Hong Kong, China’s national security laws, Mike Pompeo and TikTok, the Chinese video platform that’s taken the teens and brands around the world by storm. But why should brands and advertisers in the EU care about this, and what should they do – if anything?
I have gathered the top facts about what’s going on and listed three things brands should seriously start thinking about. Right now.
What is TikTok?
TikTok has been the fastest growing social network for nearly two years. At 1.5 billion users worldwide it’s just 300 million total users behind Instagram. 20% of TikTok revenue comes from the US and another 10% from India (which already went ahead with a ban last week), the prospect of the two biggest spenders pulling out could be a huge blow to TikTok.
In June, TikTok officially opened its doors to advertisers with the launch of TikTok For Business. This hosts a series of tools for brands to reach some of the app’s humongous Gen-Z population. Up to 41% of its users are between the ages of 16 and 24, making it globally the most popular teenage content creation app.
So, what’s happened this week?
On July 7, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hinted that the country may ban the app in the United States, following growing concerns over China’s new national security law which in the West is deemed as infringement of data and individual privacy. It’s worth noting though, that the US is playing hard ball with China, and TikTok is not the only Chinese app the country is looking to ban.
Prior to the update from Pompeo, many tech giants like Google, Twitter and Facebook, have already suspended China’s recent requests for user data. Similarly, TikTok – which hired an American, ex-Disney exec, Kevin Mayer, as its CEO earlier this year – also announced it was pulling out of Hong Kong.
What’s China’s new national security law?
In short, the national security law gives rights to the Chinese government to prosecute anyone who “conspires with foreigners to provoke “hatred” of the Chinese government, or the authorities in Hong Kong”. What constitutes conspiracy has been left suitably vague, or as the NPC Observer team note, these words are “highly subjective and malleable”.
According to the law, the trials can be held in secret, without a jury, and the judge can be handpicked. There is no option for bail, and there is no time limit for how long the suspects can be held. China has already started enforcing the law by detaining some of its critics.
The new law is basically a gagging order against protesters in Hong Kong. So, not so great for human rights.
Here’s a good article from the BBC describing the law in more detail.
How is Europe reacting?
Since the 2008 crash, China has become an important trade ally to businesses in Europe; its trade set being worth half a trillion euros annually. But, as China has become more bullish in its internal affairs, Europe and the EU specifically are looking to take a long hard look at the relationship.
But, unlike the US, the EU is far from severing ties with China. According to Frans-Paul van der Putten, an expert on China at the Clingendael Institute, a think tank in the Netherlands:
“The current EU position is a lot like Obama’s: We need to work with China, but we need to move them in directions that are important to us.”
What’s the EU likely to do?
The GDPR legislation already aims to protect the data of EU nationals, but it’s likely that the EU will push harder to pressure Beijing on civil rights issues. The EU is China’s biggest trading partner for goods, so it has some financial leverage.
But, we are likely to see a host of European brands and users boycotting Chinese products and businesses. We’ll also see pressure from the US on this. Although, this may be troublesome for many companies here who rely on trade with China.
In the meantime, it’s unlikely that TikTok will be banned in the EU for these reasons, though the union may impose harder scrutiny on data security of any kind. However, a Dutch watchdog is already investigating the app on its use of children’s data.
Three things brands should start thinking about, like, right now
1 – Check that your user data is kosher
From recent events, we know that people are quick to react worldwide to bad news – especially when they’re about civil or privacy rights. As a Chinese app, TikTok is bound by its laws which also includes the notorious national security law. Any infringement of privacy in the West could result almost definitely in loss of brand reputation.
Making sure your user data from any app and platform is safe and secure could mean life or death to your brand.
2 – Start testing for opportunities in other channels
Millions of Gen-Z’ers might be on the platform, but having a Plan B in place already now is sensible. Byte, a second-generation Vine was launched earlier this year by Vine’s original creators. Facebook is about to launch a TikTok rival, Reels (though a lot is to be said right now about Facebook and its data practices). LinkedIn, Twitter are both also rumoured to be developing vertical story/video formats.
The long and short of it is that there will be other ways to reach audiences if TikTok proves troublesome. It’s best to start planning for those already.
3 – Talk to your clients, partners and users – and team
The moment you start hearing rumblings, it’s often already too late. Be proactive and transparent, speak openly with your clients and partners, as well as your end users, about their thoughts and concerns regarding this matter.
Listen to your team on the “shop floor” – the community managers, social media specialists and content creators. They are likely to be the first ones to know if something is going down. They follow the platforms and can tell you all the stories as they develop.
Being open with stakeholders, staying close to your team and communicating with your customers will help your brand stay cool no matter what.