What are TikTok & Douyin?
While we’re certainly not a social media company, we are students of social engineering — especially as it is used against our clients in phishing attacks, and as a way to break through the Human Firewall. In that vein of thinking, here’s another type of social engineering — one that could be considered an attack of sorts — which we wanted to share with you, our readers.
“It’s almost like they [the creators at Bytedance] recognize that technology is influencing kids’ development, and they make their domestic version a spinach version of TikTok, while they ship the opium version to the rest of the world.” (60 Minutes Interview)
If you haven’t heard of Douyin, you are certainly familiar with its buzzy, news-making, sibling: TikTok. Both are products developed by the China-based company Bytedance.
It’s easy for many people — especially those over the age of 35 — to decide that they don’t like TikTok, even if they don’t really know what it is or how to use it. The documentary The Social Dilemma (Netflix), served up an hour and a half of footage of tech experts from Silicon Valley eager to sound the alarm about the dangerous impact of social media and social networking. TikTok has also been the subject of some media coverage as a result of being investigated by the FBI for “national security concerns”.
What is Tik Tok?
Tik Tok is a social media app created in 2016 by Bytedance. It allows users to share short-form mobile videos (up to 3 minutes, but mostly 15-30 seconds in length). The content ranges from cooking and dance videos to snippets of news, as well as many salacious things not appropriate to mention here. The app exists, according to the TikTok website, to “inspire creativity and share joy.”
As you might imagine, more than 50% of users are 30 or younger. However, there is a cohort of users in the U.S. — largely eager, engaged parents – who embrace it as a means of closeness with their kids. The COVID-19 family dance routines are evidence of this. If TikTok is about creativity, they want to engage with their kids through it.
What is Douyin?
Douyin is China’s version of TikTok, and again, is unavailable to the rest of the world. This has potentially many layers of impact, but when we consider the future of the global economy and that the primary users are minors, it gives one pause. In the U.S. kids are performing and, if organized, monetizing entertainment. Largely, though, they appear to be playing around.
In Douyin, the videos are educational, and aspirational and can feature everything from displays of complex musical composition to experiments that STEM students will want to nibble on, if not tackle. Compared to the U.S., these submissions contain all the intellectual food groups while those in the states appear to be fodder for the Today Show’s “Morning Boost.” On the face of it, children in China are asked to exhibit skills and intellectual rigor in a discipline.
U.S. children, if left to be just that – kiddos with a phone and free time – are being groomed for the entertainment industry. There is also the bonus that other social media provides: a rush of connectivity. The “short and sweet” video format is designed to give hits of dopamine with each video, keeping users addicted.
Why the difference?
Not surprisingly, the algorithms for TikTok are deeply addictive. Type in depression and you’ll have dozens of ways of unpacking that very topic, whether you suffer from it or not. The U.S. version of the app has been called an addicting, personalized, and predictive algorithm, specifically tailored to the interests of whoever is scrolling. (The Wall Street Journal.)
Podcast host, disrupter, and provocateur Joe Rogan has spoken out on the topic and finds the U.S. version infuriating when stacked up next to Douyin, whether or not he prescribes a motive. It would seem that our youth are being primed for certain behaviors — silliness, dopamine hits, and playtime — while the youth of China are primed for excellence.
The Wall Street Journal found that TikTok only needs one important piece of information to figure out what you want and that is the amount of time that you linger over a piece of content. If you hesitate and rewatch, this app is tracking you.
“TikTok has videos you might find funny, and you want to see them because they make you feel good. That’s the main nucleus of all sorts of different addictions,” Williams said. (Dessert News) “Whatever you search for on TikTok, that algorithm will be kept. The more you search for things that you like, they will be aware of what you like and that’s what you will be fed.”
Douyin is simply one product from Bytedance. Others include Toutiao (think: Google news for Chinese citizens), Xigua Video for longer-form video sharing, Helo (similar to Instagram and an app that connects people with interests to their peers), and Lark, a “digital collaboration suite, which includes chat, email, video conferencing and cloud storage.” Bytedance is busy and they are focused on connecting and developing the people, especially the children, of China.
As recently as December 28, 2022, these eight Attorneys General are still hot to see it disappear. The concerns are that the Chinese are not only providing an app that uses damaging algorithms for undeveloped minds but that the government is seizing personal information or statistical data about the education levels of U.S. children.
While it has not been proven that the Chinese are tracking our kids, many concerns still exist, and we will be watching with interest. Ultimately, content is food for our brains, and the old axiom “you are what you eat” is still true.