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Should fashion quit TikTok?

By Don-Alvin Adegeest


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Fashion |Opinion

Image: TikTok app

TikTok, the short-form video platform best known for its funny videos and user-generated content, is currently in a state of flux. In fact, if western governments have their way, the popular app will either be severely restricted to those in Europe and the US, or banned altogether.

Last week government employees in the UK were banned from downloading the app on official government devices, joining European, American and Canadian governments where restrictions were already in place.

Concerns about security and the potential impact of data breaches have plagued TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, where many believe the Chinese government could pressure companies to hand over users’ personal information. 20 percent of ByteDance is owned by its founders and China.

Of all the social media platforms, none have been as divisive as TikTok. Branded by some as an aggregator of needless content that has teenagers addicted to their screens, spending hours scrolling through videos, which some studies suggest increases higher rates of anxiety, stress and depression, and weaker working memory. The crux being, all that time spent scrolling could be used to do something more productive.

Fashion brands that were initially skeptical have generated gargantuan profits for ByteDance. In 2020 the company reportedly generated 34.3 billion dollars in revenue, with much of that coming from advertising. While specific revenue figures for fashion advertising on TikTok are not available, the platform has become increasingly popular with fashion and beauty brands looking to reach a younger, trend-conscious audience.

Despite TikTok’s well-reported problems with exposing younger users to inappropriate content, privacy concerns and mental health impacts, the platform has also proven to have staying power, providing entertainment, a creative outlet, and a sense of community for many users.

Rival platforms like YouTube and Instagram were quick to add short-form video and similar algorithms, with the latter introducing Reels in 2020, at a time when TikTok was facing uncertainty in several markets due to concerns over its ownership and potential security risks.

Until recently TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew was little known outside of the tech industry, keeping a low profile unlike media friendly chiefs Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk at Meta and Twitter. But a proposed ban in the US would see 150,000,000 users party to a backlash, and Mr Chew this week faced a torrent of questions and scrutiny from US lawmakers on why the app is safe for use. While countries like Iran, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India have banned the app, mostly citing the spreading of ‘immoral’ content, western societies are more concerned with privacy, security and data breaches, especially with information being ciphered to China.

America has called for the company to be sold to a non-Chinese entity, while others say America must enforce stronger online regulations in its own country, the way Europe has with its GDPR protocols. In the US there are currently no federal privacy rights for citizens.

TikTok has 834.3 million monthly users

As a bonafide communications channel, TikTok has amassed huge followers and advertising prowess. While most brands and influencers cross-pollinate their posts to other social media channels, TikTok’s audience is decidedly younger, with 32.5 percent of users aged 10-19, and 29.5 percent aged 20-29, compared to Instagram, where its largest audience is aged 25-34.

It was not so long ago that questions arose of the fashion industry quitting Twitter, after a murky takeover by Elon Musk and a rise in hate speech on its channel in 2022. The problems for TikTok seem to be mounting, however, with watchdogs in the Netherlands, Italy and France also investigating privacy practices around personalised advertising and for failing to limit children's access to its platform, reported Politico.

While fashion brands and creators on the app are yet to come with a contingency plan should TikTok be banned, it remains to be seen for how long the dancing loving teenagers and funny videos will stay around in its current form.