TikTok has been in PR trouble. The massively successful, Chinese-owned social media app became an almost instant hit with mainly younger users. Then COVID-19 got multiple generations in on the action. People of all ages started competing in TikTok challenges and posting fun, short videos online.
As the app’s success spread across multiple other social media platforms, some government officials, including President Trump, began expressing concerns about the app due to the privacy settings that allowed the Chinese company to collect and store user data. Those concerns escalated into direct political pressure, with the president calling on ByteDance to sell its US operations to an American company.
With the pressure on and no easy resolution in sight, TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer resigned. In his resignation letter to employees, Mayer said that his decision comes amid a “political environment” that is “sharply changing,” and he added: “I have done significant reflection on what the corporate structural changes will require, and what it means for the global role I signed up for… Against this backdrop, and as we expect to reach a resolution very soon, it is with a heavy heart that I wanted to let you all know that I have decided to leave the company…”
That message has created some questions for TikTok, as well as for Mayer, who has only been CEO of the company since May, after leaving his executive position at the Disney company. One of the primary questions is if a resolution is coming ‘very soon,’ why leave now?
The company has not been forthcoming with an answer to this question; however, they did offer a “wish-you-well” message after the announcement of Mayer’s departure: “We appreciate that the political dynamics of the last few months have significantly changed what the scope of Kevin’s role would be going forward, and fully respect his decision…”
That message indicates, or at least implies, that Mayer’s role would likely have changed if the current plans for finding resolution were to go forward, and that, either Mayer, the company, or both were not happy with those prospects.
Paving the way for any resolution is the fact that ByteDance already had a separate service for the Chinese market, Douyin, leaving TikTok used mainly by people in Europe and the United States. Mainly, the US and European governments are worried about both the issue of privacy, as well as the potential for censorship that is common in the Chinese media marketplace.
Clearly, TikTok’s leadership believes a resolution is probable, but Mayer would not be content in his role. While veiled to a point, their communication has made that clear. It will be interesting to see how this situation plays itself out and how forthcoming the company will be with any decisions going forward.