't have to throw out my green screen yet.
(SOUNDBITE OF HENRY PARSLEY SONG, "EARLY HOURS")
CORBETT: You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And for now, we have not been banned from Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or even TikTok. Look at that. We are @planetmoney.
ARONCZYK: Special thanks to Vivek Gopal and Maya Wang. This episode was produced by James Sneed with help from Gilly Moon, fact-checked by Irena Hwang (ph). Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer, and Bryant Urstadt edits the show.
CORBETT: I'm not the PLANET MONEY intern. I'm Jack Corbett.
ARONCZYK: And I'm Amanda Aronczyk. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.
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