At 19, Sandy Saputra is big on TikTok Indonesia. Within a year, he’s leapt from quiet, small-town life to star influencer status as more than 10.5 million followers lap up his toothy grin in dancing, pranking and lip-synching videos on the booming app.
Sandy’s success, becoming his family’s main breadwinner as global brands like Coca Cola or Suntory pay to have their names on his light-hearted clips, comes as TikTok mushrooms across Southeast Asia. Data trackers show it’s been downloaded hundreds of millions of times already in a region with a collective population of 630 million – half of them under 30.
But it also comes as concerns over how secure user data is in the hands of its Chinese owner ByteDance summon big storm clouds elsewhere – TikTok has been banned in India and President Donald Trump has ordered ByteDance to sell its U.S. operations, triggering the resignation on Thursday of only recently installed CEO Kevin Mayer.
Southeast Asia offers a clear view of the global strategy ByteDance is implementing to avoid crackdowns in other regions that influencers like Saputra now fear. The approach is to launch ‘non-political’ products fast, promising to governments in places like Vietnam that content will be tightly policed in accordance with local laws, according to interviews with a dozen current and former employees.
The region is now key to the future of TikTok and ByteDance: The Chinese firm is already plugging TikTok as part of a suite of interconnected apps for live video streaming, messaging and music, tackling U.S. behemoths Facebook and Google head on as both pour billions into Southeast Asia.
ByteDance declined to comment for this article, and it’s unclear whether or how the prospective sale of operations in the United States and elsewhere might effect Southeast Asia. But in his base in Sukabumi, West Java province, Saputra is only too aware of risks.
“Of course I do think about it … It would be so disappointing if TikTok was erased from Indonesia,” Saputra said, speaking before filming a sketch email@example.com in a paddy field.
“It wasn’t planned out. I was an ordinary person, making videos like any other normal person, who didn’t have an idea on how this would play out,” said Saputra, now adding hundreds of thousands of TikTok followers every week.
In the meantime, TikTok is ploughing ahead testing ‘creator’ marketplaces across the region, championing influencers like Saputra, and negotiating data deals with telecoms firms to keep a lid on consumers’ smartphone bills, according to interviews with current and former staffers.
It’s chasing small to medium-sized businesses as advertisers – nearly nine out of every 10 firms in Southeast Asia are classified as small – complete with how-to-advertise seminars, millions of dollars in advertising credits, and a self-service platform for businesses to make their own ads.
TikTok is piloting live-streaming commercial initiatives pioneered in China, Southeast Asia business marketing head Chew Wee Ng said. Meanwhile ByteDance is heavily promoting sister apps like Singapore-headquartered business messaging service Lark and music streaming service Resso.
“TikTok is really unique in that people expect to see advertisers and they want to co-create with brands,” said Ng, a former Google executive based in Singapore.
According to data from app analytics firm Sensor Tower, TikTok has had more than 360 millions downloads in Southeast Asia, nearly half of them in Indonesia, with 151% growth year-on-year for 2020.
An internal ByteDance 2019 presentation showed that last year TikTok had 43.5 million monthly active users in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia, with the majority female, the biggest online consumers in the region.
The app grew staggeringly fast in recent months, sources said, as lockdowns enforced across the region to tackle the coronavirus pandemic forced people to stay home. In Indonesia, Saputra said he’s been acquiring 100,000 followers every three days.
With growth has come increased government scrutiny, but ByteDance has already had plenty of experience dealing with that. As on other business matters, ByteDance declined to comment on its handling of scrutiny.
Indonesia presented one of its first major global policy challenges in 2018, after authorities briefly banned TikTok for posts they said contained “pornography, inappropriate content and blasphemy”.
Within 24 hours, the firm had dispatched senior executives to negotiate with Indonesia, promising to raise the age of its users and to hire a team of local moderators, according to sources and to the-then Indonesian communications minister.
It would quickly copy this approach by installing moderators across its Southeast Asian markets in a bid to insure compliance with local laws.
From 2018 until 2020, ByteDance censored content that it perceived as critical of the Chinese government on a news aggregator app in Indonesia known as BaBe at the behest of ByteDance’s China headquarters.
As of August 2020, most of the content guidelines have been localised for individual Southeast Asian countries. That has often meant strict censorship of local political content.
In Thailand, where a youth protest movement is challenging the country’s monarchy, some users said their pro-protest videos had been taken down.
‘IN VIETNAM, CHINA IS POLITICAL’
In Vietnam, TikTok has blocked most political content for years, according to two people with direct knowledge of the matter who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media. The company declined to comment.
Hanoi has been in a long-running conflict with U.S. tech giants over demands to restrict any content deemed against the state and create local offices in Vietnam.
Facebook agreed to increase censorship of “anti-state” posts in Vietnam after its local servers were temporarily taken off-line.
ByteDance, which unlike big U.S. tech players does have an office in the country, decided to pre-empt issues with the government by promising to make its app ‘non-political’.
Due to Vietnam’s contentious relationship with China, ByteDance decided it would also ban content critical of Beijing, and anything related to tensions between the two governments.
“In Vietnam, China is political,” one source said.
The approach has been effective. TikTok now counts Vietnam, a multi-billion dollar market for social media firms, as among its most profitable in Asia, according to sources with knowledge of the matter, while launching regular campaigns with authorities on safety and tourism.
Back in West Java, Sandy Saputra aims to keep on flashing grins and goofing around on TikTok.
“To me, this isn’t a job,” he said, before breaking away into another dance routine. “It’s a hobby that makes money.”