More scrutiny needed as Aussies clock up 42 million hours a month on TikTok

TikTok

Source: Unsplash.

With all the enemies Facebook has at the moment, there’s at least one company that’s happy with what it’s doing: TikTok.

“Big tech” — still in the midst of a techlash — is mostly associated with beleaguered Facebook and almost monopolistic Google. They come with the baggage of the heightened scrutiny of the past decade, an eon in tech years.

TikTok on the other hand is owned by Chinese tech company ByteDance and has been around for only a few years. But things move fast in social media where change is as easy as downloading an app. In short order, TikTok has become a tech behemoth.

In Australia, where the company set up an office last year, it was the second most downloaded app in 2020 after Zoom; 2.5 million Australians were on TikTok in the first half of 2020. That number had risen by more than 50% in six months.

And those millions use it a lot. Data released this year by app analytics company AppAnnie said users spent an average 16.8 hours a month on the platform in 2020, just behind Facebook’s 18.2 but ahead of YouTube on 16.3. (This works out at 42 million hours of TikTok watched by Australians each month!)

The blazing pace seems to have continued into 2021. In September the company reached 1 billion active monthly users worldwide, suggesting there’s plenty of growth potential for users in Australia.

While other tech companies are clearly worried about TikTok’s growth, attention from Australian policymakers and even journalists has lagged. Aside from media cycles around its links to China, much of the attention seems to underestimate the scale of the app’s cultural impact. 

As Evelyn Douek points out in The Atlantic, “If you look for TikTok in news coverage, you’re more likely to find it in the lifestyle, culture, or even food section than you are on the front page.” 

Media stories Facebook TikTok

Analysis of the daily number of media stories mentioning Facebook and TikTok, according to MIT Media Cloud. Source: supplied.

That’s despite misinformation, conspiracy theory, extremist and harmful content — ranging from promoting eating disorders to self-harm — on the platform, according to mostly international reporting.

The newness of the platform and the young skew of the user base that excludes many of those responsible for regulating or reporting on it (how many Australian politicians or journalists have TikTok accounts that they use to produce content?) mean it hasn’t received the scrutiny it deserves, despite millions of highly engaged Australian users. 

Plus TikTok remains a lot more opaque than Facebook, which has transparency features like its Ad Library and content analysis tool CrowdTangle. This means it’s harder to scrutinise from the outside, giving external parties fewer pieces of evidence to critique it.

If anything, TikTok has more concerning aspects than other social networks. The algorithmic engine of the app’s For You Page — the main way videos are consumed — has more sway over what users are shown than other platform’s algorithms, which are more based on who a user chooses to follow. And a younger user base deserves more protection.

As the Morrison government puts social media reform on the agenda, and with a federal election not too far away, TikTok must be on the radar or we’ll be caught fighting the last war.

This article was first published by Crikey

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