TikTok, Boom., 2022.
Directed by Shalini Kantayya.
With TikTok crowned the world’s most downloaded app, these are the personal stories of a cultural phenomenon, told through an ensemble cast of Gen-Z natives, journalists, and experts alike.
Coded Bias director Shalini Kantayya’s follow-up doc challenges yet another window of our increasingly algorithm-controlled lives; social media, and in particular the world’s most downloaded app, TikTok. Kantayya’s multi-faceted exploration of its benevolent potential and decidedly less-democratic reality make for a well-rounded film that thoughtfully considers the platform’s contentious place in the global stage without solely singling it out.
“On TikTok, anything can happen,” one of its users claims early on, and speaking as someone who hasn’t ever touched the app, it’s easy to appreciate the intoxicating appeal, especially for youngsters seduced by the democratising power – or implied power, at least – it gives them to reach an audience of billions.
With TikTok’s wider userbase and higher engagement rate than any other platform, silly lip-sync videos and political screeds alike can theoretically reach a global crowd within seconds. The speed with which its popularity has spread and impacted all manner of cultures is basically unprecedented.
Kantayya frames her film around the testimonies of several likeable young subjects described as “digital natives”; they’ve never known an existence without the Internet. There’s Afghan-American human rights activist Feroza Aziz, who uses the app to decry China’s internment of Uyghurs; beatbox artist Spencer X, who thanks to TikTok has become a millionaire; and political activist Deja Foxx, who parlayed her following into becoming the youngest staffer on Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign.
These industriously committed young people demonstrate the greatness that can be achieved with TikTok and apps like it, whether to entertain or open the eyes of millions to injustice. Yet for most it is, inherently, an exercise in branding, where even seemingly “regular people” can be paid exorbitant sums to promote brands, or even end up with a Hollywood career.
But TikTok’s global influence only makes the elephant in the room that much more urgent to explore. Despite its veneer of democratically-served content, the Chinese-created software uses its groundbreaking algorithm to read its users’ behaviours, gather data on them, and potentially even influence their future acts.
“Data is the new oil and China is the new Saudi Arabia,” we’re told at one point, and several of the subjects in Kantayya’s film persuasively suggest that TikTok is emblematic of China’s attempt to shift global power, economically and otherwise, effectively usurping America’s primacy on the global stage. This is transparently felt when Mark Zuckerberg, realising that Facebook wouldn’t ever be allowed to penetrate China’s Great Firewall, tries instead to chip away at TikTok’s domestic market share by any dirty means necessary.
And so, what may superficially appear to be a goofy app to post daft videos crowbars open a more widespread discussion about geopolitics, cybersecurity, digital biases, and the place of the algorithm in society.
On an interpersonal level, though, TikTok has far-reaching implications the extent of which we won’t fully understand for decades. Gen-Z is the first generation whose entire lives have been documented online, and Deja Foxx laments, “I don’t know a world where I’m not being received always.” She finds herself caught in a tug of war between desiring an empowering connection and decrying the toxic potential of any sufficiently large community.
There’s persuasive evidence that social media re-shapes its users’ brains, especially in an app as lightning-fast as TikTok, where a person’s mental development and understanding of the world can be moulded by algorithmic processes. Yet when so many become financially dependent on the exposure the app brings them, deleting it to stave off depression and burnout isn’t much of an option. Fox, who uses TikTok to pay bills for herself and her recovering addict mother, horrifyingly likens it to an abusive relationship.
The crux of Kantayya’s investigation centers around the app’s mysterious recommendation algorithm, which uses highly complex machine learning to decide which content to deliver you and also which sort of user you are. Numerous subjects report feeling like the algorithm is reading their thoughts, so brilliantly intuitive it is, which begs the question – what else is TikTok doing with all this information?
The business of data brokering isn’t exactly a secret to anyone paying attention to Silicon Valley over the last decade, but naturally there’s heightened concern when that data is being acquired and potentially sent outside of the U.S., where the implications of its use may be further-reaching. The prospect of a Chinese conglomerate like TikTok owner ByteDance amassing strategic profiles of hundreds of millions of people is valid cause for concern, especially with the patent lack of transparency over how that data is used across geographic lines.
Then there’s the matter of freedom of speech – or lack thereof, rather – where social media platforms as private enterprises are free to silence opinions counter to their interests. Feroza Aziz’s videos about China’s treatment of the Uyghurs eventually caused her content to be devalued by the algorithm, and so she made the creative decision to Trojan horse them inside eyelash curling tutorials instead.
Aziz’s account was ultimately suspended regardless, making global headlines all while she expressed frustration that the news media was concerned less with China’s interment camps than her maltreatment by TikTok. But as one subject demonstrates, the Chinese version of TikTok, Douyin, is orders of magnitude stricter, whereby piercing, tattoos, and even a bright hair colour can result in a livestream termination within seconds.
Social media isn’t a facsimile of society, but when TikTok’s leaked moderation guidelines detail extensive “algorithmic punishment” to LGBTQ+, disabled, and even “ugly” people, and there are also suggestions they de-platformed Black creators during crucial landmark moments in the BLM movement, then the implication that it’s a freedom-promoting platform quickly falls apart.
This troubling “curation” of people – that is, selective exclusion without merit – has the potential to re-order people’s worldviews and silo them within digital echo chambers without them even knowing, which on both sides of the political spectrum is surely not a good thing.
Such is the reality of modern life, where algorithms define so many basic aspects of our existence, and may well be determining our futures in ways we have no control over. And it will only get worse, especially with the slow-moving wheels of the legal system struggling to provide adequate regulation. After all, how can tech companies ever be trusted to truly show us how the sausage is made? How do we establish objective oversight, particularly with companies operating in untouchable territory?
This documentary is at once a fascinating and frightening travelogue of our new culture where online influence is currency, and people are becoming disconcertingly accepting of their personal data being not just sold but trafficked. And yet, perhaps the scariest thing of all is that, by film’s end I was left somewhat curious to give TikTok a try.
TikTok, Boom. insightfully explores the social media platform as both an innovative app for creative expression and one worth considering with a hardy sense of skepticism.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.