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- TikTok has exploded onto the US social scene in the last year, attracting millions of teens who scour the platform for viral memes and create their own short videos.
- However, there is little known about the people in charge of running the platform, and the executives at the top of its owner, ByteDance, a $75 billion company based in China.
- TikTok has faced scrutiny about its ties to China, and how much access and influence the Chinese government has to TikTok’s user data and content moderation.
- Here are the most influential and important people in charge of TikTok in the US, a presence which has been as controversial as it is popular.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Although TikTok is one of the hottest and influential platforms on the internet right now, there’s relatively little known about the company and people behind it.
Other tech companies, like Facebook and Google, have executives with massive name recognition who make regular public appearances at conferences and in media outlets. But TikTok isn’t the same: We got our first idea of the person currently in charge of TikTok, Alex Zhu, when he sat down for a rare interview with The New York Times in late 2019 — even though the app had been around for more than two years.
Perhaps it’s because of TikTok’s international roots. The app is owned by the major Chinese company ByteDance, a $75 billion firm that was behind some of the most popular apps in China before it found success on a global scale with TikTok. Now, the company is lauding TikTok — which has been downloaded more than 1.5 billion times — as a place for viral hilarity and widespread memes.
However, TikTok’s burgeoning popularity in the US has also raised questions about its ties to the Chinese government, and how much access and influence the Chinese government has to TikTok’s user data and content moderation. Lawmakers have cautioned that TikTok could pose a national security threat to the country, and the US army banned soldiers from using TikTok on government-issued phones and devices in early 2020.
TikTok has also faced allegations that it censors “culturally problematic” and political content that could be seen as offensive to the Chinese government, according to former employees’ reports to The Washington Post and documents obtained by The Guardian and the German blog Netzpolitik. TikTok was forced to issue a public apology to an American teenager in November when the company suspended her account shortly after she posted videos, disguised as makeup tutorials, to issue a statement about China’s treatment of Muslims.
A year and a half after its debut in the US, TikTok is taking steps to distance itself from its home country. The app is also now reportedly searching for a CEO to run day-to-day operations while based in the US.
These are some of the most important people in charge of TikTok’s US operations:
Alex Zhu — global president
Before TikTok: Zhu is one of the cofounders of Musical.ly, the app ByteDance acquired for $1 billion and merged into TikTok in August 2018. After Musical.ly shut down, Zhu stayed on to help with its transition to TikTok. He then left ByteDance to take some time off to reportedly “rest, go clubbing in Shanghai and listen to jazz.”
Zhu kept a low profile and stayed out of the media. That is, until he revealed in a late-2019 New York Times interview that he had re-joined the ByteDance team earlier that year to work on Douyin, TikTok’s counterpart in China.
Job description: Recent reports from Chinese outlets indicate that Zhu has transitioned to taking charge of TikTok’s international presence outside of China. However, Zhu will reportedly be tasked with managing the product and engineering sides out of China while the company searches for a US-based CEO for TikTok.
Zhang Yiming — ByteDance founder and CEO
Before TikTok: There’s even less information known about Zhang Yiming, who founded ByteDance in 2012. Zhang, who comes from an engineering background, saw initial success with apps operating in China — most notably, a news aggregator app called Toutiao. ByteDance is largely considered the most valuable private company in the world.
Job description: Considering Zhang works out of China and runs a $75 billion company, it seems that he has little influence over the day-to-day US operations of TikTok. In China, TikTok doesn’t exist: It’s called Douyin, and it’s just as wildly popular there.
Vanessa Pappas — US general manager
Before TikTok: Vanessa Pappas was previously a major player at YouTube, where she worked for seven years and headed up the video platform’s creative insights and growth teams.
Job description: Pappas oversees all of TikTok’s operations in the US. TikTok currently operates one office in Culver City, outside Los Angeles, which has since grown to more than 400 employees. Pappas is tasked with making public appearances on behalf of TikTok in the US, including on stage at the online-video convention VidCon in 2019.
TikTok’s hiring of Pappas in February 2019 was the first indication that the platform was putting more effort into expanding its presence in the US and becoming a significant player in the online video industry.
Michael Beckerman — VP, US public policy
Before TikTok: Michael Beckerman was previously CEO and president of the Internet Association, a Washington, DC-based lobbying group that represents the interests of internet companies.
Job description: Beckerman’s role at TikTok doesn’t officially start until February 29, but he’s sure to immediately be busy. He’ll be tasked as the liaison between TikTok and US lawmakers, who are increasingly suspicious of the platform’s ties to China and the threat it may pose to national security. The US government opened a national security investigation in November to examine TikTok’s relationship with China’s government, and the US army banned soldiers from using TikTok on government-issued phones and devices in early 2020.
Beckerman may also have to answer questions as to why Alex Zhu, TikTok’s global president, canceled meetings with lawmakers at the last minute in late 2019.
Erich Andersen — Global general counsel
Before TikTok: Erich Andersen worked at Microsoft for more than 20 years, where he was a vice president and the company’s lead counsel for intellectual property.
Job description:Andersen will serve as TikTok’s global counsel, meaning he’ll answer to TikTok president Alex Zhu. It’s expected that Andersen will continue to focus on the areas of compliance and intellectual property protection — issues which could take on more significance as other apps and platforms try to enter the market and capitalize on TikTok’s success.
Jeffrey Collins — Senior director, trust & safety
Before TikTok: Jeffrey Collins’s background includes serving as a State Department diplomat and a lawyer for energy giant Chevron — as well as a stint with the failed presidential campaign for Martin O’Malley.
Job description: Collins’ role at TikTok seems wholly unrelated to his prior experience. Collins is in change of various “policy, risk, and analysis issues,” but his job focuses on two major questions TikTok faces right now: content moderation and data privacy.
TikTok has also faced allegations that it censors “culturally problematic” and political content that could be seen as offensive to the Chinese government, according to former employees’ reports to The Washington Post and documents obtained by The Guardian and the German blog Netzpolitik. When pro-democracy protests broke out in Hong Kong earlier this year, TikTok was curiously devoid of any hints of unrest, and videos instead documented a prettier picture.
A class-action lawsuit was filed last year in California by a college student who alleges that her private information and unpublished content was accessed by TikTok without her permission and stored on servers in China. TikTok settled another lawsuit in December 2019 related to children’s privacy, paying out $1.1 million related to allegations that the app collected the information of children under 13 without their parents’ consent.
Blake Chandlee — Head of strategic partnerships
Before TikTok: Blake Chandlee was poached from Facebook, where he worked for more than 12 years heading up the company’s global partnerships.
Job description:As the vice president of global business solutions, it seems Chandlee will be in charge of trying to patch up the tensions that exist between the US and TikTok’s ties to China. Chandlee is also tasked with helping TikTok continue to expand into branded content and partnerships, giving the platform even more streams through which it can make money and grow its US footprint.
New CEO — ??
Bloomberg reported in January that TikTok was reportedly on the hunt for a CEO based in the US, and that candidates had been interviewed “in recent months.” The US-based CEO would be in charge of TikTok’s day-to-day operations, working alongside Pappas.
The move could help to assuage mounting concerns of censorship or national security threats. Reports back in December indicated TikTok was looking to set up new headquarters outside of China to further its distance from the Chinese government.