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  • Julian Mahfouz

Beware of Super App

According to internal data, Google recently claimed that over 40% of Generation Z is using Tik Tok and Instagram over Google’s search engine. For a generation that prefers brief, visual information consumption, it is unsurprising that younger millennials and Generation Z shifted their search habits to Tik Tok. With the ability to optimize its search engine algorithm to out-perform Google, Tik Tok appears to be following other Chinese software developers and transforming TikTok into a “super app.” However, Tik Tok’s Chinese-based leadership, data collection, and history of egregious privacy violations make this “super app” prediction ominous.

For many who use Google or one of its predecessors, using Tik Tok as a search engine may seem abnormal when, in fact, Tik Tok is ready to out-perform Google in delivering pointed search results. A perfect example to illustrate the difference is a hypothetical search for local restaurants. A Google search will bring up a list of links, and ads, with store hours and menus, but a Tik Tok search will bring up a video. The video is less than a minute long, created not as an advertisement by a company, but by another Tik Tok user who tried the restaurant and is giving their review.

A concept on display in China, a “super app” is slowly migrating west and is designed to identify and respond to all user needs simultaneously. A “super app” is a single app functioning as Uber, Twitter, Cash App, WhatsApp, Google, Yelp!, and Netflix, without changing interfaces to offer familiarity and convenience. Many super apps, such as WeChat or Alipay all started as single use apps that adopted different utilities until they achieved super app status.

While Tik Tok does not (currently) include a Cash App type feature, it is both possible and likely. But a future in which a known foreign adversary of the United States, which is also engaging in physical acts of aggression against a U.S. ally (Taiwan), will gain further trust from U.S. consumers through money transfer services and information dissemination is foreboding.

As highlighted in a previous article, Tik Tok is constantly involved in litigation for violation of data privacy laws. Tik Tok previously settled suits for allegedly illegal biometric data collection, involving both adults and minors. Expanding its scope of services and market dominance through “super app” status, especially through mass consumer financial transactions, creates a larger enforcement problem for U.S. authorities.

Applied to China, which already has U.S. consumers by the throat, increasing transparency into their financial and purchasing habits is terrifying. Once Tik Tok becomes a super app, China grasps not only the data of U.S. Consumers but their undivided attention, disseminating information and/or creating problems favorable to the Chinese agenda.

China is in prime position to abuse this new landscape of media consumption that reared its head in the last ten years. There is no longer a homogeneous media consumption experience that can be defined as uniquely American.

To understand what this means, flash back to the 1990s. In the 1990s, if someone was looking to pass some time, they may turn on Full House, or maybe Seinfeld, or turn on the news to see what was happening in the world. This is not to say that, across the country, there were not cultural differences, but if someone wanted to spend a night reclined and consuming media, they were going to have to watch the same TV that every other American was watching. This drastically changed in the last thirty years. Television Networks lack ratings, with the average major network losing 80% of their viewership just over the last ten years.

This slow drawn-out death of the king of media, Television, is intriguing as it is not being usurped by a new king. The king is being killed by many smaller lords who now all vie for the control of the American media conscious. Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Prime Video and Social Media Platforms like Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, and Twitter all fight for the precious minutes of the average American’s day.

One of those lords stands out from the other, Tik Tok, not only because it is owned by a Chinese Company, but also because of its unprecedented encroachment on one of the other kings of the twenty-first century, Google. This wedge into the American mind represents a significant advantage China now has over the United States.

An authoritarian society within its own geographic boundaries, China now can feed Americans directed videos for advertising, thought management, and consumer goods. If China wants to increase domestic tension, they can increase algorithm that prioritizes inflammatory political videos. If China does not approve of the recent support that the United States is showing Taiwan, TikTok can suppress pro-Taiwan videos and prioritize videos criticizing this support.

Scarier is TikTok’s ability to abuse their search engine optimization. If a member of generation Z wants to know why Nancy Pelosi is in Taiwan, a search on Tik Tok may give a different answer than a search on Google. Tik Tok’s ability to shift the American subconscious will only increase as it moves closer and closer to super app status. Moreover, behind all of this, TikTok is still able collect data on their users, legally or illegally.

While the U.S. could (theoretically, on paper) force a company like Meta, who owns Instagram, to purge illegally collected data, and then actually monitor that enforcement on the server side, this kind of oversight would be impossible for a company based in China. As the impact of cyber warfare becomes more mainstream, one of the Unites State’s biggest foreign adversaries collecting vital data on U.S. citizen habits is something the U.S. needs to address.

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