Debunking four myths about TikTok

Written by on March 15, 2024

TikTok supporters are seen outside the U.S. Capitol before the House passed the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, that could ban TikTok in the U.S., March 13, 2024. — Tom Williams/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — A fast-moving push in Washington, D.C., that could ban TikTok has thrust the social media platform into the national spotlight, stoking scrutiny about who uses the app and what exactly they do on it.

While eliciting good-faith disagreement, the debate has also resurfaced some misconceptions, including the notion that TikTok only serves young people or that it hooks users with frivolous videos.

The House passed a measure on Wednesday that would ban the app unless it parts ways with its Chinese-owned parent company, ByteDance.

It’s not yet clear if there would be the groundswell of support needed to get 60 votes for the legislation to advance in the Senate. President Joe Biden has vowed to sign the measure into law if it reaches his desk.

TikTok did not immediately respond to ABC News’ request for comment. In response to a previous request, TikTok condemned the bill as an infringement on the right to express oneself freely.

“This legislation has a predetermined outcome: a total ban of TikTok in the United States. The government is attempting to strip 170 million Americans of their Constitutional right to free expression. This will damage millions of businesses, deny artists an audience and destroy the livelihoods of countless creators across the country,” a TikTok spokesperson said.

Here’s a list of prevalent but false claims about the app — and where the truth actually lies.

Myth: TikTok is an app for kids.

Many Americans perceive TikTok as an app where children and young adults post videos of elaborate dances or slapstick pranks. In reality, however, the generational makeup on the app is more diverse.

Roughly 10% of adults 65 and older say they have used TikTok, for instance; while more than 25% of adults between the ages of 30 to 49 say the same, a Pew survey in January showed.

That set of Americans amounts to tens of millions of people, who make up a sizable portion of the TikTok user base.

That said, young people are much more likely to say they’ve used TikTok than their older counterparts, Jeffrey Gottfried, associate director of research at Pew, told ABC News. In all, four in five adults under the age of 30 attest to having used the platform, Pew data shows.

“It’s not that TikTok is exclusively used by the youngest age group,” Gottfried said. “But it’s more likely to be used by younger people.”

Overall, about one in three Americans say they have used TikTok, which marks a sharp increase since 2021, when roughly one in five Americans said the same, according to Pew data. That growth rate outpaces all of TikTok’s rivals, Gottfried said.

“The thing that is really important here is TikTok’s growth,” Gottfried added.

Myth: The accounts that generate revenue on TikTok belong to influencers.

TikTok has broken into popular culture in part through the success of its top influencers, some of whom boast more than 100 million followers and a multi-million dollar annual income.

However, the industry dependent on the app extends well beyond a handful of prominent celebrities. Roughly 5 million businesses have TikTok accounts, the company said last year.

TikTok accounted for $14.7 billion in revenue for small businesses last year, allowing them to add an extra 224,000 jobs in the U.S., an Oxford Business study on Wednesday showed.

Katy King, the owner of a flower farm in Southern Pennsylvania, opened an account on TikTok in 2022 with little anticipation of a business boom.

“I thought it might be something worth pursuing for fun,” King, 37, told ABC News. “I didn’t expect it to be a business strategy.”

Within months, King posted a video that garnered four million views, she said. While her videos only reached a few local customers, King noticed aspiring flower farmers nationwide reaching out for tips.

King launched online courses as well as an e-commerce service for shipping flowers that could survive the trip, like bulbs and peonies. Those revenue streams now make up one-third of her sales, she said.

“There are definitely people that are making a ton of money on the influencer side of things, but there are also a ton of businesses that I see doing actual product sales through social media,” King said.

“It’s kind of great that social media has opened up business to basically anyone,” she added.

Myth: TikTok collects more data than other social media platforms.

Some scrutiny of TikTok has centered on its data collection.

The social media platform has faced growing scrutiny from some government officials over fears that user data could fall into the possession of the Chinese government and the app could be weaponized by China to spread misinformation.

There is little evidence that TikTok has shared U.S. user data with the Chinese government or that the Chinese government has asked the app to do so, cybersecurity experts previously told ABC News.

Critics have also expressed disapproval of the extent of data collection undertaken by TikTok. However, studies have shown that TikTok collects the same set of information as rival social media platforms.

Pellaeon Lin, researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, examined the data collection practices of TikTok and other apps in a 2021 report. “In comparison to other popular social media platforms, TikTok collects similar types of data to track user behavior and serve targeted ads,” Lin wrote.

In 2020, the Washington Post reached the same conclusion in an analysis of privacy policies at mainstream social networks.

Myth: TikTok is a platform for frivolous videos.

After it launched in the U.S. in 2018, TikTok built a reputation as a destination for light, easy-to-consume videos featuring makeup tutorials or animal hijinks.

In recent years, however, the site has increasingly become a place where users get their news, a Pew survey in November showed.

Overall, nearly 15% of U.S. adults regularly get their news on TikTok, up from 3% in 2020. Even more, nearly one-third of adults under age 30 receive their news regularly on TikTok, a major spike from 9% of such people four years ago.

“You see really rapid growth of people on the site using it to get news,” said Gottfried, of Pew.

Many major news outlets feature TikTok accounts, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. President Joe Biden, meanwhile, recently opened a campaign account on the platform.

Robert Hernandez, a digital journalism professor at USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism, said videos on TikTok run the gamut.

“TikTok is no doubt all-encompassing from light, ephemeral junk food to really thoughtful and engaging and informational and educational things,” Hernandez said.

The proliferation of informative videos risks the spread of misinformation or disinformation, Hernandez added, noting that users can end up in an “echo chamber” limited to a narrow perspective.

“These are serious concerns,” Hernandez said, but he pointed to issues surrounding false or hateful information on other social media platforms, such as X, formerly known as Twitter. “All platforms have those valid concerns.”

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Current track