Tik Tok rapid invasion of the app store & unaddressed ethical concerns

Source: The Economic Times


you are reading this post right now, chances are, you are one of the 689 million active users worldwide¹. This number goes to show the impact that TikTok has had ever since its introduction to the U.S app stores on both iOS and Android platforms. TikTok, otherwise known in China as Douyin, is a video-sharing social networking service owned by Chinese company ByteDance. The social media platform is used to make a variety of short-form videos, from genres like dance, comedy, and education, that have a duration from fifteen seconds to one minute². In the Spring of 2020, Tik Tok saw a massive increase in traffic, and the app grew to become the number one social media app on app stores across platforms.

As successful as it has become, the ethical concerns surrounding the application are largely underinvestigated as the app rose to prominence in such a short amount of time. This article dives into the potential ethical concerns surrounding the app, namely, privacy concerns, mental health concerns, and discriminatory bias concerns.

Why is this investigation significant?

At this point, you may be asking yourself why a harmless application that feeds users 30-second long videos should be looked into. After all, users have the freedom to choose whether to use the app or not. Besides, the app is completely free on every app store and does not usually require personal credentials to provide the services that it already provides, well, aside from some amount of data collection. It seems like opting into these services comes at approximately zero risks. Why then, should we care at all about the app? To answer this question, we should ask ourselves what could potentially make this application worthwhile to investigate. Shannon Vallor, in the article “Introduction to Data Ethics”, provides a framework upon which we could decide if an entity is “ethically significant”. A data-collecting entity (like TikTok) is considered “ethically significant” if it affects an individual’s chances of having a good life. Thus, a data-collecting entity is ethically significant if it poses risks/harms to:

  1. Privacy and security
  2. Fairness and justice
  3. Transparency and autonomy³

I identify TikTok as ethically significant since it poses harm to privacy and security in the form of excessive data collection, harm to fairness and justice since it shows signs of discriminatory and racial bias, and harm to transparency and autonomy in forms of the effects that the app has on one’s mental health and physical well-being.

Evidence and analysis

In comparison to the big players in social media like Facebook, Twitter, or Youtube whose data collection intensity and data usage have been made more available to the naked public eye in recent years, TikTok’s data collection methods and the extent to which they collect user’s data is largely unknown. Part of the reason why the “big players” like Facebook, etc.. publicize their data collection and usage is due to the number of lawsuits that they have had over the period of their existence. With that being said, these companies still manage to misuse and abuse users’ data daily. Just last week, Facebook managed to leak 530 million accounts without any repercussions:

Facebook decided not to notify over 530 million of its users whose personal data was lifted in a breach sometime before August 2019 and was recently made available in a public database. Facebook also has no plans to do so, a spokesperson said.⁴

Part of the reason why TikTok so far has not been involved in a data scandal is due to the fact that the app makes it seems like it is not collecting data at all. The user experience, from when you first open the app, to scrolling through TikToks, has no indication that data is being collected actively and passively when the app is minimized. The evidence of data collection lies in the best feature that the app has to offer: the “For you page”. This feature, in a nutshell, is a recommendation system that feeds the user with short clips that they would most potentially be interested in. Evident in TikTok’s own success, the for you page is pretty accurate in its recommendation. We could safely infer from how recommendation systems usually work that TikTok is collecting a massive amount of data. Recommendation systems are but neural networks in disguise. And if you know anything about neural networks, you know they require tons and tons of data to produce results at a high confidence level. It is because of this reason that I hypothesize that TikTok collects user’s data extensively and uses this as input to their recommendation system. All of this, without the user’s proper acknowledgment and consent. But this is where it gets tricky.

Like every other software, TikTok has a long and obscure privacy policy. It is assumed that at some point, the users have agreed to comply with the privacy policy without having much knowledge of the details that the policy entails. Compared to the amount of data collection that the app engages in, merely mentioning that they are “collecting data” on a document that they know barely anyone even reads, should be a crime in itself. On the “privacy policy” section of the app, TikTok states:

“We collect information when you create an account and use the platform. We also collect information you share with us from 3rd-party social network providers, and technical and behavioral information about your use of the platform. We also collect information contained in the messages that you send through our platform and information in your phonebook.”

As highlighted in the quote above, TikTok’s privacy policy contains general and obscure terms that are hard to pinpoint. One could not just pinpoint what “using the platform” or “technical and behavioral information” would entail. This allows for TikTok to freely collect data based on these loosely, ill-defined terms. As far as I’m concerned, this could mean anything. It is obvious that not only is this statement obscure, but it is missing critical information. From my usage experience, I have seen that TikTok recommended content from creators from around my area as much as possible. I have tested this out using the app in Pennsylvania, California, etc… And not once did TikTok mention the collection of my location data. It is also scary how the app clearly stated that it collects data from your messages and phonebook. This is clear harm to our freedom of speech, but this is a whole other topic to look into. TikTok, all things considered, are currently safe from any auditing as the parent company is based in China which complicates the process of looking into the ethical aspects of their data collection. As long as the company still has HQ across all continents, it could and will use all the techniques in its international law playbook to prevent it from being investigated.

Aside from the privacy concerns that we looked into above, TikTok also poses mental health concerns due to the shortened attention span from using the app and the amount of cyberbullying that’s allowed on the platform. This is not to mention that the app is highly addictive. There is scientific evidence on how TikTok manipulates its users into browsing the app extensively.

You keep scrolling, she says, because sometimes you see something you like, and sometimes you don’t. And that differentiation — very similar to a slot machine in Vegas — is key…

“In psychological terms [it’s] called random reinforcement,” Albright says. “It means sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. And that’s how these platforms are designed … they’re exactly like a slot machine. Well, the one thing we know is slot machines are addictive. We know there’s a gambling addiction, right? But we don’t often talk about how our devices and these platforms and these apps do have these same addictive qualities baked into them.”⁵

Long-term users of the app have also reported the shortening of their attention spans as they are now conditioned to enjoy content from a very short video ranging from just seconds to a minute. In the age of content assumption, never before have we see content consumed at this fast of a pace. Youtube videos take a few minutes to consume, movies take hours, but Tiktok costs just seconds to release the dopamine in your brain. It is unknown whether this shortening of attention spans could have a longer-term impact on one’s mental health and well-being as this effect is pretty new and is understudied. With that said, the immediate effects have already been observed in the degradation of the younger generation’s focus window.

“A study in World Psychiatry in 2019, for example, found that people who multitask across social media tend not to do well at tasks that require them to filter out distractions. And a survey conducted by Canadian researchers for Microsoft found that people tend to lose interest in what they’re watching after around 8 seconds, if it’s not sufficiently diverting.⁶”

Additionally, TikTok poses harm to the fairness and justice of the collective, as there is evidence to back up the hypothesis that TikTok algorithms have racial bias tendencies. Furthermore, the platform has observed racist clips and comments, all to be covered up in the name of comedy. On TikTok, these acts of microaggression are justified by saying that “it is only a joke”. On a larger scale, TikTok poses harm to the cause of social justice with allegations of TikTok suppressing videos from Black creators for posting about Black Lives Matter⁷. Again, it is a difficult task to hold TikTok accountable for these acts as a lowered view count, while indicative, is not definitive proof of TikTok directly suppressing Black content. Intentionally or not, TikTok might have let racial bias sneaks its way into its recommendation system. This then turns into a problem of ethical use of data that TikTok has to be accountable for.

Brief Conclusion

  1. TikTok collects huge amounts of data while lacking transparency in informing their users of the data collection
  2. TikTok “for you page” is a clear indicator of the use of a recommendation system that requires large quotas of data input
  3. Politics makes it complicated to investigate TikTok’s use of data
  4. There is evidence on TikTok shortening attention spans though the long term effects are still not clear
  5. TikTok has had allegations of racial discrimination and content suppression while the company is loosely held accountable.


[1] Mohsin, Maryam. “10 TIKTOK STATISTICS THAT YOU NEED TO KNOW IN 2021”. retrieved from https://www.oberlo.com/blog/tiktok-statistics#:~:text=TikTok%20has%20689%20million%20monthly,more%20than%2033%20million%20downloads.

[2] Wikipedia, “TikTok”, retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TikTok#cite_note-5

[3] Vallor, Shannon. “An Introduction to Data Ethics”. Santa Clara University

[4]Bowman, Emma. “After Data Breach Exposes 530 Million, Facebook Says It Will Not Notify Users”, retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2021/04/09/986005820/after-data-breach-exposes-530-million-facebook-says-it-will-not-notify-users#:~:text=Technology-,After%20Data%20Breach%20Exposes%20530%20Million%2C%20Facebook,It%20Will%20Not%20Notify%20Users&text=via%20Getty%20Images-,The%20leaked%20data%20includes%20personal%20information,million%20Facebook%20users%20in106%20countries.&text=reported%20last%20week.-,The%20leaked%20data%20includes%20personal%20information%20from,Facebook%20users%20in%20106%20countries.

[5] Koetsier, John. “Digital Crack Cocaine: The Science Behind TikTok’s Success”. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnkoetsier/2020/01/18/digital-crack-cocaine-the-science-behind-tiktoks-success/?sh=1095a59a78be

[6] Thorpe, JR. “Why You Shouldn’t Worry About TikTok Destroying Your Attention Span” retrieved from https://www.bustle.com/wellness/tiktok-attention-span-brain-effects-experts#:~:text=Research%20on%20social%20media%20and,Twitter%20feed%20all%20at%20once.&text=But%20there%27s%20no%20real%20evidence,effects%20on%20your%20attention%20span

[7]McCluskey, Megan. “These TikTok Creators Say They’re Still Being Suppressed for Posting Black Lives Matter Content” retrieved from https://time.com/5863350/tiktok-black-creators/

Computer Science Student at Bucknell University.