Author Shayna Leng, Tanya Pan | Updated September 20th 2020
What is Tiktok?
Tiktok is a social media platform that allows users to share short, catchy clips - typically of themselves dancing or lip-syncing to popular music, but also including quick recipes or, more relevantly, socio-political viewpoints. It is also known as Douyin in China. While Tiktok and Douyin are highly similar in purpose, they are essentially two different versions of the same software - hence Douyin users and Tiktok users may not enjoy all the same functions, or have access to all of the same content.
Tiktok is the successor of the app musical.ly, which its parent company Bytedance, a Chinese company headquartered in Beijing, acquired for between $800m and $1bn in 2017. It has 500 million users in over 150 markets around the world, and is available in 39 languages. There are about 80 million active users in the United States, of whom 60% are aged between 16 and 24. The China-based platform Douyin has 400 million users. This platform is hugely popular amongst youths, and has given rise to media influencers with great amounts of social capital.
What is WeChat?
WeChat is a Chinese multi-purpose app: its primary function is messaging, although it provides a wealth of other functions, including the ability to share content with friends via “moments”, a digital wallet that allows for mobile payment, and subscription to public accounts that push feeds to subscribers. In China, it exists as Weixin: similar to the Tiktok and Douyin relationship, this is a tale of “one app, two versions, two content pools.”
Wechat has over 1.2 billion users worldwide, and while no data on the number of users outside China is available, there were 100 million installations of the international version of the app on the Google Play Store in 2020 alone.
Wechat does censor politically sensitive content within China. As it operates from within China, it is bound by Chinese law, which allows for strong and active censorship and interception of content. It can access text messages, contacts, and location histories of its users, and is used as a surveillance mechanism within China. While no official confirmation has been given by Tencent, its parent company, many countries (Taiwan, the USA, India, for instance) fear that WeChat’s surveillance provisions pose a threat to national security. Tencent was ranked last out of 11 companies (e.g. Facebook, Apple, Google) in a 2016 Amnesty International report assessing technology companies’ use of encryption to protect users’ human rights and privacy.
In June 2020, India banned Wechat (and other Chinese apps) after a military skirmish at the Indian-Chinese border. The apps were accused of being “hostile to the national security and defence of India”. In August 2020, American president Donald Trump signed an executive order invoking the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (a law which authorises the president to regulate international commerce after declaring a national emergency in response to an outside threat to the United States.) He seeks to have WeChat banned if Tencent, its parent company, does not sell it within 45 days. Tiktok also came under scrutiny from the Trump administration for its Chinese links. Bytedance has reportedly offered to sell the American leg of TikTok to avoid an outright ban of the platform.