Yesterday night, Thursday 6 August, the Trump administration announced new restrictions on Chinese-owned apps TikTok as well as WeChat, which would ban transactions by any person or property within US jurisdiction from 20 September 2020.
While the move against TikTok’s Chinese owner Bytedance was not a huge surprise at this point, action against WeChat’s owner, the Shenzhen-based tech giant Tencent Holdings Inc. was surprising and worrying for many. This sharp escalation of the US’ confrontation with China is likely to be met with retaliation. Why is Trump banning transactions with TikTok and WeChat and which implications could it have for US companies?
The two executive orders that were released late Thursday cited national security concerns. For TikTok, the order basically sets a 45-day deadline for the acquisition of TikTok, which Microsoft has already been in talks with to acquire.
In his announcement, Trump accused WeChat, made by Tencent, and TikTok, made by ByteDance, of providing a channel for the Chinese Communist Party to obtain Americans’ proprietary information and carry out disinformation campaigns to benefit China’s interest.
“The spread in the United States of mobile applications developed and owned by companies in the People’s Republic of China continues to threaten the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States,” the US president wrote.
While a ban against TikTok had already been announced by the president, his move against WeChat comes as a surprise for many. WeChat is used around the world but particularly by Chinese people to communicate with friends, read news and carry out business transactions. This means that such a ban could effectively cut off some communication between people in China and the US.
Speaking to The New York Times, Kirsten Martin, a professor on technology ethics at the University of Notre Dame’s business school explained: “While TikTok is being singled out in this executive order, their data collection and sharing practices are fairly standard in the industry. In fact, many fitness apps were banned from use in the military for tracking location data, but we did not ban them from all U.S. citizens.”
It remains unclear whether the new order will affect other businesses tied to Tencent, which is an investor in many popular American technology and gaming start-ups. The scope of the ban, including which transactions would be covered, still needs to be unveiled but it looks like it will have bigger consequences for WeChat than for TikTok, which could be ‘saved’ and bought by an American company such as Microsoft.
In a statement posted online, TikTok said it was “shocked” by the executive order. The US gaming industry—WeChat parent Tencent owns or has major stakes in popular games including League of Legends and Fortnite—could be collateral damage. Tencent is also widely invested in social media companies, including Snap. “We are reviewing the executive order to get a full understanding,” a Tencent representative said early Friday.
For weeks, Trump had been urged by a range of advisers to intervene with TikTok. Some of those advisers had counselled the president to follow the recommendations of a national security panel and allow Microsoft or another American company to buy the Chinese-owned app.
Other advisers pushed for bolder action. As the president flew back to Washington from Florida, he told reporters that he did not want TikTok to be acquired by an American company and that he would use his presidential authority to bar TikTok from operating in the US.
But that position didn’t last for more than two days. Officials implored people like Senator Lindsey Graham to explain to the president why the Microsoft deal was a good option. By Sunday, Trump had changed his mind but he had never truly seemed completely content with a specific approach.
It’s not yet clear how the ban will be enforced but users might end up looking for workarounds and other ways to download and use the apps. Or, many users may lack the patience and simply cease using both apps.
As TikTok’s future becomes more and more uncertain, especially in the US, after Trump announced a ban against the video-sharing app and Microsoft showed interest in buying it, other social media giants are starting to launch their own TikTok copycats. Unsurprisingly, Facebook is among them. Yesterday, on 5 August, Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, launched its new TikTok competitor called Reels in more than 50 countries including the US, the UK, Japan, and Australia. Available on both iOS and Android, what differentiates Reels from TikTok, and could it really replace the Chinese-owned app?
Just like TikTok, Reels lets Instagram users create short-form videos set to music, which can then be shared with friends and followers or discovered while browsing the app. Reels lives entirely inside of Instagram—it’s not a new app. It is Instagram’s latest opportunity to bring in new users, increase the amount of time people spend on the app and establish itself as the new TikTok.
Reels allows you to record videos up to 15 seconds long and add music on top it as well as an array of filters and effects. For many content creators and influencers, Reels could well be a new way to build a following. Along with the new feature’s launch, Instagram has also updated its Explore page in order to create a specific landing spot for Reels at the top of the screen. Users can then vertically scroll through the different Reels posted by others in a very similar way to TikTok’s ‘For You Page’.
On Reels, videos can be shared both in private and public mode. Users who only want to share their videos with friends can post them from a private account on their feed and Instagram Stories. On the contrary, if you want to become the new version of TikTok’s collab houses members, then you will definitely want to share your Reels on a public profile to allow them to be easily discovered by other users.
Open your Instagram app in order to make a ‘Reel’. Slide to a new section of the camera, which now comes with a brand new assortment of tools. Reels can be recorded either all at once or as a series of clips, just like on TikTok. Users can also upload videos from their photo gallery.
The camera’s new features are pretty similar to TikTok’s. Users can play with the speed of their footage, apply crazy effects, pick a song or audio to put on top and use face filters.
For now, people are not able to ‘duet’ with each other on Reels—a TikTok feature that lets people interact with and remix videos. Instagram also won’t allow people to upload songs directly into the app’s system, which means that musicians looking to use the app as a place to make a song go viral can’t upload it directly.
Speaking to The Verge, Instagram’s product director Robby Stein explained that even though TikTok popularised the short video format, the two products are different. “I think TikTok deserves a ton of credit for popularizing formats in this space, and it’s just great work. But at the end of the day, no two products are exactly alike, and ours are not either.”
Let’s be honest here, Reels is very similar to TikTok, just like Instagram Stories were very similar to Snapchat Stories. What seems to make this blatant copying acceptable is that, in the end, Instagram’s features always end up being more successful than what it initially copied. Yes, TikTok was the first app to make lip-syncing and dance videos cool, but Instagram will probably do it even better.
Unlike TikTok and other copycats such as Triller, Instagram Reels is just another feature for Instagram users to play with. Whether Reels will become our number one favourite video-sharing platform remains unsure but what we’re definitely planning to get on it and find out for ourselves. And, even if you’re not up for it right now, we’re sure we’ll see you on there in less than a month.