Indiana Jones with a TikTok logo running from a globe
Photoillustration: CBS Photo Archive via Getty Images; Protocol

It’s TikTok vs. the world

Source Code

Good morning! TikTok is finding itself in the hot seat more and more, which makes us wonder: How long can it hang on?

All eyes on TikTok

The technology cold war is trying to claim its biggest victim: TikTok. The wildly popular social media app is under increasing scrutiny from governments and business leaders around the globe.

At the heart of the criticism are TikTok’s alleged ties to China, a reputational challenge the company has tried aggressively to remedy.

  • But it’s also a result of the existential threat that TikTok poses to Silicon Valley’s biggest names — many facing their own problems when it comes to consumer privacy and unethical business practices.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s TikTok against the world, as efforts intensify to undermine its popularity.

Anti-China sentiment is all the rage right now. The Biden administration is expected to issue a new directive blocking China from obtaining older semiconductor tech in an effort to blunt the growth of its nascent chipmaking sector. Political leaders are flocking to Taiwan to show their allegiance to the disputed territory. Even Zoom, a company that seemingly has no ties to China besides the nationality of its founder, Eric Yuan, just narrowly escaped similar scrutiny to TikTok. It did, however, affect Zoom’s now-defunct deal to buy Five9.

  • TikTok maintains that it’s not owned or operated by the Chinese government. But the assurances have done little to stop the opposition campaigns.
  • For example, critics point to the huge investment that TikTok was surprisingly able to make to quickly grow the U.S. user base: “It was just something that was unimaginable — no startup could afford to invest billions and billions and billions of dollars in user acquisition like that around the world,” Snap CEO Evan Spiegel said at the recent CODE Conference.
  • Some have even called for the app to be blackballed, in part as retribution for the requirements China puts on Google, Apple and other foreign companies in order to operate in the country: “TikTok should be banned in every democracy,” Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner said at the same event. (Disclaimer: Axel Springer owns Protocol.)

But in the face of all the negative press — including over the rapid spread of disinformation on the platform, a perennial challenge for most social media sites — TikTok remains massively popular.

Still, the scandals could be denting its previously rapid growth as rivals try their best to prevent users from hopping.

  • Competitors like Instagram that are struggling to counter Tiktok’s rapid success are now copying features in a bid to lure users back — naturally, because Meta is so much more trustworthy.
  • Those attempts appear to be failing. And the resulting shift in power is having a major effect on corporate marketing, influencers and other economic segments tied to social media platforms.
  • However, even TikTok isn’t immune and has already been forced to copy from rivals. But with a revamped advertising platform, it seems the threat the platform poses to Meta and others will remain.

The increasingly hostile tensions between the U.S. and China have claimed many victims, from Hawaiian tourism to Hollywood. But TikTok is different given its prominence: Millions of people basically live on it every day, not unlike WeChat, which underpins a sizable segment of the Chinese economy.

  • Even at the height of its worst scandals, Facebook didn’t face nearly the same existential threats that TikTok is facing. Still, it won’t be easy for any country, let alone a company, to dampen TikTok’s popularity. Amazon, for example, relented on its TikTok ban after just a few hours.

The app is fast becoming top of mind among politicians when it comes to national security, a tenuous position that puts the onus on TikTok to prove its independence from the Chinese government.

Sworn statements and carefully crafted blog posts are doing little to assuage its detractors. And with CEO Shou Zi Chew’s power reportedly curtailed by higher-ups at ByteDance, which is closely connected to the Chinese government, TikTok’s 15 seconds in the spotlight are at risk.

— Joe Williams


With a rocky economy and high inflation, cash flow is key. Check out our exclusive report in partnership with Wakefield to learn what's really slowing cash flow—and what you can do about it.

Learn more

The best of Protocol

Could remote work give climate migrants and refugees economic stability? — Lizzy Lawrence

  • Plenty of Western companies hire people from across the world. But often, they’re taking advantage of cheap local wages and aren’t focused on hiring people living in active war zones or in countries barraged by natural disasters. Sora Union, a startup offering localization, translating materials and design, wants to change that.

Credit scores are broken. Fixing them is an alluring but elusive opportunity. — Veronica Irwin

  • Credit scoring is a busted system for many, and especially for people with low incomes, people of color and immigrants. But startups have an opportunity: Finding a way to accurately underwrite those excluded from the system could unlock a whole new customer base.

How Katie Nickels helped transform how we talk about cyber defense — Kyle Alspach

  • Cybersecurity is complex, which makes explaining it almost impossible. But Katie Nickels, director of intelligence at managed detection and response vendor Red Canary, is one of the few people with a knack for explaining cybersecurity in the simplest terms. This talent is so rare, in fact, that other cybersecurity experts call it her “superpower.”

What I learned about the future from listening to 223 YC startup pitches — Biz Carson

  • Watching Y Combinator’s Demo Day is mental whiplash. Protocol’s Biz Carson did it so you don’t have to. The takeaways? Fintech, crypto and enterprise are still hot, and the creator economy is simply not.

Tech workers have the power to strengthen their companies’ climate plans — Lisa Martine Jenkins

  • Big Tech employees have more leverage than they think. Former journalist Justin Gillis said they could be poised to play an even bigger role in pushing their companies toward ambitious climate goals.

Get ready for inflation gadgets — Janko Roettgers

  • When times are tough, there’s one reliable mainstay in consumer shopping: low-end devices. This fall, a growing number of hardware makers are introducing new gadgets designed and priced to attract cash-strapped consumers.

A tale of two conferences — Owen Thomas

  • While both in New York City, SALT New York and FinovateFall could not have been more different. SALT was all in on Web3, while FinovateFall stayed more on the practical end of fintech.


With a rocky economy and high inflation, cash flow is key. Check out our exclusive report in partnership with Wakefield to learn what's really slowing cash flow—and what you can do about it.

Learn more

Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to our tips line, Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

Recent Issues

The best of Protocol

The confessions of SBF

Your holiday book list

A tale of two FTXs