Analysis: Why Denmark should be concerned about TikTok

It’s well documented that the Chinese app is being used for espionage, but how dangerous is it really?

TikTok: to delete or not to delete? That is the question many are asking, particularly now Danish MPs, along with thousands of politicians, journalists and public figures across the world, have been banned from using the app on their work phones.

Many Danish MPs had been using TikTok as a political tool – such as Alex Vanopslagh from Liberal Alliance and Rosa Lund from Enhedslisten – and both have retained their profiles on their private phones. After all, the ‘ban’ is only enforced on government-issued devices.

Governments and intelligence services around the world appear to be waking up to the dangers of TikTok – and its shadowy parent-company ByteDance – with the US contemplating total prohibition of the app.

Still remains popular
In spite of the concern, and in some cases panic, spreading in the west over TikTok, the app remains hugely popular with important public figures.

Numerous British civil servants and journalists are currently parading on the Chinese app, sharing videos declaring their fidelity to both their fans and the platform. 

In addition, many public figures, such as politicians and broadcasters, seem to exist in a state of blissful – or even wilful – ignorance about the way TikTok, and by extension ByteDance, is harvesting users’ data.

Impeachment of privacy policies
Considering the Danish Centre for Cyber Security’s recent warning to the government about the link between TikTok and Chinese espionage, something is clearly not right with the most popular video-sharing platform in the world.

TikTok’s headquarters are based in Beijing, which means that the company is subject to Chinese Cybersecurity Law. 

New laws, passed in 2017, decree that the Chinese government has the right to access all data stored by every single company based on Chinese soil. TikTok users’ information is no exception.

ByteDance, along with TikTok’s western representatives, has insisted there is nothing to worry about. Despite this, no definitive proof – or even solid arguments – has been offered to counter the idea that China is using TikTok data for its own ends.

People of Denmark
Danish commentators seem confused about the real threat of TikTok: in numerous recent debates on television conflicts of opinion have abounded, although DR recently went the same way as the government.

The experts seem to be even more puzzled than the media. Some of them think we should all uninstall the Chinese-run app immediately, while others are more permissive, recommending the use of a fake email when signing up for TikTok in order to avoid divulging your personal information.

“Tiktok is a rough harvester and an app that obtains a lot of data,” says Henrik Moltke, DR’s tech expert, in a short documentary on DRTV. “I don’t see it as either more or less dangerous than, say, Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook.”

Elsewhere, in a TV2 article, Jørn Guldberg, an IT security expert at IDA, was quoted as saying: “TikTok has become much more invasive. Therefore, we must be careful about what the Chinese government can sniff out through the app.”

Let us be ‘influenced’ by evidence
Amidst this multitude of opinions, there is one recent story that might shed light on the matter. 

In October 2022, Emily Baker-White, Richard Nieva and Katharine Schwab, three journalists from Forbes, were tracked via TikTok by a group of ByteDance employees based in China. 

The evidence for the case included more than 80 hours of recordings of team meetings about how to spy on the journalists in the most intrusive ways. 

Even if it is not uncommon for many popular data-gathering apps to share their users’ information with unspecified third parties in an unauthorised way, this level of espionage had never been seen before. Some ByteDance employees were fired for the debacle, but this does not seem sufficient to put the matter to bed.

Democracy at risk
One interesting point Baker-White highlighted to DR was that TikTok “has an important effect on how we think about issues, like what we think about public trust and, in a way, democracy itself”.

“Having an app controlling the way we think about democracy being owned by a company governed by an authoritarian state is tricky,” she added.

Others have pointed to TikTok’s promotion of an illiterate way of thinking, which is diametrically opposed to the way of reasoning on which western democracies are based. This point was summed up excellently by James Marriott in an article in The Times of London.

The strange thing is that no-one seemed to consider that ByteDance is inextricably linked to a dictatorship while TikTok was becoming the world’s most used social media platform – especially amongst Gen-Zers.

Disturbing side-effects 
Recent reports by numerous foundations and institutions researching the effects of digital platforms on human behaviour show how TikTok is dramatically impacting people’s mental health more than any other form of social media, and is particularly harmful for Generation Z – those between 11 and 26 years of age.

TikTok provides an unbelievable variety of different video content that users can scroll through in a very short space of time. The information they absorb is pre-digested and quickly consumed, eliminating any possibility of complex thought.

Its innovative and unique features (such as the famously creepy accuracy of the ‘For me’ section) have a harmful effect on everybody’s minds – especially for adolescents and fragile people. 

The problem is we don’t yet fully understand how or why it is so damaging, and therefore people assume it is innocuous.

Bad for brains
What is more, the negative psychological impact of TikTok may not always be immediately noticeable.

“The app provides an endless stream of emotional nudges that can be hard to recognise and really impact users in the long run,” Marc Faddoul, the co-director of the digital rights organisation Tracking Exposed, told the Guardian. 

It emerged from a survey conducted by DR this month that educational institutions across Denmark agreed about the fact that widespread use of social media is compromising young people’s ability to socialise. 

In a collective announcement about the survey, the schools involved stated this: “Our experience is that young people’s lives on social media or other digital platforms are having a negative impact on their participation in the community to a greater extent than ever before.”

Free country, free citizens … as long as we can make an informed choice
For the first time in the so-called ‘Digital Age’ we are playing with what could be described as a sci-fi weapon of mass-destruction. 

Many people, including prominent personalities, don’t seem able to process the fact that a video-sharing app is capable of causing so much damage to society. 

Even if an extensive ban is not necessarily the answer to what is already a major issue for western countries, a proper social debate about TikTok’s more dangerous features should take place.

So many dangerous things are fashionable and yet harmful: smoking, drugs, Steff Houlberg sausages. But maybe the time has come for people to quit TikTok and start doing more Sudokus.

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