The Chinese-owned app TikTok established itself in the Western market in 2017. The app quickly became very popular – and addictive. Its popularity is built on the sharing of short and often innocent videos that users make themselves, for example dance videos, in combination with the fact that the feed gives you more and more of what you like best. Over one billion use the app regularly.
In recent years, there have been accusations that the Chinese app is not as innocent as many users think. For example, there have been allegations that it censors content about democracy protests in Hong Kong and the human rights situation in China, both of which cast China in a bad light.
There is no doubt that TikTok also has an impact in Norway
There is also great uncertainty about whether Western personal data can end up in the hands of the Chinese authorities. For example, the app can learn where you are and when you use the phone, and it can access the microphone and camera. A little while ago it was revealed that TikTok has used user data to spy on several journalists to uncover information leakage among TikTok’s employees. This is among the things that have led to increased pressure on TikTok internationally.
TikTok is an app that has found itself in the middle of the strategic rivalry for global influence between the US and China. The Chinese support for Russia in the past year has also contributed to increased suspicion about how the app can be used for security and influence purposes.
One of the most illustrative cases was TikTok’s handling of Russia after the invasion of Ukraine on February 24 last year. In the first days after the attack, more people looked at the app with optimism. Could TikTok reach young Russians with alternative information to the one they are served from the Kremlin?
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For the first few days it seemed that way. Most of the content was against Russia’s warfare and tags like “no to war” trended on TikTok in Russia.
However, on March 6, 2022, TikTok announced that it had blocked Russian users from uploading new content to the platform. This was done as a response to the new strict information rules in Russia after 24 February.
What arose in practice then was, according to Tracking Exposed, et echo chamber with pro-Russian content. Content that was critical of the Russian warfare in Ukraine went from great dominance to total marginalization almost overnight. Russian users were left with a platform with pro-Russian content without opportunities to upload videos with other narratives. TikTok went from being one of the few channels that could nuance the image in Russia – to becoming a pure propaganda machine for Putin.
The European Commission and the European Parliament, the United States, Canada and the Netherlands are among those that have banned the use of TikTok on devices owned and managed by the public sector. It is also being banned in the UK. In the Norwegian public, attention has been increasing, not least in connection with questions about Minister of Justice and Emergency Emilie Enger Mehl’s (Sp) use of the platform on the minister’s service phone. Similar questions have been asked of Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol (Ap) and Fisheries Minister Bjørnar Skjæran (Ap), both of whom had installed TikTok on their phones.
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A few days ago it became known that Green Mountain is building a large data center in Hamar that TikTok will use. The Ministry of Justice and Emergency Preparedness was not informed about the establishment. Now they know. They also know that in the annual the threat assessment to the National Security Authority (NSM) is a separate chapter devoted to covert investments and acquisitions. It states that in the past year the NSM has dealt with several cases where China is involved. The assessment states, among other things, that “Several states are investing in and buying up Norwegian businesses, in order to, among other things, gain insight into sensitive information and technology of strategic importance”.
The Ministry of Local Government and District Affairs is therefore currently working on a revision and clarification of the Ekom Act. The plan is to strengthen the national control over data centers in Norway. It is the right way to go. But the champagne popped in Hamar well before a possible change in the law comes into force.
The discussions around TikTok have many layers. It is about information warfare and geopolitical power struggles, and thus about the potential for Chinese espionage through, among other things, our own uncritical use of the application.
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But it is also about democracy and freedom of expression. The platform is the preferred platform for young people. Almost everyone uses it. According to the Norwegian Media Authority’s figures, three out of four – 73 per cent – of young people between the ages of 9 and 18 are on TikTok. Six out of ten in the 18-29 age group state that they use TikTok daily. By the end of 2022, 1.2 million Norwegians had a user there. A timely question is therefore whether TikTok can become a potent tool for exerting political influence aimed at children and young people in particular?
The security minister in the UK, Tom Tugendhat, warned in December that TikTok has great potential to influence British first-time voters at the next election. Around 1 in 3 British young people state that they use social media to keep up to date with news, including TikTok.
There is no doubt that TikTok also has an impact in Norway. In December, NRK carried out a experiment where they created a user based on the profile of 14-year-old Samuel. He is keen on exercise and wants a slimmer and stronger body. When “Samuel” started to “swipe”, he first gets normal videos; a goose, some food and Sandra Lyng on a jog. On day two, his For You Page (FYP) changed, now half of the videos were about muscles and the body. On day three, 90 percent of the content he got in his feed was related to this.
What happens if, as a first- or second-time voter, you fall down a similar rabbit hole with political content?
These are political matters that largely affect us as individuals and at local and regional level in politics. In September there are municipal and county council elections in Norway. In the past, there has been little focus on digital security and foreign influence in these election campaigns. It should be intensified now.
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