Few US TikTok users know the app is Chinese, but it could matter if they did

The social media app TikTok has been downloaded more than 80 million times in the United States, as users entertain each other with an endless stream of short videos recommended by artificial intelligence. Its success makes it the most popular social media app in America produced by a Chinese company. A new survey for China Books Review finds that few Americans are aware of the app’s ownership, but if they were to learn the app was Chinese, many would be less likely to use it.

Only 24% of respondents correctly answered that the app’s owners were based in China, worse than had the respondents answered at random. 33% of respondents said they would be somewhat or significantly less likely to use the app if they knew the app was made by a Chinese company, compared to 21% if they knew it was by an American company, just within the margin of error. When asked how the country of origin would affect how they thought about the privacy of their information on the app, users were also more likely to be concerned if they knew the app was made by a Chinese company than an American one.

According to an exclusive survey for China Books Review, few US TikTok users know the app is Chinese, but it could matter to their usage and perceived privacy if they did.

These findings are potentially troublesome for ByteDance, the Chinese company which launched TikTok in 2017 and merged it with the app musical.ly in 2018. (Musical.ly was based in California, but most of the app’s growth has occurred since ByteDance’s acquisition.) The company did not respond to a request for comment. ByteDance also operates a China-specific version, called Douyin, which was launched earlier. While the Chinese version of the app is subject to the same censorship as other Chinese social media platforms, the international version is not.

In recent months, experts have expressed concern about the reach of China’s social media apps abroad. Researchers have found that WeChat, the predominant platform in China and among the Chinese diaspora in cities like New York and Los Angeles, is rife with misinformation about local news. Amid broader geopolitical tensions with China, there are also concerns that Chinese-language communities in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere that are dependent on the app for their news may be getting a less than objective perspective. A recent op-ed in The Hill newspaper argued that the US should “take the threat of WeChat as seriously as that of Huawei.”

The poll found that if TikTok was accused of spreading propaganda or misinformation from a foreign country, 50% of respondents would be significantly or somewhat less likely to use the app, while 36% said they would be neither more nor less likely. Compared to other social media, nearly 40% of TikTok users found the service to be less “political” or “serious,” whereas 62% found it to be more “creative.”

The role of TikTok in politics has been most pronounced in India, where the app was temporarily banned this year because of concerns that the app was exposing minors to inappropriate content. Some politicians have also accused the app and another ByteDance product, Helo, of attempting to influence the country’s elections, an accusation ByteDance denied. In February, TikTok was fined $5.7 million by the US Federal Trade Commission for failing to obtain parental consent before collecting information from children younger than thirteen. 

During the Indian election season, users uploading videos related to politics were presented with a notice that the app should be used in a “responsible way.” The Economic Times has written that the app nonetheless played a “crucial part” in circulating content favorable to the incumbent and winner, Narendra Modi. While the app does not produce its own content, ambiguity about how its algorithms recommend videos invite the same questions that have been asked of platforms like YouTube.

The poll was conducted of 200 internet users who were users of TikTok on August 19 via the Pollfish polling platform. The margin of error is +/- 7% at the 95% confidence level. Pollfish’s respondent pool is comprised predominantly of adults, although younger users are understood to be a significant proportion of TikTok users. Thus, the results are best understood as representative of adult users as opposed to all users. The survey also asked additional questions regarding usage and advertising perceptions that may be of interest to commercial audiences. Full results are available at a nominal cost to interested parties by contacting China Books Review