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Should you trust TikTok?

July 15, 2020, 5:20 PM UTC

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A German legend dating to the Middle Ages is an instructive foil for understanding today’s TikTok predicament.

In ye olden day tale, the Medieval town of Hamelin reneges on paying a man after employing his pest control services. The man returns to the village festooned in brightly colored clothing, and he marches along playing an irresistible tune on his flute. The town’s children follow the fellow—dancing, jiving, and shimmying their way—merrymaking all the while.

The legend, as adapted by the macabre Brothers Grimm, is that of the Pied Piper. The vengeful musician marches the younglings to their demise. It’s a cautionary tale.

Now consider TikTok. Since its launch in 2017, TikTok has lured hundreds of millions of people to its den of song and dance. Skeptics view the app, owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based concern that is the world’s highest privately valued startup, as a front to further Chinese government censorship and surveillance. India recently banned TikTok, deeming it a threat to national security after a lethal border clash with China. Officials in the U.S. and Australia are considering taking similar action.

TikTok is trying desperately to shake its perception, whether justified or not, as a tool for Communist Party ends. The unit highlights that it is headed by an American CEO, a former Disney executive, and that it has significant U.S.-based leadership. Earlier this month, a TikTok spokesperson said the company’s highest priority is “promoting a safe and secure app experience for our users,” and that it has “never provided user data to the Chinese government.”

Yet controversy follows wherever TikTok steps. The app has come under fire for allegedly muting the #BlackLivesMatter movement, for muzzling human rights activists decrying the unconscionable mistreatment of Uighur Muslims, and for all manner of censorship.

Many of TikTok’s biggest fans are apparently unconcerned. As Fortune video producer Devin Hance’s sister, a Gen Z rep, recently put it to her: “I’m definitely not going to stop using TikTok. At this point, like, it’s just a normal thing for me to do and I love it.” Shrug, in other words.

While a U.S. ban of TikTok may be of questionable legality, it could happen. There’s no question as to whom would benefit: Lord Zuckerberg of the Menlo Park barony, excommunicate of the eastern realm, subduer of Instagramistan and WhatsAppia. One less rival standing in the way of world domination.

All this leads one to wonder: Is TikTok merely a mirthful, exhibitionist stage, or is it a beachhead for foreign government influence? Answer most honestly, dear reader: What’s your view of TikTok? Should the app be banned in the U.S.? Why, or why not? Please write in and we will consider excerpting your comments in a future newsletter.

Till then, the children may dance.

Robert Hackett

Twitter: @rhhackett



How d'ya like them apples? The second-highest court in the European Union sided with Apple in a fight over a decade's worth of taxes potentially owed to Ireland. The court ruled that the U.S. company will not be required to pay €13 billion, or nearly $15 billion, to the island nation. The European Commission, which unsuccessfully argued that Ireland gave the Big Tech giant unfair, preferential tax treatment, could still appeal the decision with the European Court of Justice, the bloc's top court. 

Mwaha-Huawei. The U.K. has reversed course and declared a ban on telecom companies using Huawei equipment in the nation's 5G network. The British government, succumbing to U.S. pressure and sanctions on the Chinese company, said purchases of Huawei gear will be made illegal after year's end, and companies will have until 2027 to eradicate the infrastructure. Beijing is not pleased.

Jio-dropping. Alphabet's Google has jumped on the Jio bandwagon, agreeing to invest $4.5 billion in the Indian tech giant. The investment represents a 7.7% stake in a company responsible for bringing one of the world's largest developing markets—India, that is—online. Owned by Reliance Industries, Jio has received billions of dollars in funding from Facebook, Silver Lake, Vista Equity Partners, and a number of other backers recently. 

Hardware-and-tear. Facebook and Sony are planning to ramp up production of their hardware gaming systems: the Oculus virtual reality headset and PlayStation 5, respectively. The two companies are preparing for a holiday season in which they expect high demand fueled by people sheltering at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, Japanese newspaper Nikkei reports.

Peek-a-boo. NBCUniversal's Peacock video streaming service launches nationally today. The Comcast-owned entertainment purveyor faces challenges in its debut. It is arriving late to the video streaming party, launching without its planned keystone programming (the postponed Tokyo summer Olympics), and many new shows are facing production delays due to the pandemic.

Spy vs. Spy. The Trump administration reportedly granted the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency sweeping powers in 2018 to conduct more cyberattacks, Yahoo News reports. The spy agency has reportedly been targeting nations such as Iran, North Korea, Russia, and China with aggressive hacking campaigns since then. The offensive operations are designed not to collect intelligence, but to gain a foothold for potentially disrupting infrastructure, like electrical grids and petrochemical plants.

The masked avenger strikes again.


An engrossing piece in the New Republic charts the rise of fringe political outlets into bulwarks of misinformation. The article covers two new books on the subject; the first, Political Junkies by Claire Bond Potter, scrutinizes the development of both left- and right-tilted "alternative media," in contrast to mass media, and the second, The Drudge Revolution by Matthew Lysiak, examines the life and times of Matt Drudge, the media mogul of Drudge Report fame. Stay through the end for the delicious phrase "the contemporary berserk," which the author uses to describe the seismic activity renting today's media landscape.

Journalists on what the New Yorker writer Andrew Marantz has termed the “bad-guys-on-the-internet-beat” tend to make much of the role of social media platforms in creating and consolidating new right-wing movements. But the internet has offered openings, and meeting places, for a wide range of jerks and racist ideologues, for decades....YouTube did not invent white supremacy, in other words, any more than Twitter invented trolling.


What causes crazy-high prices on Wayfair and Amazon? by David Z. Morris

Best Buy to require shoppers to wear masks in all stores by Phil Wahba

Meet Dubsmash, the video service stealing some of TikTok’s thunder by Danielle Abril

Joe Biden is teaming up with Bernie Sanders to raise taxes—here’s the plan by Nicole Goodkind

Quest Diagnostics says the average turnaround for coronavirus test results is now 7 days or more by Sy Mukherjee

What’s the difference between A.I. veterans and A.I. virgins? by Jeremy Kahn

How the coronavirus has impacted VC dealmaking in 2020 so far by Lucinda Shen

The U.K. is finally banning Huawei’s 5G equipment. Trump will be happy, and China will be furious by David Meyer


First there was road tripping; now there is road browsing. Uday Schultz, a 19-year-old rising sophomore at Harvard University, is quelling his lockdown-induced boredom with a newfound hobby: cross-country Googling. Specifically, he's clicking his way across the USA using Google Street View, as Vice reports. For what it's worth, my college roommate basically used to do the same thing.

Be careful not to click three times, accidentally, and say, "There's no place like home."