Over 20 states have banned TikTok from government-owned devices, and the federal government has recently passed a similar ban too. Additionally, in Dec. 2022, a complete ban on TikTok in the U.S. was introduced to the senate by Marco Rubio (R-Fl). While the closure of the 117th Congress renders that bill dead, the current attitude around the app and its Chinese ownership leaves little doubt that a similar bill will be proposed in the next two year congress.
The recent attention to TikTok may seem like déjà vu, as President Trump signed an executive order attempting to ban the app in 2020, but the opposition to it has grown stronger than ever before, with lawmakers now comparing the app to “digital fentanyl” and a threat to national security. TikTok data is currently handled by an American company Oracle, but is still accessible by the Chinese company behind TikTok.
Recently confirmed reports that TikTok’s parent company used the app’s data collection to monitor locations and information on journalists have forced governments to reconsider the app’s future. Even the European Union, which formerly ignored potential risks of TikTok, has begun a shift in policy in favor of restricting the app with new regulations to be unveiled in the near future.
While the risks of TikTok’s data collection often take the center stage, what sometimes go unnoticed are the issues with the app itself. TikTok uses one of the most advanced algorithms in the social media industry to show its users exactly what they want to see.
Recently, many TikTok users found their “for you” pages inundated with bots posting clips from the show Family Guy above mobile gameplay. Dubbed the “Family Guy pipeline incident,” these clips quickly became more and more plentiful, until one might find five or more in a row while scrolling. “Family guy clips backing Subway Surfers has taken over my for you page.” said senior David Grice. “I hate getting them and yet I watch them all the way through because I have no self-control and am the ideal consumer.”
Family Guy may seem innocent enough, but what happens when these bots start peddling Russian disinformation about their war in Ukraine, or racist videos aiming to influence the way the viewer sees other people? These are not unreasonable reaches, and, in fact, are very easy to test and prove.
Studies into the app’s algorithm have already shown that content promoting suicide or other mental health issues can begin flooding a “for you” page in as short as 2.6 minutes. Another study by the journalism credibility organization NewsGuard proved that within 40 minutes, someone’s main feed can become filled with misinformation about the war in Ukraine.
There are many more controversial issues that can populate TikTok with a goal of influencing public opinion, and the takeover of Family Guy on the app proves just how easily that goal can be accomplished. Any action on a post, apart from the “not interested button,” will lead to more and more videos expressing the same viewpoint on the topic; even leaving a comment disagreeing with the content does the same.
Who, then, is in charge of what we see on a daily basis? TikTok has claimed time and time again that the companies’ actions are not influenced by the Chinese government, but in reality, that direct influence isn’t even necessary. The Chinese government could, as could any government, use bots to create content specifically designed to take advantage of the TikTok algorithm to influence opinions, a strategy taken by the Russian government in the past on other platforms.
In July 2022, TikTok forbade the Chinese government from their attempt to create a secret account to spread propaganda. The intent exists in plain sight, but it is impossible to know how they have acted on that intent. It is safe to assume that they did not abandon their plan after July, and could currently be pushing their own propaganda straight to our phones, aided by the powerful algorithm.
The rise in Family Guy clips have shifted from entertainment to annoyances to now warnings about what is possible with TikTok.