TikTok is one of the most popular social media sites on the planet, amassing 1 billion monthly users, (backlinko.com). Unprecedented in its reach and influence, the app has a massive responsibility that no other social media company has had to realize. It’s imperative that the information being shown is the truth, and not manipulated to alter viewers opinions, especially when it comes to topics like politics. This, however, has been the center of massive controversy around the app, with political figures being shown in deepfakes to manipulate their messages, to false information being spread like wildfire. The company responded stating that they would take action to limit this, but despite this the misinformation continues to run rampant.
Different ethical theories would take different stances on the misinformation spread on TikTok. For individualists, they would only care that if the company is operating within the law, their main goal should be to optimize profits and wealth of the owners. With this being such a new issue, TikTok operates within the laws, and its reach is spread further with the attention it gains, thus increasing profits, so individualists would not see an issue. Utilitarian’s value the importance of increasing the happiness of people. A utilitarian would take issue with the spread of misinformation, as this can lead to division among most people. Kantians would take the stance that TikTok takes action to prevent the spread of false information and eliminate this issue from the app. Lastly, Virtue Theory would take large issue with TikTok’s lack of trust, good intention, and honesty, considering the never before seen spread of misinformation the app is responsible for.
Ethics Case Controversy
TikTok was released in China in September of 2016, and since then has exploded into the most largely used social media app in the world. It was released worldwide in 2018, but launched for most areas around the globe in 2017. By 2020, the app had over 2 billion users, (bbc.com).
One of the biggest accusations against TikTok continues to be against the data the app collects from its users. Being that it is originally a Chinese app that was mainly operated by a Chinese company, (up until a deal put U.S. owners in charge which we’ll talk more about later), many politicians were worried what information was being shared. The main concern was that the app could be used by the communist Chinese party to spy on Americans as well as other countries. India banned TikTok in April of 2019, (bbc.com), however this was later overturned. The U.S. opened a national security review of the app after both Democratic and Republican lawmakers claimed that the app was a threat. Some of the data TikTok collects seems unnecessary and an invasion of privacy. Things like location, phone model, keystroke rhythms when users type, and even what users copy and paste on their phones, both in and out of the app, (bbc.com). Donald Trump, when President, worked to ban TikTok from the Appstore, however clearly this did not happen. TikTok worked with the governments of the world to try to be as transparent as possible. They allowed for experts to examine their alarmingly effective algorithm, as well as clearly stating what data they collect and what they do with that data. Nothing has been found to be an issue, and many other apps such as Reddit, Facebook, and Instagram also collect similar data.
This past midterm election, TikTok was the center of a lot of attention, as the app is the foremost platform for people to spread misinformation, attempting to affect political outcomes. This, however, is not a new topic of conversation when it comes to TikTok. Three years ago, TikTok had to create a set of rules regarding posts surrounding election periods, prohibiting campaign advertising, (washingtonpost.com). This does not remove the threat that the app has, especially when it comes to politics. Lindsay Gorman, former senior advisor to the Biden administration, said, “If Russia had owned Facebook during 2016, the amount of influence that Russia could have exerted on American voters might have made that effort much, much more successful. That’s the vulnerability that we’re talking about with TikTok,” (Gorman).
|President Biden and Vice President Harris|
Although TikTok has never been banned from the Appstore, or removed in any other countries around the world, it still poses a threat, although it has been improving its stance. TikTok is now under control of the U.S. after a deal in September of 2020. Americans now hold 4 of 5 seats on TikTok’s global board, with Bytedance CEO at the 5th seat, (cnbc.com). President Trump was responsible for this deal, which gave American companies Oracle and Walmart full control over the app. Despite the continued spread of misinformation, many users are more comfortable with the security of TikTok.
An Individualist would not see any issue with how TikTok operates its business. Milton Friedman, a Nobel prize winning economist, argued that businesses should not be socially responsible and should only focus on maximizing profits for the owners, and anything else such as spending money on resources, employees, and other things is taking away from the owners, (Salazar 17). The only issue an Individualist would have is that TikTok does invest in ways to solve the issues presented in this case, however the app itself is still a hotspot for misinformation and attention grabbing videos, which ultimately maximize profits.
On top of this, I believe the app would have been removed and there would be no profits had it not cooperated with the government and political officials, and shown an effort to decrease the spread of false information. It could be argued that these steps taken were necessary to continue to increase profits. This ties into the argument made by libertarian philosopher, Tibor Machan. He claims that Friedman’s ideas are “overly restrictive” and “sometimes limits long-term profits by failing to acknowledge that other goals of a business besides profiting may actually help to boost profits,” (Salazar 18). Along with this, as mentioned previously, TikTok does not really need to be concerned with stakeholder groups, which is another common theme in individualist theories.
All things considered, an individualist, depending on their specific stance, would likely not see any issue with how TikTok operates and handles its issues such as misinformation and data collection.
|Dr. Nia Williams - Bangor University|
It’s challenging to determine whether TikTok’s controversy is justified under Kantian ethics. “Kantianism does not make decisions based on consequences, but rather on what Kant calls the “Good Will,” (Salazar 21). The “good will” of the company is hard to determine, since they continue to take steps to eliminate misinformation, however misinformation still is all over the app. From my perspective, as long as TikTok continues to take actions that show their disproval of the misinformation plaguing the platform, a Kantian theorist would see no issue with TikTok. Whether their intentions are pure, or just to keep their customers and stakeholders happy, from the outside it is unfair to make assumptions. If their actions show good intentions, it must be assumed their actual intentions align with their actions.
|TikTok's new CEO Kevin Mayer|
This is a tricky one, but TikTok does its part to be transparent with all its customers and stakeholders. It is unfair to assume malicious intent as long as the company cooperates with stakeholders and the law to prove that they are not attempting to invade privacy or encourage the spread of misinformation. The people on the app are the ones posting misinformation, and TikTok is not intended for this purpose according to the company, as proven by the steps they have taken since the issue arose to eliminate it.
Similar to Kantianism, a virtue theorist would want to analyze the intent of the company. However, with a virtue theorist, is much more interested in the character of the company or individuals in charge and how their actions show this. “Is the person getting better in life, flourishing, and fulfilling his or her purpose in life, or not?” (Salazar 22). To interpret this into the perspective of a company, is TikTok striving to make the app better and fulfill the app’s purpose in the world? TikTok started to simply entertain people with its short videos. It gave people an opportunity to showcase their talents and creativity, and potentially make money. Many people who have gained a large following on the app have profited greatly off it, whether directly through their TikToks or through sponsorships garnered from their fame. Although the apps users take advantage of the platform and the freedom it offers, the app has taken the stance that it does not approve of posts that spread misinformation and hatred. With this in mind, it is easy to assume, like mentioned previously, that the company has good intentions and is striving to improve its place in the world.
Some of the values that are important when considering virtue theory are honesty, justice, and leadership. These are all values TikTok has displayed throughout the years, working to overcome the controversy it has created. They have been fully transparent with all of its stakeholders, held individuals responsible who have threatened the apps integrity, and paved the way for many people to create a better world.
Alvarado, Jesus. “Deepfake Videos on TikTok Can Be Fun. They Can Also Be Malicious.” Marketplace, 1 Nov. 2022, https://www.marketplace.org/shows/marketplace-tech/deepfake-videos-on-tiktok-can-be-fun-they-can-also-be-malicious/.
Hsu, Tiffany. “Worries Grow That TikTok Is New Home for Manipulated Video and Photos.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Nov. 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/04/technology/tiktok-deepfakes-disinformation.html.
Kovach, Steve. “Tiktok Deal Puts U.S. Owners in Charge, but Chinese Parent Company Still Has Some Say.” CNBC, CNBC, 22 Sept. 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/21/tiktok-deal-splits-control-between-us-and-chinese-owners.html.
Salazar, Heather. The Business Ethics Case Manual. n.d.
Tidy , Joe, and Sophia Smith Galer. “Tiktok: The Story of a Social Media Giant.” BBC News, BBC, 5 Aug. 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53640724.
“Tiktok User Statistics (2022).” Backlinko, Backlinko, 5 Jan. 2022, https://backlinko.com/tiktok-users#monthly-active-tiktok-users.
TikTok. “An Update on Our Work to Counter Misinformation.” Newsroom, TikTok, 16 Aug. 2019, https://newsroom.tiktok.com/en-us/an-update-on-our-work-to-counter-misinformation.
Tucker, Emma. “TikTok's Search Engine Repeatedly Delivers Misinformation to Its Majority-Young User Base, Report Says | CNN Business.” CNN, Cable News Network, 18 Sept. 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/09/18/business/tiktok-search-engine-misinformation.
Zakrzewski, Cat, et al. “As Midterms Loom, Tiktok Faces Its next Political Test.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 2 Nov. 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/10/31/tiktok-faces-2022-midterm-elections/.
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