Sandy’s success, which becomes his family’s main breadwinner as global brands like Coca Cola or Suntory pay to have their names appear on his light-hearted clips, is coming as TikTok mushrooms across Southeast Asia. Data trackers show that it has already been downloaded hundreds of millions of times in a region with a total population of 630 million – half of them under 30.
But there are also concerns over how secure user data is in the hands of its Chinese owner ByteDance, raising major storm clouds elsewhere — TikTok has been banned in India and President Donald Trump has ordered ByteDance to sell its US operations, prompting the resignation on Thursday triggered by recently installed CEO Kevin Mayer.
Southeast Asia provides a clear view of the global strategy ByteDance is implementing to avoid crackdowns on other regions, which influencers like Saputra now fear. According to interviews with a dozen current and former employees, the approach is to get “apolitical” products to market quickly and promise governments in countries like Vietnam that content will be tightly controlled in accordance with local laws.
The region is now key to the future of TikTok and ByteDance: the Chinese company is already including TikTok as part of a suite of interconnected apps for live video streaming, messaging and music, taking it on with US giants Facebook and Google while both pouring billions into Southeast Asia.
ByteDance declined to comment on the article, and it’s unclear if or how the anticipated sale of operations in the United States and elsewhere could affect Southeast Asia. But at its base in Sukabumi, West Java province, Saputra is all too aware of the risks.
“Of course I’m thinking about it… It would be so disappointing if TikTok was deleted from Indonesia,” Saputra told Reuters before filming a sketch email@example.com in a rice field.
Meanwhile, TikTok is piloting “creator” marketplaces across the region, championing influencers like Saputra, and negotiating data deals with telecom companies to keep consumers’ smartphone bills under control, according to interviews with current and former employees.
It’s chasing small and medium-sized businesses as advertisers — nearly nine out of 10 companies in Southeast Asia are classified as small — complete with advertising seminars, millions of dollars in advertising credit, and a self-service platform for businesses to run their own ads.
TikTok is testing commercial live-streaming initiatives pioneered in China, Chew Wee Ng, head of marketing for Southeast Asia, said in an interview with Reuters. Meanwhile, ByteDance heavily promotes sister apps like Singapore-based business messaging service Lark and music streaming service Resso.
“TikTok is really unique because people expect to see advertisers and they want to work with brands,” said Ng, a former Google executive based in Singapore.
According to data from app analytics firm Sensor Tower, TikTok had more than 360 million downloads in Southeast Asia, almost half of them in Indonesia, with a 151% year-over-year growth for 2020.
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A 2019 ByteDance internal presentation verified by Reuters showed that TikTok had 43.5 million monthly active users in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia last year, with the majority being female, the largest online consumers in the region.
“IN VIETNAM, CHINA IS POLITICAL”
In Vietnam, TikTok 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 long been at odds with US tech giants over demands to restrict content deemed anti-state and set up local offices in Vietnam.
Reuters reported in April that Facebook agreed to step up censorship of “anti-state” posts in Vietnam after temporarily shutting down its local servers. [L3N2CA1L0]
ByteDance, which unlike big US tech players has an office in the country, decided to forestall trouble with the government by promising to make its app “apolitical”.
Due to Vietnam’s contentious relationship with China, ByteDance decided to also ban content critical of Beijing and anything related to tensions between the two governments.
“In Vietnam, China is political,” a source said.
The approach has proven itself. TikTok ranks Vietnam, a multi-billion dollar market for social media companies, among the most profitable in Asia, according to sources familiar with the matter, and launches regular campaigns with authorities over security and tourism.
Back in West Java, Sandy Saputra wants to keep grinning and fooling around on TikTok.
“It’s not a job for me,” he said, before moving on to another dance routine. “It’s a hobby that makes money.”