Under pressure, the young and controversial social media app TikTok has laid down a challenge to its competitors: match us on our radical transparency and show the world your code – but does it actually signal a significant change for the app?

On Wednesday, a post appeared on TikTok’s blog that committed to two main ideas: first that “we believe all companies should disclose their algorithms, moderation policies, and data flows to regulators,” wrote TikTok CEO, Kevin Mayer.

“Experts can observe our moderation policies in real-time, as well as examine the actual code that drives our algorithms. This puts us a step ahead of the industry, and we encourage others to follow suit.”

The second idea is a general call for fair competition, a point that has become all the more important in the intervening hours, since emails emerged in Facebook’s antitrust hearings that appear to show that the social network bought Instagram in order to preclude competition. The quote that the congressional panel focused in on: “Instagram can hurt us.”

For TikTok, the troubles are many. Not only is it anticipating competition – “we say bring it on” – but it is pointing the finger at Facebook for a practice of copying that has become its modus operandi.

“Facebook is even launching another copycat product, Reels (tied to Instagram), after their other copycat Lasso failed quickly,” writes Mayer, before adding that “Without TikTok, American advertisers would again be left with few choices. Competition would dry up and so too will an outlet for America’s creative energy.”  

So what to make of it? Is it merely surprising to see a well-oiled, well-timed PR strategy that goes beyond sending former UK deputy PM-turned Facebook spin doctor Nick Clegg to do battle on news outlets? Possibly.

But it is also laying down a major new form of perceived transparency by opening up its inner workings. There are, however, more problems here: the algorithm itself is unlikely to actually say very much without exposing users’ personal data, which would be the very misdemeanour of which it is accused.

To that end, TikTok has worked hard over the last few months – months in which lockdown measures have boosted the visibility of the service, if not its already vast user numbers – to demonstrate that it is clean.

It recently launched a Transparency Center in LA, where content moderation can be observed in real time. It is planning to repeat the process by opening up in Washington DC while also recruiting for lobbyists that might cool the heat it’s facing from both the Trump administration and its challengers.

Though TikTok has become a useful punching bag at a time when anti-China sentiment is in vogue, there remains cause for concern. The cynical view is that an algorithm capable of being opened and explored hints at an architecture born of the tight government control that hovers over many large Chinese companies.

TikTok has been at pains to show that keeps user data in the user’s market and does not send it to China, but a lawsuit last year added fuel to sceptics’ fire by claiming the app sends data to ByteDance’s home market “surreptitiously”. There has been little proof, however.

But the problems go deeper: will US officials, aware of both Trump and Pompeo’s penchant for suggesting the federal government is “looking at” banning the app, accept anything less than a total disengagement from China? Would only a spin-off quell the fears.

Then the issues of raw, cold capital return to raise their ugly heads. Without the might of ByteDance, can TikTok fund the expensive process of international growth? It’s unlikely.

Alone, it could go the way of Snapchat – strong in one particular area but unable to go beyond – while the mighty Facebook continues to dominate other social media. Worst case, its similarities to the now defunct Vine become too obvious to ignore.

Does it matter? TikTok’s visibility was a strength that turned into a target. This current moment is deeply fraught for the company, but it comes at a time when Big Tech is undergoing a Big Tobacco moment. Very publicly, the tech giants’ failures are coming into view. With a solid PR strategy, and an ear to the ground, it may just be that TikTok holds on.  

Sourced from TikTok, FT, BBC, WARC