Chinese-owned TikTok is one of the most popular apps for U.S. teens today — but after data privacy and cybersecurity concerns about the app, some TikTok creators are looking for an escape hatch from the product one lawmaker called "China's best detective."
"A lot of the popular creators on the app are a little nervous hearing about all that news," TikTok creator Erin Degan, 19, told FOX Business. "We've created our whole brands about something that could potentially hurt our country or our community."
Degan said she's not alone in wanting to transfer her following to other social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube. Making videos at @rin.dot, Degan has gathered over 326,000 followers and 17.5 million likes by drawing pictures of her followers, although now she's branched out into comedy and lip-syncing.
In an age where more American kids want to be video stars than want to be astronauts, teens and twenty-somethings are finding their 15 minutes of fame on TikTok. Their punchy videos, often set to popular songs or funny audio clips, are consumed by kids not much younger than themselves. It's similar to Vine, a video-sharing app that shut down in 2017, but TikTok fanatics say this new app is even more addictive because of its algorithm that continuously feeds users new content.
Many of the TikTok creators who spoke to FOX Business said warnings about the app from lawmakers like Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., weren't on their radar. More teenagers are on TikTok than on Facebook, Hawley, told Fox News in November.
"Here's the problem: it's owned by a Chinese company, and under Chinese law, that means the Communist Party has access to all of the data that TikTok scoops up," Hawley said. "And it scoops up a lot, like your phone book, like what you do on your phone, it tracks you around the web, maybe your text messages. It's dangerous."
ByteDance, TikTok's parent company, has tried to minimize attention on its China connections after lawmakers of both parties asked the intelligence community to examine the national security risks. The company released a TikTok "transparency report" on Dec. 30.
"The Chinese government has never asked us to provide access to any TikTok U.S. user data, and we would not do so if asked," a ByteDance spokesman told The Wall Street Journal.
TikTok creator Frankie Lagana, 22, defended the app. His account, @frankiesfun, has nearly 615,000 followers and 16.2 million likes.
"For people to begin to accuse this app and want to shut it down, I believe it's so premature. I think this app is so brand new. ... I see it as an app that is really monumental and ahead of its time, showing people that media can be processed quicker," Lagana told FOX Business. "When it comes to data mining what are they going to mine, my birthday?"
Grant Beene, 20, frequently collaborates with Lagana and makes videos under the name @tik_tok_bhadie. He has more than 969,000 followers.
Beene told FOX Business he and his friends are figuring out how to monetize TikTok, both by making sponsored videos and by making live videos that can bring in donations (which TikTok receives a cut of).
"TikTok's not going to be anything we leave any time soon," Beene said.
He also said he appreciates TikTok's recent decision to connect popular accounts with so-called managers.
"It's really nice being connected with them," Beene said. "Anytime you have a question about why a video was taken down, they can always update you on new terms of service."
"We're always exploring new ways to support and bring value to our creators," a TikTok spokesperson told FOX Business. "TikTok's talent management team builds connection with creators — offering insights and inviting them to events for their communities. Creators love TikTok because it's real and fun, and we work to make sure that they not only have the tools they need to be their best creative selves on TikTok but also continue to have a positive experience."
Matthew Rodriguez, 18, wished he had been in contact with TikTok after he said his account was banned with no explanation in December. His account, @mouse.ny, and his more than 200,000 followers were restored following an inquiry to TikTok from FOX Business.
"I've been aware of the different issues with TikTok brought up to me by my family members, since my family is in the military," Rodriquez told FOX Business. "I could see why people are afraid to continue using it."
He said he made a few TikTok videos as a joke with friends in April, then one of his first videos blew up with 10 million views overnight. Now he can make up to $1,000 a month through TikTok, which makes it hard for him to want to leave the app.