On 9 November 2017, TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, spent nearly $1 billion to purchase musical.ly, a startup headquartered in Shanghai with an overseas office in Santa Monica, California, U.S. Musical.ly was a social media video platform that allowed users to create short lip-sync and comedy videos, initially released in August 2014. TikTok merged with musical.ly on 2 August 2018 with existing accounts and data consolidated into one app, keeping the title TikTok. This ended musical.ly and made TikTok a worldwide app, excluding China, since China already had Douyin.
Douyin was launched by ByteDance in September 2016, originally under the name A.me, before rebranding to Douyin (抖音) in December 2016. Douyin was developed in 200 days and within a year had 100 million users, with more than one billion videos viewed every day.
In May 2023, Yintao Yu, former head of engineering of ByteDance in the United States from August 2017 to November 2018, filed a wrongful termination suit in San Francisco Superior Court against his former company after several years of failed mediation. Yu claimed that he was fired in 2018 owing to concerns he had about a "worldwide scheme" to steal and profit from other companies intellectual property. Yu claimed in his filing that ByteDance had a "superuser credential," also known as a "god credential," that enabled a special committee of Chinese Communist Party members stationed at the company's Beijing offices to view all data collected by ByteDance, including U.S. users, claiming that it acted as a "backdoor to any barrier ByteDance had supposedly installed to protect data from the C.C.P's surveillance." Yu claimed he saw the god credential being used to track Hong Kong protestors' locations and devices, their network information, SIM card identifications, IP addresses and communications. Yu further claimed that this Beijing-based CCP Committee, called simply "the Committee," "guided how the company advanced core Communist values" and possessed a "death switch" that could turn off the app entirely. Yu claimed that "The Committee maintained supreme access to all the company data, even data stored in the United States." Yu claimed that in its early days, TikTok copied videos and posts from Snapchat and Instagram without permission and then posted them to the app and made bot accounts to boost engagement numbers. Yu also claimed that while working for ByteDance offices in Beijing, he saw engineers for Douyin tweak the algorithm to boost content that expressed hatred for Japan without any hesitation. Yu stated that during his time in the company, American user data was stored in the United States, but was accessible from China, and that the location of where the data was stored is "irrelevant" owing to engineers having access from China and hidden backdoors. ByteDance responded that it "vigorously oppose what we believe are baseless claims and allegations in this complaint" and that "Mr. Yu worked for ByteDance Inc. for less than a year and his employment ended in July 2018. During his brief time at the company, he worked on an app called Flipagram, which was discontinued years ago for business reasons."
The app was launched as TikTok in the international market in September 2017. On 23 January 2018, the TikTok app ranked first among free application downloads on app stores in Thailand and other countries. TikTok has been downloaded more than 130 million times in the United States and has reached 2 billion downloads worldwide, according to data from mobile research firm Sensor Tower (those numbers exclude Android users in China).
After merging with musical.ly in August, downloads increased and TikTok became the most downloaded app in the U.S. in October 2018, which musical.ly had done once before. In February 2019, TikTok, together with Douyin, hit one billion downloads globally, excluding Android installs in China. In 2019, media outlets cited TikTok as the 7th-most-downloaded mobile app of the decade, from 2010 to 2019. It was also the most-downloaded app on Apple's App Store in 2018 and 2019, surpassing Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. In September 2020, a deal was confirmed between ByteDance and Oracle in which the latter will serve as a partner to provide cloud hosting, as TikTok faces attempts to ban it in the United States. In November 2020, TikTok signed a licensing deal with Sony Music. In December 2020, Warner Music Group signed a licensing deal with TikTok. In April 2021, Abu Dhabi's Department of Culture and Tourism partnered with TikTok to promote tourism. It came following the January 2021 winter campaign, initiated through a partnership between the UAE Government Media Office partnered and TikTok to promote the country's tourism.
In the United States, celebrities, including Jimmy Fallon and Tony Hawk, began using the app in 2018. Other celebrities, including Jennifer Lopez, Jessica Alba, Will Smith, and Justin Bieber joined TikTok as well as many others. In January 2019, TikTok allowed creators to embed merchandise sale links into their videos.
Some countries have shown concerns regarding the content on TikTok, as their cultures view it as obscene, immoral, vulgar, and encouraging pornography. There have been temporary blocks and warnings issued by countries including Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan over the content concerns. In 2018, Douyin was reprimanded by Chinese media watchdogs for showing "unacceptable" content.
There are concerns that some users may find it hard to stop using TikTok. In April 2018, an addiction-reduction feature was added to Douyin. This encouraged users to take a break every 90 minutes. Later in 2018, the feature was rolled out to the TikTok app. TikTok uses popular influencers to encourage viewers to stop using the app and take a break.
Vox noted in 2018 that bullies and trolls were relatively rare on TikTok compared to other platforms. Nonetheless, several users have reported cyberbullying via features such as Duet or React, which is used to interact with followers. A trend making fun of autism eventually created a huge backlash, even on the platform itself, and the company ended up removing the hashtag altogether. Parents filming how their children reacted to people with disability, often in terror, led to criticisms of ableism. In December 2019, following a report by German digital rights group netzpolitik.org, TikTok admitted that it had suppressed videos by disabled users as well as LGBTQ+ users in a purported temporary effort to limit cyberbullying.
Tencent's WeChat platform has been accused of blocking Douyin's videos. In April 2018, Douyin sued Tencent and accused it of spreading false and damaging information on its WeChat platform, demanding CN¥1 million in compensation and an apology. In June 2018, Tencent filed a lawsuit against Toutiao and Douyin in a Beijing court, alleging they had repeatedly defamed Tencent with negative news and damaged its reputation, seeking a nominal sum of CN¥1 in compensation and a public apology. In response, Toutiao filed a complaint the following day against Tencent for allegedly unfair competition and asking for CN¥90 million in economic losses.
The app has spawned numerous viral trends, Internet celebrities, and music trends around the world. Duets, a feature that allows users to add their own video to an existing video with the original content's audio, have sparked many of these trends. Many stars got their start on musical.ly, which merged with TikTok on 2 August 2018. These include Loren Gray, Baby Ariel, Zach King, Lisa and Lena, Jacob Sartorius, and many others. Loren Gray remained the most-followed individual on TikTok until Charli D'Amelio surpassed her on 25 March 2020. Gray's was the first TikTok account to reach 40 million followers on the platform. She was surpassed with 41.3 million followers. D'Amelio was the first to ever reach 50, 60, and 70 million followers. Charli D'Amelio remained the most-followed individual on the platform until she was surpassed by Khaby Lame on 23 June 2022. Other creators rose to fame after the platform merged with musical.ly on 2 August 2018. TikTok also played a major part in making "Old Town Road" by Lil Nas X one of the biggest songs of 2019 and the longest-running number-one song in the history of the US Billboard Hot 100.
TikTok tends to appeal to younger users, as 41% of its users are between the ages of 16 and 24. These individuals are considered Generation Z. Among these TikTok users, 90% said they used the app daily. TikTok's geographical use in 2019 has shown that 43% of new users were from India before the social platform was banned in the country. But adults have also seen growth on TikTok. The share of U.S. adults who regularly get news from TikTok hit 14% in 2023.
TikTok's and Douyin's censorship policies have been criticized as non-transparent. Internal guidelines against the promotion of violence, separatism, and "demonization of countries" could be used to prohibit content related to the Tiananmen Square crackdown, Falun Gong, Tibet, Taiwan, Chechnya, Northern Ireland, the Cambodian genocide, the 1998 Indonesian riots, Kurdish nationalism, ethnic conflicts between blacks and whites, or between different Islamic sects. A more specific list banned criticisms against world leaders, including past and present ones from Russia, the United States, Japan, North and South Korea, India, Indonesia, and Turkey. In 2019, TikTok took down a video about human rights abuses in the Xinjiang internment camps against Uyghurs but restored it after 50 minutes as well as the creator's account, saying that the action was a mistake and triggered by a brief "satirical" image of Osama bin Laden in another post.
In February 2019, the United Kingdom's Information Commissioner's Office launched an investigation of TikTok following the fine ByteDance received from the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Speaking to a parliamentary committee, Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said that the investigation focuses on the issues of private data collection, the kind of videos collected and shared by children online, as well as the platform's open messaging system which allows any adult to message any child. She noted that the company was potentially violating the GDPR which requires the company to provide different services and different protections for children.
On 27 February 2019, the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined ByteDance U.S.$5.7 million for collecting information from minors under the age of 13 in violation of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. ByteDance responded by adding a kids-only mode to TikTok which blocks the upload of videos, the building of user profiles, direct messaging, and commenting on others' videos, while still allowing the viewing and recording of content. In May 2020, an advocacy group filed a complaint with the FTC saying that TikTok had violated the terms of the February 2019 consent decree, which sparked subsequent congressional calls for a renewed FTC investigation. In July 2020, it was reported that the FTC and the United States Department of Justice had initiated investigations.
In 2020, digital media companies such as Group Nine Media and Global used TikTok increasingly, focusing on tactics such as brokering partnerships with TikTok influencers and developing branded content campaigns. Notable collaborations between larger brands and top TikTok influencers have included Chipotle's partnership with David Dobrik in May 2019 and Dunkin' Donuts' partnership with Charli D'Amelio in September 2020.
On Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, some celebrities who had garnered large followings as of August 2019 include Dilraba Dilmurat, Angelababy, Luo Zhixiang, Ouyang Nana, and Pan Changjiang. In the 2022 FIFA World Cup, a Qatari teenage royal became an Internet celebrity after his angry expressions were recorded in Qatar's opening match loss to Ecuador; he amassed more than 15 million followers in less than a week after creating a Douyin account.
On 3 September 2019, TikTok and the U.S. National Football League (NFL) announced a multi-year partnership. The agreement occurred just two days before the NFL's 100th season kick-off at Soldier Field, where TikTok hosted activities for fans in honor of the deal. The partnership entails the launch of an official NFL TikTok account, which is to bring about new marketing opportunities such as sponsored videos and hashtag challenges. In July 2020, TikTok, excluding Douyin, reported close to 800 million monthly active users worldwide after less than four years of existence.
In October 2019, TikTok removed about two dozen accounts that were responsible for posting ISIL propaganda and execution videos on the app.
In November 2019, a class action lawsuit was filed in California that alleged that TikTok transferred personally identifiable information of U.S. persons to servers located in China owned by Tencent and Alibaba. The lawsuit also accused ByteDance, TikTok's parent company, of taking user content without their permission. The plaintiff of the lawsuit, college student Misty Hong, downloaded the app but said she never created an account. She realized a few months later that TikTok had created an account for her using her information (such as biometrics) and made a summary of her information. The lawsuit also alleged that information was sent to Chinese tech giant Baidu. In July 2020, twenty lawsuits against TikTok were merged into a single class action lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. In February 2021, TikTok agreed to pay $92 million to settle the class action lawsuit.
Classic stars are able to connect with younger audiences born decades after a musician's first debut and across traditional genres. In 2020 Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" was used in a skating video and a recreation by Mick Fleetwood. The song re-entered Billboard Hot 100 after 43 years and topped Apple Music. In 2022, Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" went viral among fans of Stranger Things, topping the UK singles chart 37 years after its original release. In 2023 Kylie Minogue's "Padam Padam" entered the Radio 1 playlist after being shared by Gen Z, even though many youth radio stations had refused to play it. Other older artists with strong engagement on TikTok include Elton John and Rod Stewart.
In 2021, it was reported that a trend known as the #NoseJobCheck trend was going viral on TikTok. TikTok content creators used a specific audio on their videos while showing how their noses looked before and after having their rhinoplasty surgeries. By January 2021, the hashtag #nosejob had accumulated 1.6 billion views, #nosejobcheck had accumulated 1 billion views, and the audio used in the #NoseJobCheck trend had been used in 120,000 videos. In 2020, Charli D'Amelio, the most-followed person on TikTok at the time, also made a #NoseJobCheck video to show the results of her surgery to repair her previously broken nose.
In May 2023, The Wall Street Journal reported that former employees complained about TikTok tracking users who had viewed LGBT-related content, leading to fears of collected data potentially usable for blackmail. It also reported that a former employee from 2018 was suing TikTok's parent, ByteDance, for wrongful termination from his job. The suit alleges that Hong Kong users' device information and communications were accessed by Chinese Communist Party members. ByteDance denied the claims and said the employee worked on a defunct project. The company pulled TikTok out of Hong Kong in 2020. In June 2023, TikTok confirmed that some financial information, such as tax forms and Social Security numbers, of American content creators are stored in China. This applies to those signing contracts with and receiving payment transactions from ByteDance. Whether similar information will remain exempt from being treated as "protected user data" is being negotiated with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.
TikTok food trends are specific food recipes and food-related fads on the social media platform TikTok. This content amassed popularity in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many people cooked and ate at home and more people turned to social media for entertainment. While some TikTok users share their diets and recipes, others expand their brand or image on TikTok through step-by-step videos of easy and popular recipes. Users often refer to food-related content as "FoodTok."
TikTok is regularly used by sex workers to promote pornographic content sold on platforms such as OnlyFans. One porn actor posted a viral song referring to himself as an "accountant", starting a trend. In 2020 TikTok updated their terms of service to ban content that promotes "premium sexual content", impacting a large number of adult content creators. In response, they began substituting words in their captions and videos and using filters to censor explicit images. Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future, believes that at some point, censorship becomes a fool's errand and we would never be "able to sanitize the Internet". Some adult content creators have found a way to game TikTok's recommendation algorithm by posting riddles, which attract a large number of viewers trying and failing to solve them. Some of them are redirected to the creators' OnlyFans accounts and end up as subscribers there.
TikTok's algorithm, recognised by The New York Times in 2020 as one of the most advanced for shaping user experiences and social interactions, stands out from traditional social media. While typical platforms focus on active user actions like likes, clicks, or follows, TikTok monitors a wider array of behaviors during video viewing. This comprehensive observation is then used to refine its algorithms, as noted by Wired in 2020. Furthermore, The Wall Street Journal in 2021 highlighted its superiority over other social media platforms in understanding users' preferences and emotions. TikTok's algorithm leverages this insight to present similar content, creating an environment that users often find hard to disengage from.
In January 2020, Check Point Research discovered a vulnerability, later patched by TikTok, whereby a hacker could spoof TikTok's official SMS messages and replace them with malicious links to gain access to user accounts. In February, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman criticized the app, calling it "spyware". TikTok said the accusations were made without evidence. In July, Wells Fargo banned the app from company devices due to privacy and security concerns. In August 2020, The Wall Street Journal reported that TikTok tracked Android user data, including MAC addresses and IMEIs, with a tactic in violation of Google's policies. The report sparked calls in the U.S. Senate for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to launch an investigation. A March 2021 study by the Citizen Lab found that TikTok did not collect data beyond the industry norms, what its policy stated, or without additional user permission.
In January 2020, left-leaning media watchdog Media Matters for America said that TikTok hosted misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic despite a recent policy against misinformation. In April 2020, the government of India asked TikTok to remove users posting misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. There were also multiple conspiracy theories that the government is involved with the spread of the pandemic. As a response to this, TikTok launched a feature to report content for misinformation. It reported that in the second half of 2020, over 340,000 videos in the U.S. about election misinformation and 50,000 videos of COVID-19 misinformation were removed.
In January 2020, the United States Army and Navy banned TikTok on government devices after the Defense Department labeled it a security risk. Recruitors had been using the app to help fill quotas, and some continue to maintain a level of engagement through their personal accounts.
TikTok announced a "family safety mode" in February 2020 for parents to be able to control their children's presence on the app. There is a screen time management option, restricted mode, and the option to put a limit on direct messages. The app expanded its parental controls feature called "Family Pairing" in September 2020 to provide parents and guardians with educational resources to understand what children on TikTok are exposed to. Content for the feature was created in partnership with online safety nonprofit, Internet Matters.
TikTok states that since May 2020, it answers to a CEO based in the United States who "is responsible for all long-term and strategic day-to-day decisions for the business." TikTok has been noted for downplaying its connection with ByteDance and for eschewing specific questions about the nature of TikTok's relationship with ByteDance and ByteDance's relationship with the Chinese government.
In June 2020, TikTok users and K-pop fans "claimed to have registered potentially hundreds of thousands of tickets" for President Trump's campaign rally in Tulsa through communication on TikTok, contributing to "rows of empty seats" at the event. Later, in October 2020, an organization called TikTok for Biden was created to support then-presidential candidate Joe Biden. After the election, the organization was renamed to Gen-Z for Change.
Since 2014, the first non-gaming apps with more than 3 billion downloads were Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger; all owned by Meta. TikTok was the first non-Facebook app to reach that figure. Sensor Tower reported that although TikTok had been banned in India, its largest market, in June 2020, downloads in the rest of the world continue to increase, reaching 3 billion downloads in 2021.
TikTok has banned Holocaust denial, but other conspiracy theories have become popular on the platform, such as Pizzagate and QAnon (two conspiracy theories popular among the U.S. alt-right) whose hashtags reached almost 80 million views and 50 million views respectively by June 2020. The platform has also been used to spread misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic, such as clips from Plandemic. TikTok removed some of these videos and has generally added links to accurate COVID-19 information on videos with tags related to the pandemic.
On 27 July 2020, Egypt sentenced five women to two years in prison over TikTok videos. One of the women had encouraged other women to try and earn money on the platform, another woman was sent to prison for dancing. The court also imposed a fine of 300,000 Egyptian pounds (UK£14,600) on each defendant.
In May 2021, TikTok appointed Shou Zi Chew as their new CEO who assumed the position from interim CEO Vanessa Pappas, following the resignation of Kevin A. Mayer on 27 August 2020. In September 2021, TikTok reported that it had reached 1 billion users. In 2021, TikTok earned $4 billion in advertising revenue.
On 10 August 2020, Emily Jacobssen wrote and sang "Ode to Remy", a song praising the protagonist from Pixar's 2007 computer-animated film Ratatouille. The song rose to popularity when musician Daniel Mertzlufft composed a backing track to the song. In response, began creating a "crowdsourced" project called Ratatouille the Musical. Since Mertzlufft's video, many new elements including costume design, additional songs, and a playbill have been created. On 1 January 2021, a full one-hour virtual presentation of Ratatouille the Musical premiered on TodayTix. It starred Titus Burgess as Remy, Wayne Brady as Django, Adam Lambert as Emile, Kevin Chamberlin as Gusteau, Andrew Barth Feldman as Linguini, Ashley Park as Colette, Priscilla Lopez as Mabel, Mary Testa as Skinner, and André De Shields as Ego.
On 14 August 2020, Trump issued another order giving ByteDance 90 days to sell or spin off its U.S. TikTok business. In the order, Trump said that there is "credible evidence" that leads him to believe that ByteDance "might take action that threatens to impair the national security of the United States". Donald Trump was concerned about TikTok being a threat because TikTok's parent company was rumored to be taking United States user data and reporting it back to Chinese operations through the company ByteDance.
On 6 August 2020, then U.S. President Donald Trump signed an order which would ban TikTok transactions in 45 days if it was not sold by ByteDance. Trump also signed a similar order against the WeChat application owned by the Chinese multinational company Tencent.
In October 2020, the e-commerce platform Shopify added TikTok to its portfolio of social media platforms, allowing online merchants to sell their products directly to consumers on TikTok.
Since their launches, TikTok and Douyin have gained global popularity. In October 2020, TikTok surpassed 2 billion mobile downloads worldwide. Morning Consult named TikTok the third-fastest growing infotech brand of 2020, after Zoom and Peacock. Cloudflare ranked TikTok the most popular website of 2021, surpassing Google. TikTok's popularity has resulted in the platform having an increasing cultural impact worldwide.
Although the size of its user base falls short of that of Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube, TikTok reached 1 billion active monthly users faster than any of them. Competition from TikTok prompted Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, to spend $120 million as of 2022 to entice more content creators to its Reels service, although engagement level remained low. Snapchat had likewise paid out $250 million in 2021 to its creators. Many platforms and services, including YouTube Shorts, began to imitate TikTok's format and recommendation page. Those changes caused a backlash from users of Instagram, Spotify, and Twitter.
Attempts to ban TikTok by the United States have been regarded as hypocritical and politically motivated. The U.S. is headquarters to major global Internet companies, and its intelligence agencies such as the NSA can broadly interpret Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to search user communications even without a warrant. Non-US persons are more easily targeted, numbering 232,432 in 2021, but US citizens' communications can also be caught up.
In 2021, The New York Times reported that viral TikTok videos by young people relating the emotional impact of books on them, tagged with the label "BookTok", significantly drove sales of literature. Publishers were increasingly using the platform as a venue for influencer marketing.
In 2021, the platform revealed that it will be introducing a feature that will prevent teenagers from receiving notifications past their bedtime. The company will no longer send push notifications after 9 pm to users aged between 13 and 15. For 16 to 17 year olds, notifications will not be sent after 10 pm. In March 2023, TikTok announced default screen time limits for users under the age of 18. Those under the age of 13 would need a passcode from their parents to extend their time.
On 22 January 2021, the Italian Data Protection Authority demanded that TikTok temporarily suspend Italian users whose age could not be established. The order came after the death of a 10-year-old Sicilian girl involved in an Internet challenge. TikTok asked its users in Italy to confirm again that they were over 13 years old. By May, over 500,000 accounts had been removed for failing the age check.
Content promoting cosmetic surgery is popular on TikTok and has spawned several viral trends on the platform. In December 2021, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, the journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, published an article about the popularity of some plastic surgeons on TikTok. In the article, it was noted that plastic surgeons were some of the earliest adopters of social media in the medical field and many had been recognized as influencers on the platform. The article published stats about the most popular plastic surgeons on TikTok up to February 2021 and at the time, five different plastic surgeons had surpassed 1 million followers on the platform.
A March 2021 study by the Citizen Lab found that TikTok did not censor searches politically but was inconclusive about whether posts are. A 2023 paper by the Internet Governance Project at Georgia Institute of Technology found no pro-China censorship on TikTok.
In April 2021, a state-owned enterprise owned by the Cyberspace Administration of China and China Media Group, the China Internet Investment Fund, purchased a 1% stake in ByteDance's main Chinese entity. The Economist, Reuters, and Financial Times have described the Chinese government's stake as a golden share investment.
In May 2021, Canadian voice actor Bev Standing filed a lawsuit against TikTok over the use of her voice in the text-to-speech feature without her permission. The lawsuit was filed in the Southern District of New York. TikTok declined to comment. Standing believes that TikTok used recordings she made for the Chinese government-run Institute of Acoustics. The voice used in the feature was subsequently changed.
In June 2021, new president Joe Biden signed an executive order revoking the Trump administration ban on TikTok, and instead ordered the Secretary of Commerce to investigate the app to determine if it poses a threat to U.S. national security.
In June 2021, the Netherlands-based Market Information Research Foundation (SOMI) filed a €1.4 billion lawsuit on behalf of Dutch parents against TikTok, alleging that the app gathers data on children without adequate permission.
In July 2021, the Dutch Data Protection Authority fined TikTok €750,000 euros for offering privacy statements only in English but not in Dutch. It noted that TikTok had implemented positive measures, such as forbidding direct messaging for users younger than 16 and allowing their parents to manage privacy settings directly through a paired family account, but the risk of children pretending to be older when creating their account remains.
In September 2021, the Ireland Data Protection Commission (DPC) launched investigations into TikTok concerning the protection of minors' data and transfers of personal data to China. The Irish DPC became the lead agency to handle such matters after TikTok established an office in the country, taking over investigations started by Dutch and Italian authorities. In September 2023, the DPC fined TikTok €345 million for violations of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) vis-à-vis the mishandling of children data.
TikTok has denied it provides data to the Chinese government, and has stated that it has never provided user data to the Chinese government, and would not do so if asked. CEO Shou Zi Chew stated in his October 2021 testimony to the US Congress that only a "world-renowned, US-based security team" decides who gets access to US-based user data. On June 17, 2022, leaked audio from 80 internal TikTok meetings revealed that nonpublic US-based data has been accessed from China multiple times between September 2021 and January 2022, at least. Leaked audio included one member of TikTok's Trust and Safety Department stating that "Everything is seen in China," and a director mentioned one Beijing-based engineer as "Master Admin" who "has access to everything." TikTok later confirmed that they had been accessing US data from China well into 2022 irrespective of where it was stored. As a consequence, the Senate Intelligence Committee called on the FTC to investigate TikTok for "deception" and whether TikTok misled U.S. lawmakers.
In October 2021, TikTok launched a test feature that allows users to directly tip certain creators. Accounts of users that are of age, have at least 100,000 followers and agree to the terms can activate a "Tip" button on their profile, which allows followers to tip any amount, starting from $1.
In October 2021, following the 2021 Facebook leak and controversies about social media ethics, a bipartisan group of lawmakers also pressed TikTok, YouTube, and Snapchat on questions of data privacy and moderation for age-appropriate content. Lawmakers also "hammered" TikTok about whether consumer data could be turned over to Beijing through ByteDance, its parent company in China. TikTok said it does not give information to China's government and "U.S. user data" is stored within the country with backups in Singapore. According to the company's representative, TikTok had "no affiliation" with the subsidiary Beijing ByteDance Technology, in which the Chinese government has a minority stake and board seat.
In December 2021, TikTok started beta-testing Live Studio, a streaming software that would let users broadcast applications open on their computers, including games. The software also launched with support for mobile and PC streaming. However, a few days later, users on Twitter discovered that the software uses code from the open-source OBS Studio. OBS made a statement saying that, under the GNU GPL version 2, TikTok has to make the code of Live Studio publicly available if it wants to use any code from OBS.
According to data from app analytics group Sensor Tower, advertising on TikTok in the US grew by 11% in March 2023, with companies including Pepsi, DoorDash, Amazon and Apple among the top spenders. According to estimates from research group Insider Intelligence, TikTok is projected to generate $14.15 billion in revenue in 2023, up from $9.89 billion in 2022.
In 2022, it was reported that a trend called "de-influencing" had become popular on the platform as a backlash to influencer marketing. TikTok creators participating in this trend made videos criticizing products promoted by influencers and asked their audiences not to buy products they did not need. However, some creators participating in the trend started promoting alternative products to their audiences and earning commission from sales made through their affiliate links in the same manner as the influencers they were originally criticizing.
In March 2023, a former employee of the company said Project Texas did not go far enough and that a complete "re-engineering" would be needed. TikTok responded by saying that Project Texas already is a re-engineering of the app and that the former employee left in 2022 before the project specifications were finalized.
In February 2022, The Wall Street Journal reported that "Mental-health professionals around the country are growing increasingly concerned about the effects on teen girls of posting sexualized TikTok videos." In March 2022, a coalition of U.S. state attorneys general launched an investigation into TikTok's effect on children's mental health. In June 2022, TikTok introduced the ability to set a maximum uninterrupted screen time allowance, after which the app blocks off the ability to navigate the feed. The block only lifts after the app is exited and left unused for a set period of time. Additionally, the app features a dashboard with statistics on how often the app is opened, how much time is spent browsing it and when the browsing occurs.
In February 2022, the incumbent Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton, initiated an investigation into TikTok for alleged violations of children's privacy and facilitation of human trafficking. Paxton claimed that the Texas Department of Public Safety gathered several pieces of content showing the attempted recruitment of teenagers to smuggle people or goods across the Mexico–United States border. He claimed the evidence may prove the company's involvement in "human smuggling, sex trafficking and drug trafficking". The company claimed that no illegal activity of any kind is supported on the platform.
As of 2022, TikTok is the 10th most popular app in Russia. After a new set of Russian fake news laws was installed in March 2022, the company announced a series of restrictions on Russian and non-Russian posts and livestreams. Tracking Exposed, a user data rights group, learned of what was likely a technical glitch that became exploited by pro-Russia posters. It stated that although this and other loopholes were patched by TikTok before the end of March, the initial failure to correctly implement the restrictions, in addition to the effects from Kremlin's "fake news" laws, contributed to the formation of a "splInternet ... dominated by pro-war content" in Russia. TikTok said that it had removed 204 accounts for swaying public opinion about the war while obscuring their origins and that its fact checkers had removed 41,191 videos for violating its misinformation policies.
In March 2022, The Washington Post reported that Facebook's owner Meta Platforms paid Targeted Victory—a consulting firm backed by supporters of the U.S. Republican Party—to coordinate lobbying and media campaigns against TikTok and portray it as "a danger to American children and society". Its efforts included asking local reporters to serve as "back channels" of anti-TikTok messages, writing opinion articles and letters to the editor, including one in the name of a concerned parent, amplifying stories about TikTok trends, such as "devious licks" and "Slap a Teacher", that actually originated on Facebook, and promoting Facebook's own corporate initiatives. Ties to Meta were not disclosed to the other parties involved. Targeted Victory said that it is "proud of the work". A Meta spokesperson said that all platforms, including TikTok, should face scrutiny.
In April 2022, NBC News reported that surgeons were giving influencers on the platform discounted or free cosmetic surgeries in order to advertise the procedures to their audiences. They also reported that facilities that offered these surgeries were also posting about them on TikTok. TikTok has banned the advertising of cosmetic surgeries on the platform but cosmetic surgeons are still able to reach large audiences using unpaid photo and video posts. NBC reported that videos using the hashtags '#plasticsurgery' and '#lipfiller' had amassed a combined 26 billion views on the platform.
In May 2022, TikTok announced TikTok Pulse, an ad revenue-sharing program. It covers the "top 4% of all videos on TikTok" and is only available to creators with more than 100,000 followers. If an eligible creator's video reaches the top 4%, they will receive a 50% share of the revenue from ads displayed with the video.
In June 2022, BuzzFeed News reported that leaked audio recordings of internal TikTok meetings reveal employees in China had access to overseas data, including a "master admin" who could see "everything". Some of the recordings were made during consultations with Booz Allen Hamilton, a US government contractor. A spokesperson of the contractor said some of the report's information was inaccurate but would neither confirm nor deny whether TikTok was one of its clients. Following the reports, TikTok confirmed that employees in China could have access to U.S. data. It also announced that US user traffic would now be routed through Oracle Cloud and that backup copies would be deleted from other servers.
In June 2022, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr called for Google and Apple to remove TikTok from their app stores, citing national security concerns, saying TikTok "harvests swaths of sensitive data that new reports show are being accessed in Beijing".
In June 2022, NBC News reported that some of the influencers paid by FeetFinder, a website that sells foot fetish content, did not disclose their videos were ads. FeetFinder said that it has suggested to influencers to be upfront about who was funding them. Existing sellers on FeetFinder said that the videos often misrepresented how "easy" it is to make money from posting feet pictures. Other TikTok creators have spoken out against accepting sponsorship deals indiscriminately and criticized those who posted undisclosed FeetFinder ads.
In September 2022, NewsGuard Technologies reported that among the TikTok searches it had conducted and analyzed from the U.S., 19.4% surfaced misinformation such as questionable or harmful content about COVID-19 vaccines, homemade remedies, the 2020 US elections, the war in Ukraine, the Robb Elementary School shooting, and abortion. NewsGuard suggested that in contrast, results from Google were of higher quality. Mashable's own test from Australia found innocuous results after searching for "getting my COVID vaccine" but suggestions such as "climate change is a myth" after typing in "climate change".
In September 2022, during a testimony to the Senate Homeland Security Committee, TikTok's COO would not commit to stopping "all data and metadata flows" to China. The COO reacted to concerns of the company's handling of user data by stating that TikTok does not operate in China, though the company does have an office there.
Multiple news reports have claimed that there is little-to-no functional separation between ByteDance and TikTok. As of September 21, 2022, five senior leaders hired in the past two years to head departments at TikTok are reported to have left the company after learning they would not be able to influence decision-making and would be expected to report to China-based ByteDance leadership.
In October 2022, Forbes reported that a team at ByteDance planned to surveil certain US citizens for undisclosed reasons. TikTok said that the tracking method suggested by the report would not be feasible because precise GPS information is not collected by the platform. In December 2022, ByteDance confirmed after internal investigation that the data of two journalists and their close contacts had been accessed by its employees from China and the United States on an "audit" team. The audit was intended to uncover sources of leaks who might have met with the journalists from Forbes and the Financial Times. The data accessed included IP addresses, which can be used to approximate a user's location. Four employees have been terminated, including the audit team's lead Chris Lepitak and his superior, executive Song Ye. ByteDance and TikTok condemned the individuals' misuse of authority. The incident is being investigated by the US Department of Justice and FBI. The US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia reportedly subpoenaed information from ByteDance regarding efforts made to access US journalists' private user data using TikTok.
In October 2022, TikTok was reported to be planning an expansion into the e-commerce market in the US, following the launch of TikTok Shop in the United Kingdom. The company posted job listings for staff for a series of order fulfillment centers in the US and is reportedly planning to start the new live shopping business before the end of the year. The Financial Times reported that TikTok will launch a video gaming channel, but the report was denied in a statement to Digiday, with TikTok instead aiming to be a social hub for the gaming community.
In November 2022, Australia's medical regulatory agency, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) reported that there was a global shortage of the diabetes medication Ozempic. According to the TGA, the rise in demand was caused by an increase in off-label prescription of the drug for weight loss purposes. In December 2022, with the United States experiencing a shortage as well, it was reported that the huge increase in demand for the medicine was caused by a weight loss trend on TikTok, where videos about the drug exceeded 360 million views. Wegovy, a drug that has been specifically approved for treating obesity, also became popular on the platform after Elon Musk credited it for helping him lose weight.
In November 2022, Christopher A. Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, told U.S. lawmakers that "the Chinese government could use [TikTok] to control data collection on millions of users or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations".
In December 2022, NBC News reported in a television segment that some TikTok and YouTube influencers were being given free and discounted cosmetic surgeries in order for them to advertise the surgeries to users of the platforms.
In December 2022, Senator Marco Rubio and representatives Mike Gallagher and Raja Krishnamoorthi introduced the Averting the National Threat of Internet Surveillance, Oppressive Censorship and Influence, and Algorithmic Learning by the Chinese Communist Party Act (ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act), which would prohibit Chinese- and Russian-owned social networks from doing business in the United States. That month, Senator Josh Hawley also introduced a separate measure, the No TikTok on Government Devices Act, to ban federal employees from using TikTok on all government devices. On 15 December, Hawley's measure was unanimously passed by the U.S. Senate. On 27 December, the Chief Administrative Officer of the United States House of Representatives banned TikTok from all devices managed by the House of Representatives.
In December 2022, it was reported that a cosmetic surgery procedure known as buccal fat removal was going viral on the platform. The procedure involves surgically removing fat from the cheeks in order to give the face a slimmer and more chiseled appearance. Videos using hashtags related to buccal fat removal had collectively amassed over 180 million views. Some TikTok users criticized the trend for promoting an unobtainable beauty standard.
In 2023, a trend emerged where streamers acted as if they were video-game characters following prompts from their viewers.
In 2023, several high-level executives transferred from ByteDance to TikTok to focus on moneymaking operations. Some moved from Beijing to the US. According to sources for the Wall Street Journal, the personnel move led to concerns from some TikTok employees and was reported to the office of US Senator Ted Cruz for further investigation.
In January 2023, Forbes reported that a "heating" tool allows TikTok to manually promote certain videos, comprising 1-2% of daily views. The practice began as a way to grow and diversify content and influencers that were not automatically picked up by the recommendation algorithm. It was also used to promote brands, artists, and NGOs, such as the FIFA World Cup and Taylor Swift. However, some employees have abused it to promote their own accounts or those of their spouses, while others have felt that their guidelines leave too much room for discretion. TikTok said only a few individuals can approve heating in the U.S. and the promoted videos take up less than 0.002% of user feeds. To address concerns of Chinese influence, the company is negotiating with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) such that future heating could only be performed by vetted security personnel in the U.S. and the process would be audited by third-parties such as Oracle.
A viral TikTok trend known as "devious licks" involves students vandalizing or stealing school property and posting videos of the action on the platform. The trend has led to increasing school vandalism and subsequent measures taken by some schools to prevent damage. Some students have been arrested for participating in the trend. TikTok has taken measures to remove and prevent access to content displaying the trend. Another TikTok trend known as the Kia Challenge involves users stealing certain models of Kia and Hyundai cars manufactured without immobilizers, which was a standard feature at the time, between 2010 and 2021. As of February 2023, it had resulted in at least 14 crashes and eight deaths according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In May, Kia and Hyundai settled a $200-million class-action lawsuit by agreeing to provide software updates to affected vehicles and over 26,000 steering wheel locks.
As of February 2023, at least 32 (of 50) states have announced or enacted bans on state government agencies, employees, and contractors using TikTok on government-issued devices. State bans only affect government employees and do not prohibit civilians from having or using the app on their personal devices.
In February 2023, the Canadian government banned TikTok from all government-issued mobile devices.
In February 2023, the European Commission and European Council banned TikTok from official devices. In March 2023, Belgium banned TikTok from all federal government work devices over cybersecurity, privacy, and misinformation concerns. In March 2023, Denmark's Ministry of Defence banned TikTok on work devices. In July 2023, members of the French parliament recommended a general ban of TikTok unless it were to "come clean". Concerns ranged from the company's ownership structure, the effectiveness of the app's content moderation and age limits. Government officials also blamed TikTok and other social media platforms for the riots that ensued after the police shooting of Nahel Merzouk. The recommendation was non-binding.
In February 2023, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, along with its counterparts in Alberta, British Columbia, and Quebec, launched an investigation into TikTok's data collection practices.
With reports that Palestinians resorted to TikTok for promoting their cause after platforms like Facebook and Twitter blocked their content, Israeli analyst Yoni Ben-Menachem called the app a "tool of dangerous influence" inciting violence against Israelis. According to Ynet, the Palestinian militant group Lion's Den gained much of their popularity through TikTok. In February 2023, Otzma Yehudit politician Almog Cohen advocated blocking TikTok for all of East Jerusalem.
By 7 March 2023, 68 Australian federal agencies had banned TikTok on work-related mobile devices. Liberal Party Senator James Paterson called for a federal ban on all government-related devices. In April, West Australian Premier Mark McGowan banned TikTok from government phones. On 17 March 2023, the New Zealand Parliamentary Service banned TikTok on devices connected to Parliament, citing cybersecurity concerns.
China heavily regulates how Douyin is used by minors in the country, especially after 2018. Under government pressure, ByteDance introduced parental controls and a "teenage mode" that shows only whitelisted content, such as knowledge sharing, and bans pranks, superstition, dance clubs, and pro-LGBT content. A mandatory screen time limit was put in place for users under the age of 14 and a requirement to link accounts to a real identity to prevent minors from lying about their age or using an adult's account. The differences between Douyin and TikTok have led some US politicians and commentators to accuse the company or the Chinese government of malicious intent. In March 2023, TikTok announced default screen time limits for users under the age of 18. Those under the age of 13 would need a passcode from their parents to extend their time.
In March 2023, Politico reported that TikTok hired SKDK to lobby amid a possible federal ban. This preceded TikTok's CEO appearance before Congress to address the concerns surrounding the app. He stated that TikTok's data collection practices did not differ from those of other US social media platforms. A researcher at the Citizen Lab believes that governments around the world should better protect user information in general from being exploited by Big Tech, not focus exclusively on one app.
In March 2023, The Jewish Chronicle reported that TikTok still hosted videos that promoted the neo-Nazi propaganda film Europa: The Last Battle, despite having been alerted to the issue four months prior. TikTok said it removed and would continue to remove the content and associated accounts and has blocked the search term as well.
In March 2023, TikTok introduced a dedicated feed for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) content. It works with Common Sense Networks to check for safety and age appropriateness and with the Poynter Institute for reliability of information.
In March 2023, the UK government announced that TikTok would be banned on work devices used by ministers and other employees, amid security concerns relating to the app's handling of user data. Downing Street and the Ministry of Defence can continue to use the app under some exempting circumstances. The same month, the BBC told all employees to delete TikTok off their devices unless the app was being used for work purposes. The network is also reportedly considering a ban on the app.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Silicon Valley executives met with US lawmakers to build an "anti-China alliance" before TikTok CEO's congressional hearing in March 2023.
Montana became the first state to pass legislation banning TikTok on all personal devices from operating within state lines and barring app stores from offering TikTok for downloads. State governor Greg Gianforte signed the bill in May 2023 with the law going into effect in January 2024. TikTok is paying the attorney fees for a lawsuit from Montana content creators who had expressed concerns about the legislation. The company is filing a separate case on its own behalf to overturn the ban. The ban was blocked by US District Judge Donald W. Molloy on December 1, 2023, as he stated the ban "infringes on the Constitutional right of users and businesses". Due to the block, the ban did not come into effect as planned.
In June 2023 The New Zealand Herald reported that TikTok, working in cooperation with both New Zealand and Australian police, deleted 340 accounts and 2,000 videos associated with criminal gangs including the Mongrel Mob, Black Power, Killer Beez, the Comancheros, Mongols, and Rebels. TikTok had earlier drawn criticism for hosting content by organised crime groups promoting the gang lifestyle and fights. A TikTok spokesperon reiterated the platform's efforts to countering "violent" and "hateful" organisations' content and cooperating with police. New Zealand Police Commissioner Andrew Coster praised the platform for taking a "socially-responsible stance" against gangs.
By July 2023, TikTok has become the primary news source for British teenagers on social media, with 28% of 12 to 15-year-olds relying on the platform, while traditional sources like BBC One/Two are more trusted at 82%, according to a report by UK regulator Ofcom.
In July 2023, Iranian Mehr News Agency reported "experts from Douyin" will meet Iranian business in Tehran to enable Iranian exports to China.
In July 2023, TikTok launched a new streaming service called TikTok Music, currently available only in Brazil and Indonesia. This service allows users to listen to, download and share songs. It is reported that TikTok Music features songs from major record companies like Universal Music Group, Sony Music and Warner Music Group. On 19 July 2023, TikTok Music was expanded for select users in Australia, Mexico and Singapore.
As of August 2023 , TikTok is reportedly banned in several Asian countries including Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, India, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, and Syria. The app was previously banned temporarily in Indonesia, but has been lifted.
In November 2023, amid the Hamas-Israel war, Bin Laden's 2002 "Letter to the American people" went viral on TikTok and other social media. In the letter, Bin Laden denounced the US and its support for Israel, and supported al-Qaeda's war against the US as a defensive struggle. Numerous social media users, including Americans, expressed their opposition to US foreign policy by sharing the resurfaced copies of the letter and its contents. The Guardian website removed the letter after displaying it for more than 20 years, and TikTok began issuing takedowns of videos featuring the letter. Reporting in The Washington Post suggested that the virality of the letter had been limited prior to media coverage, having never trended on TikTok. Many of the TikTok videos covering the letter were critical of bin Laden, and media coverage had exaggerated its significance while elevating the virality of the letter.
On November 14, 2023, Nepali officials prohibited TikTok citing its disruption of social structures within the South Asian nation.