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As a parent, two decades into the 21st century, you’re well-conditioned to be aware of online threats to you kids.

So we try to monitor which websites our kids go to, paying particular attention to what’s hot on YouTube, we keep track of what apps are being downloaded and, of course, attempt to vigilantly be on the lookout for cyberbullying in the wild west that is social media, with a laser focus on Snapchat, which might as well have been designed by teens intent on keeping things away from the prying eyes of parents.

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But what if an insidious, potentially dangerous online threat comes from a seemingly harmless, fun app that millions of high school- and middle school-aged kids use multiple times every single day?

TikTok is a videosharing social networking service launched in 2017. About a year ago, it became the most downloaded app in the United States, the first time an app by a Chinese-based company had held that distinction. The “About Us” portion of TikTok’s homepage says, “TikTok is the leading destination for short-form mobile video. Our mission is to inspire creativity and bring joy.”

It is hugely popular here and in many parts of the world, closing in on 100 million American downloads and a billion worldwide. Interestingly, it not allowed to “inspire creativity and bring joy” in China, however.

My middle school kids love this app. They’re constantly making short lip-sync and dance videos. At home, in the car, at school, at sports practices, everywhere. I’ve even been roped into a couple of them, more than likely not for my talents so much as to be made fun of by my kids.

They do these videos mostly just for themselves or to be shared with a tight circle of friends. The app can be set to “private,” so no one else can see what you’re doing on TikTok.

Except, of course, for TikTok, which sees all.

Recently, TikTok came under fire when a 17-year-old New Jersey user named Feroza Aziz was suspended from the platform for mixing a little politics into a video she created that began as a makeup tutorial. Amidst the beauty tips, she urged her viewers to look into China’s repression and the cultural genocide of its Uighur Muslim minority.

TikTok, whose parent company, ByteDance, is based out of Beijing, claims to operate completely independently of the Chinese government. According to the Washington Post, TikTok says “its content moderation policies in the United States are sensitive to this country’s different norms around free expression” and that the suspension of Aziz’s account “had nothing to do with her stand against the atrocities in Xinjiang. Instead, she had violated TikTok’s rules against ‘terrorist content’ by referencing Osama bin Laden in a separate satirical post."

Sure it was. And sure TikTok operates completely independently of the Chinese government.

Aziz’s account is no longer suspended and TikTok blamed human moderation error, but Aziz doesn’t buy that. Nor should anyone. A leaked excerpt of the platform’s terms revealed that its reviewers are instructed to reduce the visibility of political and protest content — such as depictions of public assemblies that “include violence.” One can only assume that demonstrations critical of China are among the content being suppressed.

Remember when we believed the internet could democratize and bring freedom to all corners of the world? It can’t happen when certain world powers are intent on not allowing it to happen. And considering how much influence the Chinese government has over American companies from airlines to the NBA, who would question how much it has over a company based out of that nation’s capital?

A good friend of ours told us he won’t let his daughter use TikTok. He is convinced that everything its young users post is being stored and analyzed and will be used years from now by the Chinese government to blackmail them.

That seems a little far-fetched even for a capricious superpower — I’m guessing the only blackmailing being done regarding my kids’ videos will be them threatening to expose my embarrassing performances.

Of course, five years ago I wouldn’t have believed a capricious superpower would meddle in a United States election, either.

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Bob Blubaugh is the editor of the Carroll County Times. His column appears Sundays. Email him at bob.blubaugh@carrollcountytimes.com.

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