While rising fast in the social media horizon, TikTok could pass many milestones since its launch in 2017. This enviable journey is making social media biggies, including the 17-year old YouTube’s Google and its parent Alphabet, to sit upright with furrowed foreheads. For starters, TikTok is a short form video-sharing platform with over 1 bn users (https://blog.hootsuite.com/tiktok-stats/) and YouTube is an omnibus video platform with 2.6 bn monthly users (https://www.globalmediainsight.com/blog/youtube-users-statistics/#facts).

Though manipulative, much as its home nation China, TikTok’s ability to upset the applecart of video major YouTube is doubtful. The wide gap in their respective reach and popularity is evident in this simple statistics. In January 2022, Baby Shark became the first video to cross the 10 bn-mark on YouTube. Against this, Billie Eilish’s very first TikTok, a much-liked short video elicited 40 million likes as of April 2022

Concern is Palpable

YouTube’s dominance is thus a given. In a bid stop the TikTok juggernaut, the video biggie YouTube has forayed into short-form video with its ‘YouTube Shorts’ which includes many TikTok features. In this short-form segment too, YouTube does not wish to be an also-ran.

Before the US launch in March 2021, YouTube Shorts’ daily worldwide views were at 6.5 bn. By July 2021, this number had breached the 15 bn-mark. Naturally, marketing companies continue to prefer YouTube, which accounts for 85 per cent of video-marketing.

This domination will continue for clear reasons. As per one eMarketer report, by 2024, the number of YouTube viewers in US is estimated to reach 228.1 mn. On the advertising parameter, YouTube is second to Facebook with revenues of USD 17.38 bn, while TikTok jogs up as its nearest rival with USD 11.64 bn (https://www.insiderintelligence.com/content/social-media-update-q2-2022).

Despite dominance, concern is palpable in Mountain View HQ of Google and elsewhere in US. Much as its host nation does not care about ethical values, TikTok too is notorious for its accented reliance on fake-news propagation and prying-eye surveillance. Seen by the west as cyberworld’s fifth column, TikTok is known to be hand in glove with the Communist Party of China and aids execution of the party agenda. This adds to the earlier concern.

Security and Privacy Concerns

These factors have forced internet integrationists to work out leak-proof strategies to counter the TikTok security risk. To date, such integration remains a major challenge. Seeing red, social media players are raising a war cry. For instance, Meta which controls Facebook, is readying to launch its rejigged TikTok lookalike. Such a copycat strategy is uncharacteristic of cyber biggies, but it is fair in war.

Here is a possible wartime scenario. Facebook’s news feed will transform into an AI-driven engine to dish out content from anywhere. Facebook’s TikTok-like Reels too will chip in. The war for social media dominance began during the presidency of Trump, but the war fizzled out with Trump failing to make TikTok owner ByteDance sell its US business. Today, TikTok is larger and stronger. Any reattempt to do this now will be fiercely resisted and thus more difficult.

But, TikTok has China by its side. The dragon accords TikTok the most favoured status among social media players and refrains from extending equal treatment to others. The reason behind this partisan attitude is
simple. China can enjoy uninhibited access to TikTok’s treasure trove of face-voice data. Unfazed, Google is working on culling this face-voice data from TikTok’s front end and buying data online in countries where data-privacy laws are lax.

Manipulation and Meddling

Great, but another fear continues to hover over social media owners. This fear rises from the fact TikTok offers China immense scope to manipulate what global users see. Thus, a street-smart TikTok stepped into dissemination of news as well, making the app an all-in-one for users. Good move, but sure to bring attendant problems of more fake news, manipulation and agenda-serving.

The Communist Party interference is another major factor which should hamper TikTok’s expansion plans. The party is said to be nosey and interfering in TikTok’s affairs, mostly for convincing the planet its questionable positions on major thorny issues. This interfering attitude makes global players China-shy, but helps TikTok to increase its eyeballs at home.

Though TikTok denies such government tinkering, its denials do not jell. With the overhang of authoritarianism, manipulation and propaganda, it is simply not possible to believe party meddling does not happen. Global players see China’s excesses in Hong Kong, Tibet, Arunachal Pradesh and the South China Sea, and the volley of lies it lobs to justify those excesses, as contributors to this disbelief.

Thirsting for Data Localisation

According to grapevine, many western nations are seriously toying with the idea of banning TikTok on their soil. India has already done this and many others may follow suit soon. A member of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is fighting for getting Apple and Google delete TikTok from their app stores. In a recent letter to Apple and Google, FCC exhorted them to delete the TikTok app as it is “a sophisticated surveillance tool that harvests extensive amounts of personal and sensitive data”.

FCC called on the companies to take the app out of their stores (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-06-29/fcc-commissioner-s-push-to-cancel-tiktok-faces-long-odds). Such outbursts and possible app store-deletions will check TikTok’s rise as a powerful social media player globally.

Pouring brine on this bruise is the move by many nations to localise users’ data and get them managed by local firms. This will again stop TikTok’s growth juggernaut in those countries. TikTok may say it can get around this by opening its algorithm for foreign monitoring, but localising nations will not be fully satisfied. They know well ultimate control will always be with Big Brother Chinese authorities.

In Conclusion

An impatient TikTok may open its doors to foreign investment, expat management and overseas listing in a bid to expand abroad. But, such open-door moves will be vetoed by a control freak called China. This will surely jeopardise TikTok’s worldwide expansion and put an end to the war for social media supremacy. In a way, comeuppance it will be.