5 things you should know about TikTok

June 8, 2020

By now, you’ve probably heard of the rapidly growing social media app called TikTok that is taking the United States and the world by storm. It’s hard to describe just how influential and far-reaching TikTok has become so quickly. In less than two years since it was released, it has been downloaded over 2 billion times. In just the last quarter, TikTok was downloaded 315 million times—the best quarter for any app, ever. However, many Americans don’t know exactly what it is or how it works. Here are five things you should know about this viral app and how it is changing the nature of social media.  

TikTok is a platform for short videos often set to music.

TikTok was released worldwide on August 2, 2018, by ByteDance, a Beijing-based internet technology company founded in 2012. TikTok was created as the result of a merge with lip-syncing app Musical.ly. It’s often described as the first cousin of Vine, another popular app for short videos that was shut down in 2016. TikTok users can post short videos from 15-60 seconds with a massive library of music or sounds. These often take the form of lip syncing to clips of popular songs with a funny punchline, but users can also record their own sounds. These song clips have become so popular that some music labels are actually changing the names of their songs after release in order to make them easier to find and more accessible for TikTok users.  

The main page on TikTok is the “For You” page, which is an algorithmically generated stream of content from the entire platform. The AI system selects videos that it feels will appeal to you based on a number of contributing factors. While there is also a tab to only see content from creators you’ve followed, the default page when you open the app is the “For You” page, or FYP. This format ensures that viral videos gain traction quickly and often helps to create trends that other users can easily participate in. TikTok videos can also be easily shared on other social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and especially Instagram, which has helped it grow significantly due to wider exposure.  

TikTok’s user base is bigger than you would expect.

As of April 2020, TikTok has been downloaded over 2 billion times. That makes it the 7th most downloaded app of the last decade. The platform currently has around 800 million daily users, making it easily one of the top 5 most used apps available on mobile platforms. It’s more widely used than Twitter, LinkedIn, or Snapchat. TikTok is also one of the first and fastest growing social platforms specifically built in the smartphone era, meaning that it is mainly accessible via the mobile app rather than having an expansive desktop-based or mobile web user interface.  

Of those 800 million users who are consistently engaged on the platform, 90% report using the app multiple times a day. The average user opens TikTok eight times per day and spends around 52 minutes per day on the app. One reason that users spend as much time on the platform is that the videos have an autoplay feature, and many videos are selected by the AI system based on your preference of content.  

The top 50 TikTok creators have more followers than the populations of Mexico, Canada, the U.K, Australia, and the U.S. combined. Around 60% of daily users in the U.S. are between 16 and 24, according to TikTok statistics. And for 13-16 year olds, it’s more popular than Facebook. A recent report indicated that children now spend nearly the same amount of time on TikTok as Youtube in the U.S., U.K., and Spain. The platform has experienced incredible growth in the last few years, especially during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders around the world.  

TikTok has provided a moment of levity in the midst of very difficult times, often through comical videos and popular music. Shira Ovide, a reporter at The New York Times, writes, “TikTok doesn’t necessarily show you the reality of the world. It’s about expression, but it’s not like anything we’re used to.” This shift in social media from delivering the news to allowing you to connect with other people, devoid of many of the controversies of the day, provides users a different online experience than much of what is on other platforms.  

TikTok is considered a threat to national security by the U.S. government.   

There is considerable controversy surrounding TikTok and its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, and has repeatedly come under fire for censoring videos that paint the CCP in a negative light. For example, videos referencing COVID-19 in China are always taken down, as are posts referencing Tiananmen Square, Taiwan, or the Hong Kong protests. Last November, TikTok suspended a U.S. college student for posting videos about the Chinese government’s treatment of Uighur Muslims.   

As a result of these concerns, the U.S. government opened an investigation into whether TikTok is a national security risk. In a letter calling for an investigation, Sen. Marco Rubio stated, “The Chinese government’s nefarious efforts to censor information inside free societies around the world cannot be accepted and pose serious long-term challenges to the U.S. and our allies.” Numerous government agencies, including the TSA and Department of Homeland Security, have banned their employees from installing TikTok on their devices, and there is a growing concern about how much data the CCP has access to for regular citizens.  

TikTok has a concerning record on privacy, censorship, and offensive content.

Because of the potentially dangerous public-private partnership between TikTok and the Chinese government, there is a growing concern over digital privacy and censorship. In 2019, the FTC fined TikTok a record $5.7 million for illegally collecting personal information from children under 13. Additionally, college student Misty Hong filed a class action lawsuit in December 2019 alleging that TikTok collected personal data from her account, including videos she did not post, and transferred that data to servers in China.   

TikTok also has a controversial record on content moderation. It has been reported that its moderators have been instructed to remove videos posted by disabled, ugly, or poor users in order to keep more users engaged on the platform. While TikTok has pledged to hire independent firms to create new moderation policies, due to their control by the CCP, it seems that this unlikely will change.   

With lax content moderation policies, a large percentage of videos on the platform are centered around sexual jokes, innuendo, and even sexually explicit content. While TikTok censors nudity, this policy is loosely enforced, especially as sexualized content proliferates the platform. TikTok also does not censor profanity in its user uploads, which might disturb some users, particularly parents of teenagers and older children.  

Finally, TikTok likely has one of the largest percentages of sexual predators on any social platform, mainly due to the loose/nonexistent moderation and enforcement of platform rules. TikTok has repeatedly declined to suspend accounts of sexual predators, even after deleting the comments they posted.  

As with any social media platform, users need to be aware of how the platform works and the potential dangers of using it, particularly for children and teenagers. TikTok is a unique social media platform and experience, unlike most of its predecessors. It is one of the first major internet companies from China to have a global impact and reach, with many U.S.-based technology companies trying to mimic its success and experience.  

This unique and innovative platform has been harnessed to highlight social causes such as protests surrounding the horrific murder of African American Minneapolis man, George Floyd, right along side funny family dance videos, making it a distinct way for people to gather and express themselves online. As Shira Ovide from the Times noted, “it can be mindless fun, but it’s also a force to pay attention to.”  

Conrad Close

Conrad Close serves as the Digital Marketing Manager for the ERLC. In this role, he oversees web strategy, manages email marketing, and provides communications support to the policy team. A former ERLC intern, Conrad graduated from Kennesaw State University with a B.A. in Public Relations. He lives in Chicago with … Read More

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24