By Andrew Zashin*

Since March of this year, I have received a steady stream of short,
comical videos my friends created and crafted with the assistance of the
social media app TikTok. I assumed this new directorial hobby was the
spawn of quarantine boredom and would quickly fizzle out along with the
app itself. I was wrong.

According to Forbes Magazine, TikTok is
the most downloaded social media app. It is estimated that more than 100
million U.S. citizens have downloaded TikTok since it was introduced to
the United States in 2018. During the first rounds of stay-at-home
orders, however, downloads of the app skyrocketed and new subscribers
keep coming. So, what exactly is TikTok and why has it become so
popular?

TikTok is a social media app that allows subscribers to
create and share videos that are one minute in length or less. TikTok is
different from other more well-known social media apps such as Facebook
in that a TikTok user does not start off by “building” a page. Instead,
when a user first downloads and opens TikTok a host of short length
video appear. The user can then scroll through the various videos or
utilize the search function to discover videos related to a topic of
interest or created by a particular person. The more videos the user
watches, the more the app “learns” through the application of artificial
intelligence what the user likes and thus the more videos of a similar
nature that are presented to the user.

TikTok is also different from the traditional social media apps in
that its primary objective is not to maintain social connections through
the posting of still pictures and written blurbs. Instead, TikTok
encourages users to watch and/or produce artistic video content. As a
result, the vast majority of TikTok videos feature average joes happily
dancing, while often, also lip syncing. Just Google “Ocean Spray Guy”
and you’ll see what I mean. It is this recipe of amusing, creative and
short entertainment baked into in an easily accessible package that has
fueled TikTok’s popularity. However, many politicians, including
President Donald Trump, are not happy about TikTok’s growing presence in
the United States.

In August, the president issued an executive
order prohibiting U.S. companies from advertising with TikTok or
offering TikTok for download via an app store citing national security
concerns so long as TikTok remains with its parent company, ByteDance.
To comprehend the underpinnings of this executive order, it is important
to understand that TikTok was created in China and is owned by
ByteDance, a Chinese company.

Like almost every app, TikTok asks users for access to their cameras,
photos and contacts upon download. TikTok also collects keystroke
patterns with the purpose of better understanding the user. Because
ByteDance is a Chinese company, it could be required to assist in
surveillance and intelligence operations at the direction of the Chinese
government pursuant to Chinese laws. Thus, the fear is that ByteDance
could turn over to the Chinese government a huge swath of data that it
has collected from its U.S. TikTok users; something TikTok has stated
that it has not and will not do.

TikTok is now challenging the
president’s executive order in federal court. On Dec. 8, the U.S.
District Court in Washington, D.C., granted TikTok’s request for a
preliminary injunction which stopped the U.S. Department of Commerce
from implementing the president’s executive order. However, further
litigation may not be necessary if TikTok is able to negotiate a deal
with a U.S. company in which the U.S. company would buy TikTok and its
data. The good news for avid TikTok users, and my familial TikTokers, is
that such negotiations are in the works between TikTok and Walmart.

This article originally appeared as a column for the Cleveland Jewish News.