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Why are so many government officials concerned about TikTok?

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. A lot of people love TikTok, the video sharing app, and some people love to hate it, particularly in the United States Congress. TikTok's parent company is based in China, and there are fears that it could harvest data about its U.S. users and provide it to the Chinese government or that TikTok's videos and algorithm could be programmed by the Chinese Communist Party to influence Americans' political and cultural views. Last month, in an extraordinary move, Congress passed and President Biden signed a bill requiring a forced sale of TikTok to a non-Chinese buyer. If the company isn't sold over a specified time period, the law permits the U.S. government to ban the app in the United States. TikTok vows to fight the move, along with free speech advocates who say it would violate the First Amendment.

For some insight into what may happen and what it means, we turn to Drew Harwell, a technology reporter for the Washington Post who's been following the issue. He's part of a team that won a George Polk Award in 2021 on how an Israeli firm's spyware was used to tap the phones of activists, journalists, and business and political leaders across the globe. Drew Harwell, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

DREW HARWELL: Thank you so much for having me.

DAVIES: I want to begin by just talking a little bit about TikTok because I'm sure there are a lot of listeners who know it very well and use it a lot, and some who have no idea. This is a free app that allows you to watch endless videos and if you care to, to create and post your own, right?

HARWELL: That's right. Yeah. It's a very different experience than most social media platforms that Americans know and love. TikTok, when you open it, goes right to the first video, and you start watching it, and if you want to watch the next one, you just swipe to the next video. And as you swipe, TikTok starts learning your preferences, your interests. It tracks how many seconds you watch a video or how quickly you scroll away, and its algorithm starts picking up on what it thinks you want to see. So it's really less about establishing friendships, talking to people you know, and all about watching videos from basically a bunch of random strangers. And its video feed is just one -it's one channel, really. You turn it on, and you watch, or you turn it off. You can search, but a lot of people just go right onto that main feed, which is known as the for you feed, and just trust whatever the algorithm is going to show them.

DAVIES: And if you like the videos of a particular creator, you can follow that creator and be kept up on what they're doing.

HARWELL: That's right. Yeah, you can follow a creator, you can like or comment on their video. You can even do some collaborative moves like you can do what's called a duet of their video. So you can take their video and record your own sort of video reaction to it. You can stitch their video into yours. And so it's a very visual, almost playful way to be sharing content with other people. There are a lot of kind of high production value-style YouTube videos on there where people do really kind of cool, crazy things. But there's also a lot of just basically diary entries from young people who are just recording how they feel in the moment, what they think, their personal life. And so it's both kind of viral and intimate, and a lot of people have really just kind of fallen in love with that style of platform.

DAVIES: Its reach is astonishing. Give us a sense of its influence.

HARWELL: It really is, yeah. I mean, TikTok is basically half a decade old in the U.S. It started around 2018. And over that time, it has quickly become one of the most popular apps on the planet. It's always among the top download list. It is just as popular if not more popular than a lot of the big apps you think about in the U.S., like Instagram and Facebook. It's way more popular than X, formerly Twitter, and Snapchat. Around the world, it has more than 1 billion users. And in the U.S., it has more than 170 million users, which is astounding given that, you know, that's basically half the country. And it rose quicker than really any other platform has before. I mean, you think about how old Facebook was before it really became a mainstream entity. TikTok was even faster than that.

DAVIES: If people want to get a sense of the reach of TikTok, I would recommend a piece that you wrote online, I guess, a couple of years ago called "How TikTok Ate The Internet." You wrote then that TikTok's website was visited more often than Google. True?

HARWELL: It was, yeah. It was more popular than Google. And, you know, a lot of young people were using it like Google. You know, for young people who are spending on average more than an hour a day swiping and consuming videos on TikTok, it was a place where they could type in, you know, where should I eat or what should I know about the news that's happening around the world, and they would get a video from someone who is maybe a lot like them telling them what they should think.

DAVIES: Particularly popular among young people - you note a Pew Research Center survey that said two-thirds of American teens use the app. One in 6 say they watch it, quote, "almost constantly." One more thing - TikTok is profitable, yes? How does it make money?

HARWELL: It sells ads, basically. If you're watching videos, sometimes you'll swipe and you'll see a short video ad to watch. It's been an unusual format because if you go on YouTube, you might see an ad before you start watching anything. On TikTok, people are so used to fast-twitch scrolling and swiping past that it's kind of a hard format to sell ads on, but it does make money through ad revenue. It also charges people for what they call TikTok coins. If you really like a certain creator or influencer and you want to show them your love, you can buy a TikTok coin with real money. TikTok coin is just a digital image. Then you can buy, like an emoji of a rose or a slot machine or an ice cream cone and give it to that person, which they can then trade in for money. So it's a more kind of direct way of showing your support. And TikTok, of course, takes a cut.

DAVIES: Right. And this created a whole class of creators. I mean, thousands of people who get full-time incomes from this, right?

HARWELL: Yeah, there's an entire creator economy on there with people who really work to make this their career and are basically just making videos from home. Some people have, you know, huge audiences of millions of followers, and they can spend that not just from, you know, the money they make from coins, but also sell their own merchandise, host live events, get, you know, brand deals with companies who pay them to shill for products. So there's an entire kind of influencer class that is building on TikTok and sort of going around the internet and becoming really famous in their own way.

DAVIES: Right. So, a huge force in our culture that many of us don't really pay attention to or know about, but it's there. So let's talk about this fight - why there has been this extraordinary move to crack down on TikTok within the government. You know, I mentioned the two big complaints are the worry that data will be given to China about U.S. users or that the Chinese Communist Party can use the app, its videos, the algorithm to manipulate our opinions. But it's interesting, you know, in hearings last year in Congress, a lot of the complaints came from people who saw TikTok as very harmful for our kids. Is this a big driving force? And what's the case, anyway?

HARWELL: Yeah. So TikTok being owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance - it's based in Beijing, but it is a global company - right? - with a presence around the world - that is basically the original sin for which TikTok has been trying to get away from its entire life. Those two points you brought up are really the big concerns. One is just a data privacy concern. People say, any young person or old person who uses TikTok is just giving data about their preferences of videos they want to watch, maybe where they live, maybe who they are. It's a different kind of data from Facebook, right? Nobody's saying their job or their relationship status. But, you know, it is still a sensitive level of data. ByteDance being based in China - China is a very repressive country that has funded hacking into Americans' data before for tactical means. So that's one piece of it. The other piece of it goes back to the mystique of the algorithm, that TikTok shows you videos it thinks you want to watch. So if China wanted to manipulate the algorithm, could they pressure TikTok through ByteDance, its owner, to start showing you more videos celebrating communism or tearing down American values or supporting the political candidates they want to watch. You may not even know that was happening because you're just watching the one channel of your for you feed. But it could be a subtle way to shape opinions.

And below both of those things, and something that faces the entire social media industry, is just anxiety among people about the internet in this day and age. We're spending so much time online consuming the viewpoints of people we never see, and young people are taking phones to school and watching videos that, you know, sometimes make them feel bad about themselves or teach them things we may not want them to be learning in school. So all of that kind of undercuts TikTok and adds up into something that really gives people concerns of, should we tolerate this kind of platform that so many young Americans know and love.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Drew Harwell. He is a technology reporter for the Washington Post. He's written recently about the US government's move to force a sale of TikTok. He'll be back to talk more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISHA MENGELBERG TRIO'S "ROLLO III")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Drew Harwell. He's a technology reporter for the Washington Post who's been following the U.S. government efforts to rein in the wildly popular video sharing app TikTok.

You know, it's interesting. You mentioned that the parent company, which is called ByteDance - it's based in Beijing. But, you know, the CEO of TikTok is from Singapore. He is not a Chinese citizen. He says that there are I think a majority of the investors in TikTok actually are international investors from outside China. Is this right?

HARWELL: Yeah. That's right. Yeah.

DAVIES: In what sense is it a Chinese company, I guess?

HARWELL: I mean, that's a great question, and that's a really important question. It is a Chinese company because it's based in a Chinese city. Now, whether that's enough to label the company Chinese-owned or Chinese-controlled really is kind of the meat of the question. Because ByteDance - it's more than 60% owned by institutional investors around the world, including many Americans. It has employees all around the world, including thousands of Americans. The U.S. side of TikTok - a lot of those decisions happen in its offices in California. Content moderation decisions, which videos get demoted or promoted or banned or blocked - a lot of those decisions happen in the U.S. TikTok's chief executive, yeah, lives in Singapore, which is obviously separate from China. ByteDance owns it, and ByteDance is based in China, but TikTok is its own subsidiary. They contend that they are independent.

TikTok - as with any company, a lot of their back-office stuff runs through ByteDance. But this is a company we have always traditionally seen as independent, you know? And China, we should not forget, is a giant economy in our world. A lot of the things probably in the rooms we're in right now were made in China. That has not been something we have been fearful of for a long time, and the U.S. has very often been supportive of free trade and a global economy. And so, you know, a lot of the people who support TikTok feel like the company is being unfairly called out as a company somehow aligned with the values of the Chinese Communist Party just based off of speculation because they live in the Chinese country. It's a lot like saying a company based in Washington is American-controlled or you know, susceptible to the U.S. government. I think that inspires a lot of suspicion and outrage among people on both sides of the aisle here.

DAVIES: Right. Although, I guess a difference might be a company in the United States is governed by U.S. laws. It has access to U.S. courts. Laws have to be debated in public, and there's a level of democracy which governs the rules by which companies operate. I guess the question is in China - if at some point in the future, the government of China decided it needed to make a move with TikTok. It needed to influence opinion in the United States with TikTok or gather data for whatever reason, could it force TikTok to do it? Is the answer to that clear?

HARWELL: So there's a few things about that. One is that China has a data privacy law that basically says the government could go to any company and demand data for intelligence purposes. This is something that comes up all the time and is a fairly recent law. And China - we should not forget, this is a country that is globally infamous for being suppressive with the internet. They have the great firewall that blocks many websites, including most of the social platforms we use in the U.S., blocking those for their citizens. They suppress history. You can't look up events like the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy crackdown in which the government killed protesters. There's just a lot of things that China does not tolerate that we take for granted on the U.S. internet. And so that plus the reality that China has been accused of the U.S. of hacking into databases for federal employees, extracting data, doing espionage on companies - so all of that adds up to suspicion of what China could do in the future.

If China felt like it was useful for them to lean on the company, to get data, to shape the algorithm, could they do it? And I think a lot of people would say the answer is yes. Now, I have talked to people who are Americans who feel like it is maybe not so clear cut - right? - that clearly they don't have the court system that the U.S. does, but this is a system that a company could say no, and a company could have recourse to stand up to the Chinese government. But the Chinese government - they have disappeared tech leaders before, right? They do have a heavy hand when it comes to private industry. And some people in America say, there is no such thing as private industry in China, that at all is subject to the Chinese government. But, again, a lot of this is speculation of things that could happen in the future. It's not evidence of things that have happened. And I think that's where some of the speech advocates get into questioning how much we want to shape our current decisions on a future concern.

DAVIES: And just to be clear, I mean, there was a case in I think it was 2014 where there was believed that there was a Chinese hack of federal personnel records, but there's been no evidence so far that we know of that TikTok has been used to gather data for the Chinese government, right?

HARWELL: That's right. Yeah. And TikTok, for its part, has said, we've never given data to the Chinese government. We've never had the algorithm tampered with. If they were to ask, we would say no. TikTok has made some moves to establish their defenses, basically. In case that were to happen, they keep American data on - in American servers, right? Their chief executive does not live in China. And yet there will always be suspicion in Washington, I think, as long as there is any kind of ownership relationship to China to that TikTok data. And yeah, I mean, the data on federal employees that was grabbed by Chinese hackers - that was extremely sensitive data. That was financial, health data.

It's very different from TikTok data, right? TikTok data is whatever username you want to give it, whatever videos you want to post publicly. It's a lot less data than even we give to Facebook or some of these other platforms. So you know, if China really wanted to get data on Americans, there are probably other ways they could get it besides weighing on a private company to get that data.

DAVIES: So let's talk about how the bill - which Congress has passed, and President Biden has signed - how it would actually work. It gives the parent company of TikTok, if I have this right, 270 days to execute a sale to an owner outside China. Is that right?

HARWELL: Yeah, that's right. Two hundred and seventy days, and the clock started when President Biden signed it several days ago. That can be extended to a full year if the government sees that TikTok has made some effort to sell itself, and yet it is a pretty short time clock. Mainly because this would be a acquisition deal unlike really any other. I mean, the estimate of TikTok's price would be about $100 billion. And ByteDance has said it doesn't really want to sell. It's a valuable - ByteDance is TikTok's owner. It is a valuable asset, one of the most popular apps on the internet. And China has said it will not tolerate a sale.

Several years ago, under the first time TikTok was being considered for a ban under President Trump, China added recommendation algorithms, you know, the backbone of TikTok and many other platforms, to its export control list, basically blocking it from being sold out of China. It's a list just like the U.S. has for semiconductors and other pieces of technology that we ban the sale of to China. So this is clearly a geopolitical tug of war at this point. But, yeah, the bill says, if it's not sold within 270 days or a year, the government will move to the ban step. They will instruct Apple and Google who run, you know, the app stores that control the apps we have on our phone to basically delist TikTok. You won't be able to download it anymore. You won't be able to get updates on TikTok anymore. It will still exist out there, but it'll be basically a dead app that will not be anything you can use. So that is an unprecedented move. We've never really had the U.S. government block any kind of app at that level of destruction, and let alone a speech platform that people use to share their lives and learn about the news.

DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Drew Harwell. He is a technology reporter for the Washington Post. He's written recently about the U.S. government's move to force a sale of TikTok to a non-Chinese buyer. He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDDBITE OF SONG, "O CAFE, O SOLEIL")

JACKY TERRASSON: (Singing in non-English language).

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. We're speaking with Drew Harwell, an award-winning technology reporter from The Washington Post, who's been writing about government efforts to rein in the wildly popular video-sharing app TikTok, whose parent company is based in China. President Biden recently signed a bill passed by Congress which would force the company to sell TikTok to a non-Chinese buyer or face a ban of the app in the United States.

I want to talk about what would happen if the ban actually occurred, or the attempted ban, and some of the First Amendment issues that raises. But first of all, just as a transaction, I mean, one of the analysts you spoke to said that there's a lot of hair on this deal. That is to say, it's a big, sprawling, international company, and even if there aren't these political questions, I mean, these kinds of financial deals take a lot of time to work out. I mean, what happens to all the property and the existing contracts and all of that stuff? It's enormously complicated, and this is a huge company.

And as you said, I mean, at the heart of what TikTok does is its algorithm, which it's called For You. Help us understand why that would be critical. I mean, could you buy the company and not bring the algorithm? Would that just mean you're not really getting, TikTok?

HARWELL: Yeah. The algorithm is the secret sauce, basically. You know, TikTok is, like any platform, a big bundle of code. It's the videos that people watch. It's the user accounts and all of their histories and likes and comments. But the algorithm that shows people the videos in line, that's the thing that people say is the distinguishing factor that has made TikTok so special. That algorithm was developed by ByteDance, TikTok's owner, which is based in China. And that algorithm is something that China has said they don't want to sell.

So if you are to sell TikTok without the backbone that makes it special, is it really going to be the same app? It might be the same videos and the same branding, but are you going to be seeing the videos you really want to be seeing? Is it going to lose that spark? And yet that's kind of what's being considered at this point. You know, imagine how complicated it is to sell a house. Now think about selling, you know, a company that is worth $100 billion or more, that has thousands of employees in a dozen offices around the world - that has not just the algorithm but all sorts of pieces of code that handle ads and video streaming and coins, and all the things that make it tick and that are imperceptible to the typical user.

All of this is under pressure and under the gun. They have a ticking clock to run this kind of deal. When we've seen big media and technology deals in the past, they never happen within a year. And here you add that we have two governments basically sniping at each other on top of all of this. So the idea to sell it without the algorithm, that has been floated out there. But it would add even more complications to this already very, like you said, hairy transaction.

DAVIES: So let's talk about the First Amendment issues that are raised here. I mean, if TikTok is not sold to an American buyer within a year, according to this law, the U.S. government could try to ban its use in the United States, which is going to be difficult. We should note that some state governments and some government agencies have prohibited the use of TikTok on government phones, so there have been some efforts like that. That's different from prohibiting users generally, right?

HARWELL: Yeah, it is different. In the same way that a city could say, we don't want you to have Facebook or Candy Crush on your phone because of cybersecurity issues, they can say TikTok can't be on there. But when it comes to the general public and, you know, just Americans in general, it does become a speech issue, because as we know, I mean, the First Amendment says the government can't pass a law restricting speech. TikTok is a speech platform that people use to share their lives, to consume content about the books they read and the news they want to learn about.

And, you know, when I bring up this First Amendment argument, sometimes people laugh because we think about the First Amendment as being about books and radio shows and newspapers, not social media apps that, you know, have dancing and silly challenges and that kind of thing. And yet, for an entire generation of people in this country, this is the platform where they learn about the world. And so this First Amendment issue has been a big one that TikTok has raised and that, you know, when this issue has been raised in court, the judges have pointed to. They feel like this is a clear stance where, you know, they would not tolerate the government banning a newspaper or a book, why would they tolerate shutting down a speech platform used by 170 million Americans?

DAVIES: You know, we should note that there has been a longstanding tension between rights and freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution and national security needs. And, you know, the government has a huge intelligence infrastructure - you know, the CIA and the NSA and others - and they do reports on all kinds of threats all the time. Have they weighed in to Congress or in any other way on the viability of these presumed threats from TikTok?

HARWELL: Yeah, so there have been unclassified documents shared with the public from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence basically summing up that China is an adversary of the U.S., that they have, you know, like Russia and other countries, tried to sow propaganda around the world - sometimes clumsily, but they have done that. But nothing specific to TikTok, just the reality that China has done that and TikTok has a China-facing owner. There have been classified briefings that we have not seen but that have been delivered to members of the House and Senate where intelligence officials have, you know, my sources have said, sort of elaborated on those concerns.

But even from those meetings, from what I've heard, there has not been a smoking gun. There has not been one case where the government can say, we saw the Chinese government leaned on TikTok or its Chinese owner and said, we want you to grab this data on individual users; we want you to twist the algorithm so it benefits us. And I've talked to people who have come out of that meeting - those meetings and been a little underwhelmed. They have felt like we've heard the concerns, we've heard the suspicions of China, some of which are founded, you know, on a national level. But in terms of this one company, we've not seen anything that's really given us more pause certainly to distinguish it from the other social networks that we may have our other concerns about.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting. I mean, people who serve in Congress are by and large older Americans. That's a high political office, and you get there by working your way up, whereas, you know, a lot of TikTok's users are young. But you do write of a congressman, Jeff Jackson, a Democrat from North Carolina, who has more than 1 million TikTok followers and uses - he makes videos explaining policy issues. He sees it as a way to connect with his young people. He's sort of an interesting character, an exception, right?

HARWELL: Yeah, he is an exception. And I think he's actually a success story for the TikTok model, no matter how you feel about China. I mean, Jeff Jackson - yeah, he's a fairly young guy in North Carolina. He has a legal and, you know, defense background. And he does these videos from his kitchen, basically, where he talks about the dysfunction of Congress, talks about the sausage-making of passing a bill, the grind of being a lawmaker. And, again, they're very intimate videos. They're just him talking to the screen. There's something you don't really see on the other platforms, or you didn't before TikTok was so popular. And they have resonated. I mean, you have 18-year-olds learning about life on Capitol Hill.

That's just something they don't even do in school anymore. And yet Representative Jackson - he ended up agreeing with this measure. He went on to these videos to basically apologize to his followers and said, you know, I've talked many times about the value of TikTok, and yet I want to go with the intelligence side on this. I feel like there are concerns. I don't want to ban it. I don't want it to get to that point, but I do want to sell it so we don't talk about this. And you can see in the comments just a wide feeling of betrayal among TikTok users who feel like, this was somebody we thought really got it, and yet here he is on the side of shutting our favorite platform down.

DAVIES: We are speaking with Drew Harwell. He is a technology reporter for the Washington Post. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER'S "BLACK AND TAN FANTASY")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Drew Harwell, an award-winning technology reporter from the Washington Post who's been writing about government efforts to rein in the wildly popular video sharing app TikTok.

Well, the fight is just getting underway, I guess, on this. And one of the things we've seen is that TikTok has been able to mobilize its own users. How did that work?

HARWELL: Yeah. So when this round of bills was being reviewed in the House and people were talking about potentially banning or forcing the sale of TikTok again, before President Biden signed it into law, TikTok put a notification onto users' apps basically saying, this is what's going on in Washington. We're facing this existential threat. If you want to call your congressperson, enter your ZIP code here. And we'll show you the number for your representative, and you can call them right from the app.

And the day when they started doing that, Capitol Hill phone lines were flooded with TikTok users. And, again, many of these were young people, right? They have probably never called their congressperson ever before, and they're getting this strange notification on their TikTok app when they were probably just trying to, you know, watch silly videos. And they started calling their congresspeople. Some were calling with just saying just, you know, wild things. Some were making threats of their congresspeople.

DAVIES: I wanted to talk about TikTok and the Gaza War. You know, there has been a lot of debate about TikTok and its content about the war and its effect. It is striking the number and intensity of the student protests we've seen in colleges across the country. And I hadn't thought of support for the Palestinian cause as animating large numbers of American college students in the past. But when you consider how popular TikTok is among people under the age of 25, I wonder, are TikTok videos, in some respect, driving these college protests? Can you tell?

HARWELL: So that has been one argument that has been raised. They see young people using TikTok in great numbers. They see young people protesting the war in Gaza, protesting Israeli involvement in that war. And they correlate the two as driving each other. And when you go on TikTok, you will see a lot of videos that are on both sides, to be honest. I mean, there are lots of pro-Israel videos on the platform. But you will also see a lot of videos from Gaza, specifically from, you know, young people who are using the app there to show what life is like. You'll see a lot of videos from people criticizing the Israeli government and the war itself.

And so a common sort of argument against TikTok, especially in the last couple months as Congress considered this, was that - is China getting involved right now? Are they steering the algorithm to tear down Israel to, in a way, tear down the U.S., tear down their bigger adversary? And so there's been a lot of, I would say, conspiratorial thinking along those lines. But I think it's also true that this is a platform that many young people get their news from, that they're watching a lot. And there are a lot of videos on there that are skeptical or critical of Israel. I think, you know, it would be naive to not think that it was, you know,

HARWELL: think that it was, you know, shaping people's perceptions. But is that a - you know, I think the case of that being specifically algorithmically driven propaganda campaigns is less clear. And I think it might just be young people using this - I will say there is an age gap in this country around support for Israel that predates TikTok. When you go back to polls from 10 years ago, before TikTok existed, young people were more skeptical, had a different impression of Israel than older people, who may understand the history differently. And so, you know, I think some of that was stirred up by TikTok. I think some of it was driven in a more visceral and visual way now that people could actually see video of what was happening. But I don't think TikTok created this rift, as some people would say.

DAVIES: Right. I mean, the interesting question is - I mean, sure, there's all kinds of videos and content on many aspects of the war in Gaza. And the unanswered question is, what about the algorithm which recommends videos to users? And it's opaque. I mean, you can't really see how it works. But if it is favoring one side or the other - you know, there are plenty of videos on all sides of the question, but if more are dumped on users that favor one side, that would have an impact. And, you know, you've looked at a lot of data. And I've - 'cause I've read your stuff. You've looked at a fair amount of data and talked to a lot of experts and advocates on whether or not the algorithm is helping one side or the other. What did you find?

HARWELL: Yeah. So when you open the TikTok app, you will more likely see a pro-Palestinian video. I think the data is fairly clear on that. Now, how much of that is just societal factors, you know, from the creators themselves, and how much of that is algorithmically driven? We don't honestly know. If you open up the TikTok app and see a pro-Palestinian video, is it being shown to you because the algorithm thinks it would be something you want to see because it's from a creator you might have traditionally shown interest in, because there's just more of them on the platform and so you're more likely to see it or because there's some lever pushing behind the scenes? We don't honestly know.

And so a lot of this goes into just the mystery of the algorithm to begin with. Like you said, it is opaque. We don't entirely know why it's showing videos to any of us to begin with. And so that inspires a suspicion of whether they're being shown something organically, naturally, just as a consequence of how the math of the algorithm works or whether there's some, you know, rule somewhere, some decider unbalancing the content behind the scenes.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Drew Harwell. He is a technology reporter for the Washington Post. He's written recently about the U.S. government's move to force the sale of TikTok. He'll be back to Tokmor in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEASTIE BOYS SONG, "NAMASTE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Drew Harwell. He's a technology reporter for the Washington Post who's been following the U.S. government efforts to rein in the wildly popular video sharing app TikTok.

You know, there are just an amazing variety of videos and creators on TikTok. You want to share a few of your favorites?

HARWELL: So a lot of people know it as a dance app. There is so much more to it than that. I mean, some of my favorite communities on TikTok are ones like BookTok. There is a huge literature community on TikTok where authors and readers will discuss their favorite books. They'll post videos where they're highlighting their favorite sentences or turns of phrase.

And this is a real kind of movement. I mean, an author who goes basically viral on TikTok can see a huge boost to their sales. And so that has been really interesting. And even beyond that, I mean, there are communities where - we've written stories about this. There's a community for TourettesTok where people who suffer from Tourette syndrome will post videos about just the reality of life. And they can share that with other people who are - you know, who are dealing with the same thing.

It's interesting because we have always traditionally seen groups like a Facebook group where you have to join and be a part of it and be a part of that community to really appreciate that. TikTok is different in that you just sort of send out videos into the void and hope other people - hope it resonates with other people. But it really does work on TikTok. You see, I mean, thousands of people buying into these groups and people who were never expecting to see that on their feed kind of getting a slice of life from these people they would otherwise never interact with.

DAVIES: You mentioned that BookTok, this thing where people share their favorite books and all that. Did I read that it's believed that that led to a banner year in publishing last year?

HARWELL: It was a huge year. Yeah. There were authors who would have never really gotten the time of day from newspaper book reviews or publishers who were just going extremely viral on BookTok. And these - you know, there were a lot of young audiences who were really loving, you know, young adult fiction. Romance books are very big on BookTok. And this could be a - some of these viral videos - these could be million-dollar videos for these authors because there could be a reader in Kansas who really liked this book and posted a video about why she liked it, and it would just take off.

And so, yeah, it was - for the publishing industry writ large, they were saying very specifically that BookTok was making the difference for them in an otherwise fairly normal year. And so, yeah, this was a big media win for - I mean, again, and TikTok is something where you're swiping through videos three seconds at a time. So the fact that it was boosting this fairly traditional industry where people have to devote a lot of time to reading a book - it was just a really interesting and fascinating phenomenon.

DAVIES: Yeah. It really is this major influence, you know, pulsating through the culture that a lot of people just are unaware of. Well, I'm sure you're going to be writing about this for a long time as this all unfolds. You know, one thing struck me as I read your material. It's just about how complicated and connected, you know, economies are and how corporate structures and natural resources and intellectual property flow across international boundaries. And you had a fact in one of your stories that 4 of the 10 most downloaded free apps on the Apple store are owned by Chinese companies. So this issue wasn't going to go away; is it?

HARWELL: No, it's really not. And I think the whole backdrop to this question has been that in the United States, we have always taken for granted that our social media platforms have been created by Americans in a small part of California called Silicon Valley, that we have basically trusted implicitly that they share our values; they share American values of free speech, free enterprise, free expression. That has just always been the way, you know, we owned the internet. We had Facebook and Instagram and Google and YouTube, and that was just something we could count on.

Now, with TikTok, it became the first popular foreign-owned app to really just turn that paradigm upside down and to really inspire these questions of, can we trust what we're seeing? Or is this foreign ownership going to tamper with that in some way? And I think it's pretty telling that the first popular foreign-owned app, to be so popular on the internet was also the first one that the U.S. government wielded its hammer against and decided, you know, this one is too dangerous. This one we're going to wipe off the face of the map.

And from the U.S. side, that has just been a reflection of, the internet is important - geopolitics are complicated and dangerous, and we need to take extraordinary effort to keep Americans safe. But I think you can also see it from another side of, this being a big change to the free internet, to really going back to a place where websites and apps aren't borderless anymore and where we have to think about, where is the person who's making this piece of content or this speech app coming from? And do we need to factor in their ethnicity, their country, the government under which they work when we're making these decisions?

DAVIES: Well, Drew Harwell, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HARWELL: Thank you.

DAVIES: Drew Harwell is a technology reporter for The Washington Post. He's written recently about the U.S. government's move to force a sale of TikTok to a non-Chinese buyer.

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