TikTok, the world’s fastest-growing social media app, used by two-thirds of America’s teenagers, has federal lawmakers debating its potential threat to national security with legislation introduced by a bipartisan coalition of U.S. Senators  empowering President Joe Biden to ban its use.

Mike Horning, an associate professor of multimedia journalism at Virginia Tech’s School of Communication, offers his perspective about the issues with TikTok that have put government officials on edge.

Q: What data does TikTok collect from its users?

“TikTok collects a variety of data about you and your interactions with their content. That can include things like your location, the time you spend interacting with that content, and what you like and dislike. They also capture biometric data like voice prints and face prints from your content.”

Q: Why are there concerns that this content from TikTok users could be used in detrimental ways?

“We don't know a lot about how content makes its way to our TikTok pages, and that is part of the problem. This raises concerns about how an algorithm or people working at TikTok set that agenda for us each day. We don't know, for example, if that content is there in part because of the influence of foreign interests, if it is there simply because it is an ad we might be interested in, or if it's just something we might find entertaining.”

Q: What concerns are there about the influence of TikTok on its users?

“Because TikTok can use its data to target people who have psychological profiles that are responsive to certain messages, the concern is that the platform could be used in influence campaigns to shape attitudes and opinions. This type of power could have an influence on everything from mental health to how a person feels about social issues or domestic and foreign policies.”

Q: Has evidence emerged that the data TikTok collects is being shared with the Chinese government?

“TikTok says that it does not share data with the Chinese government but there have been some instances where American data has been discovered in the company's servers in China. Further, as a Chinese owned company, TikTok would be obligated to give their data to China should it be required.”

Q:  Is TikTok as threat to national security?

“I think it's important to realize the degree to which the algorithms on TikTok are good at understanding what appeals to us. This means that it is really good at giving us content that could influence our attitudes. That could be something as simple as an attitude about a product or more complex things such as our attitude towards capitalism or another countries’ foreign policies. Putting that power in the hands of a company that has ties to China does make those interested in our national security concerned and for good reason.”

About Michael Horning
Mike Horning is an associate professor of multimedia journalism in the Virginia Tech School of Communication and director of social informatics research in the Center for Human Computer Interaction at Virginia Tech. His research examines how communication technologies impact social attitudes and behaviors, with a current focus on the impact of “fake news” and misinformation on our democratic processes. His expertise has been featured in The Hill, on Sinclair Broadcast Group, and in a number of other media outlets. Read more about him here.

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To schedule an interview, contact Mike Allen in the media relations office at mike.allen@vt.edu or 540.400.1700.