TikTok is a global social-media video-sharing app that has surpassed 2 billion all-time downloads. In the past 12 months, the app was downloaded almost three-quarters of a billion times, which is more than the combined downloads of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. It is currently in the crosshairs of numerous governments for alleged data privacy and national security risks. It is already banned in India, and the US administration is seriously considering banning it too.
How can a platform that hosts and displays user-created silly videos be a data privacy and national security threat?
The TikTok video-sharing app is a psychographic predictive machine learning engine, whose algorithm can intelligently catalog individual profiles through reactions to the seemingly innocuous user-created short, entertaining videos. This is somewhat similar to the Rorschach projective psychological testing method, in which subjects are presented with a set of images known as inkblots. The perceptions and reactions to the inkblots are recorded and analyzed using psychological interpretation algorithms to reveal a subject’s unconscious thoughts, motives, or desires.
Stanford professor Michal Kosinski states, “People’s faces leave digital footprints that can be used to extract intimate information about people and their psycho-demographic traits.” He underscores that by using “Facebook likes” and Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms, machines can accurately predict personality traits such as openness, agreeableness, extraversion, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. He further states that AI algorithms, combined with a small number of innocuous Facebook likes, can better forecast personality traits than humans can. In-fact, these machine learning tools do out-predict individual traits better than work colleagues with only ten likes; family members, friends, and co-habitants with only 100 to 150 likes; and spouse and significant other (the most intimate judge) with mere 250-300 likes. This illustrates and underscores machine learning predictive AI algorithms’ power when applied to seemingly innocuous and disconnected user data.
Entertainment through user-created silly videos camouflages the insights TikTok is gathering on its users. TikTok app user interaction data can be utilized to create detailed individual “psychometric” profiles. These profiles contain information about a person’s interests, hobbies, emotional triggers, lifestyle choices, etc. Such private information can provide insight into why someone might buy a specific product, support a given cause, vote a certain way, spiritual inclinations, sexual orientation, hidden biases/proclivities, etc. Psychometric profiles of civilian, government, and military officials can potentially be used to influence and harness proprietary, sensitive information. Since the TikTok algorithm is selecting (suppressing and or amplifying) and blitzing the video clips to individuals based on learned profiling, the app can also possibly be used for subliminal messaging and propaganda.
It is alleged that ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of TikTok, has a history of assisting the Chinese government. Companies and individuals operating within the China security and intelligence laws jurisdiction, when requested, are required to comply and hand over any data to the Chinese government and keep such compliances a secret.
Professor Timothy Wu, Columbia University law professor, highlights the long “tit for tat” battle for the soul of the internet. Professor Wu writes, “In China, the foreign equivalents of TikTok and WeChat — video and messaging apps such as YouTube and WhatsApp — have been banned for years. The country’s extensive blocking, censorship, and surveillance violate just about every principle of internet openness and decency. China keeps a closed and censorial internet economy at home while its products enjoy full access to open markets abroad. China bans not only most foreign competitors to its tech businesses but also foreign sources of news, religious instruction, and other information. China refuses to follow the rules of the open internet, why to continue to give it access to internet markets around the world?” Professor Wu concludes, “The asymmetry is unfair and ought no longer to be tolerated. The privilege of full internet access — the open internet — should be extended only to companies from countries that respect that openness themselves.”
TikTok displays a seemingly randomly selected chain of continuously playing full-screen user-created short video clips (max of 60 seconds). The app’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithm gathers and learns from user interactions and decides which specific clips to display next in the respective individual video feeds, called “For You.” The app provides viewers with an endless stream of entertainment that gets more personalized with time. Users can navigate to new video clips by swiping up or down, comment, or like the clips. The full-screen design draws maximum attention and elicits interactions from users (positive = a like, follow, or watching until the end; negative = swipe away, press down). Without user interaction, an individual video feed stays boringly fixed at a single continuously playing video clip.
TikTok provides users with friendly video creation tools. Users can create solo videos, “duet” with other users, edit and create reaction videos, participate in challenges, etc. Users can effortlessly add their own twist to preexisting songs and videos, facilitating easy content creation and fostering a sense of shared community. As an example, Deep Chills’s song (the creator of the music clip #shoechange) has enjoyed viral distribution from TikTok memes, and the song has been used to create over 5.5 million new videos. Goes to show how the app’s user-friendly interface makes interactions much more fun, collaborative, and engaging, creating the hook for dedicated user time on the app and helping TikTok exponentially grow the user-created short video clip repository.
TikTok’s ever-growing repository of user-created video content is intelligently as well individually matched with global users in the online entertainment platform. It acts as a rapid, hyper-efficient matchmaker connecting disparate user-created videos to its exponentially growing global audience. Rather than asking users to tap into a video thumbnail or click into a channel, the app’s AI algorithm learns from user behavior and selects the next video clip displayed in the personalized video feed. Its algorithm efficiently assembles individual interest graphs without imposing much burden on the users. It is passive, masked personalization through learned consumption. Since the videos are short, the volume of training data a user provides per unit of time is high. The app’s algorithm learns seamlessly and rapidly in the background while entertaining users with short videos.
TikTok has taken the automated personalized content-recommendation system further than any other technology company in making the app incredibly engaging. Unlike Facebook news feed, Netflix NFLX , Spotify, and YouTube AI-driven recommendations to users (news, shows, music, or videos, etc.), TikTok, infers, and decides entirely what the user should watch. TikTok never presents a list of recommendations to the user or asks the user to express intent explicitly. The app’s AI-reliant “explore” algorithm exhibits wide-ranging videos, thereby enriching the user experience. TikTok users are more likely to explore and discover varied short videos on topics that they might have never explicitly searched or expressed interest on, somewhat similar to what Alice experiences when she fell through the rabbit hole into the wonderland.
Most social media companies have a large crew of product managers, designers, and engineers dedicated to social onboarding. They goad people into adding friends and following people, urging them to grant access to their phone contact lists, in an attempt to create user interest graphs, necessary to provide them with a healthy, robust feed. TikTok sidesteps the process by funneling and matching its exponentially growing user-created content with millions worldwide. The app’s algorithm learns, adapts, and decides on displaying what would interest the user, almost like the genie serving Aladdin (a one thousand and one nights fable).
TikTok’s diverse short duration user-created editable videos and its collaborative and engaging platform create an addictive entertainment setting for users to spend time on. TikTok’s AI algorithm is agnostic towards users from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, creating individual interest graphs solely through their interactions and reactions to varied, short, and entertaining videos. TikTok operates with a team and infrastructure, mostly located in China, and has become a global player.
Even though TikTok has become an entertainment social media of choice for young people, it could also become the social media of choice for the elderly. Older adults tend to have fewer friends, and TikTok can effortlessly fill the loneliness by providing nonstop diverse entertainment.
Hyper-efficient intelligent machine-based interest matching can offer endless personalized experiences in entertainment, travel/leisure, education, cooking, shopping, dating, and job searching, etc. It is alleged that individual profiling through data and AI algorithms can create malicious and subversive acts, thereby engendering data privacy and national security risks. Therein lies the Tizzy!!!