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TikTokers making six-figure incomes via app worried about potential ban

Lawmakers from Canada, the U.S., Europe, India, New Zealand and others have banned the app from government devices
TikTok influencers, comedians Jeremy Baer, left, and Darcy Michael, a married couple from Ladner, B.C., pose for a photograph in Vancouver, on Friday, April 21, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Ssonia Ong had no idea that a 25-second video she posted miming to music the story of her college love, her wedding, then her four children would go viral on TikTok.

Three years later, with 9.2 million followers, Ong isn’t sure what she would do without it.

She is one of several Canadian “influencers” on the video-hosting service who depend on the app who are voicing their concerns about a growing call worldwide to ban TikTok over the possibility its Chinese owner may allow sensitive user data to be handed over to China’s government.

Lawmakers from Canada, the United States, Europe, India, New Zealand and others have banned the app from government devices, despite assurances from the short-form video app’s owner, ByteDance, that the information would not be used by the Chinese government or promote pro-Beijing propaganda.

Ong, who lives in Vancouver, said in an interview she understands that data security and safety concerns are important, but she would be “very disappointed” if the platform were to be completely banned because its reach is “unparalleled,” setting it apart from similar platforms.

“Most certainly, those are very concerning for those of us who rely on TikTok. There are so many small businesses that thrive there and survive on there,” said Ong.

While Ong wouldn’t give an exact figure, she said her annual income is in the middle six figures by partnering with different brands.

“I have a manager who helps me negotiate the contracts and we’re careful at this point about who we work with. It needs to feel authentic to my brand,” said Ong, adding that most brands she has collaborated with are baby products and snacks.

Tina Nguyen, an Ontario-based mural artist and TikTok creator, said the fear of a ban coming down is not only going to affect her professionally but also on a personal level.

“We have grown so much because of TikTok,” said Nguyen. “So, I don’t want to lose that.”

As an owner of XXL & CO Ltd., a clothing brand that sells handcrafted scrunchies and accessories, Nguyen has more than 474,900 followers on her channel, where she documents the behind-the-scenes process of how to make her products.

With help from TikTok, Nguyen said her business revenues hit seven figures within two years, and her working space also expanded from her 37-square-metre apartment to a 371-square-metre warehouse.

“We have a great community there supporting us. I wouldn’t want to lose that community who actually cares about our well-being and want to help us.”

Darcy Michael, a standup comedian and actor based in B.C., said he can’t “yell at TikTok for privacy concerns” while other social media platforms are doing the same thing, selling the same data for profits.

“If governments are going to ban one social media app on their phones, then they would be silly not to ban them all because they are all in the same business. They are all collecting data,” said Michael, who runs a TikTok channel with his partner, Jeremy Baer, that has 3.5 million followers.

As a comedian, Michael said he spent 15 years trying to find his audiences in Canada.

Although he had some “mediocre successes,” it wasn’t until he started posting his standup routine on TikTok during the pandemic that he became successful.

“And I was like I finally found my audiences. It changed our lives. It felt reassuring that I hadn’t wasted my life,” said Michael, laughing.

Michael, Ong and Nguyen were among eight creators who had a chance to meet with TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew earlier this month in Vancouver to talk about the effect the app has had on their lives and communities.

Brett Caraway, a professor of media economics at the University of Toronto, said safety concerns about TikTok stem from its parent company being headquartered in China, which is subject to Chinese jurisdiction.

“It’s true that the Chinese government could compel ByteDance to turn over data about their users and that could be someone living in the United States,” said Caraway.

But he said much of the current emphasis on TikTok is because there has been an “escalation in tensions” between countries like the United States, Canada and China.

Switching away from TikTok as a content creator would come with added costs that could be quite high, said Caraway.

“If you’re a content creator and you have millions of followers and they’re all on TikTok and that’s your source of income, your switching costs are quite high because if you try and migrate to another platform, there is no guarantee that all of your followers are coming with you,” said Caraway.

Nono Shen, The Canadian Press

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