What is TikTok, how does it work and could the US ban it?

Image caption: Two young women film themselves on their mobile phones
What is TikTok, how does it work and could the US ban it?
Source: BBC

The TikTok video app is hugely popular with young people around the world.

But for many years the Chinese-owned company has faced questions over the security of users’ data, and its links to the government in Beijing.

US politicians are debating legislation that would force TikTok’s parent company to sell the app, but former US president Donald Trump has criticised the bill, despite previously supporting a ban.

What is TikTok and how popular is it?
TikTok is a short form video app that, like YouTube, allows people to post, share and comment on videos.

These can range from three seconds to 10 minutes in length, and users can easily edit their clips using filters, stickers, music and visual effects.

It first shot to popularity as a destination for young people to take part in popular dance or lip-syncing trends and challenges.



Depending on their age and where they live, some users can live stream video content to their followers, as well as support their favourite creators with digital gifts or subscriptions.

TikTok Shop, the platform’s dedicated online store, allows users to buy products including those featured in creators’ videos.

Since early 2019, TikTok has frequently topped app download charts.

It battled Instagram to be the world’s most downloaded app throughout 2023, according to Sensor Tower, which monitors the performance of social media firms.

TikTok reached 150 million US monthly active users in March 2023.

Who owns TikTok?
TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, which was founded in 2012.

The Beijing-based firm is registered in the Cayman Islands, and has offices across Europe and the US.

It also owns video editing software CapCut, as well as various other apps that are only available in mainland China – including Douyin, a Chinese version of TikTok.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew

TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew studied at Harvard Business School and interned at social media giant Facebook
Singaporean entrepreneur Shou Zi Chew is the platform’s chief executive officer, although some analysts believe ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming makes many key decisions.

At the heart of TikTok is its algorithm.

This is a set of instructions within the app which determines which content is presented to users, based on data about how they engaged with previous material.



Users are offered three main feeds on their app – Following, Friends and For You.

The Following and Friends feeds present users with content from people they have chosen to follow and who follow them back, but the For You feed is automatically generated by the app.

This curated feed has become the main destination for users hungry for new content, and creators hungry for the millions of views TikTok videos can clock up if they go viral.

Why is TikTok controversial?
Politicians and regulators around the world are worried about TikTok’s Chinese owners, despite concerted attempts to persuade them that the app is safe.

Like many other social media apps, TikTok collects data from users, but it has faced additional scrutiny over how much it gathers and who can access it.

In particular critics fear that the information could fall into the hands of the Chinese government – something TikTok and ByteDance have strenuously denied could happen.

In late 2022 a UK journalist discovered she had been tracked via her cat’s account.

And in 2023 a number of institutions – including the UK government and Parliament, the EU and the US White House – banned staff from using the app on work phones.

TikTok has repeatedly sought to distance itself from its Chinese owners, and has tried to reassure regulators with initiatives such as “Project Clover”, which started storing European user data locally.

Are Chinese tech firms a security risk?
What is the TikTok bill and could the US ban TikTok?
US politicians from both major parties introduced a bill in March 2024 to tackle firms controlled “by a foreign adversary”.


If successful, it would require ByteDance to sell TikTok within six months, or face a ban from US app stores and web hosting platforms.

On 13 March the bill was passed by the House of Representatives before heading to the Senate, where it is not yet clear which way members will vote.

President Joe Biden has said he will sign the bill into law if it passes in the Senate.

Ahead of the vote, China warned that “suppressing TikTok” would “come back to bite” the US.

The bill follows previous efforts by American authorities to limit access to the app, citing national security risks.

Mr Trump tried to force ByteDance to sell TikTok in 2020, but did not succeed

Former US President Donald Trump unsuccessfully tried to ban the app when he was in the White House in 2020.

But Mr Trump – who is the Republican candidate for the 2024 presidential election – criticised the new bill, saying limiting TikTok would unfairly benefit Facebook.

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