How TikTok went from teen sensation to political pariah

(Video: TWP)

In the seven years since TikTok was born as a niche lip-syncing app for Chinese teens, the platform has reshaped the media landscape — forcing U.S. tech giants to reckon with a foreign rival. The short-form video platform has amassed startling economic power, with more than a billion users and revenue expected to surpass YouTube’s, at nearly $25 billion by 2025.

Critics argue that TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, makes the app a national security threat, potentially allowing it to share data about its American users or steer its algorithms at Beijing’s behest. This concern has spiraled into a slew of political action: A former president tried to ban the platform, and more than two dozen states have barred the app from government-owned devices — a panic that some describe as a threat to free speech in America.

How TikTok ate the internet

The debate over TikTok is a stand-in for a host of political discontents. Here’s how TikTok went from a teen sensation to Washington’s boogeyman:

September 2016

Sept. 26

In China, ByteDance launches the lip-syncing social media app Douyin, the predecessor of what would become TikTok.

September 2017

Sept. 13

ByteDance rebrands Douyin into TikTok, targeting young people around the world.

November 2017

Nov. 9

ByteDance acquires, the popular lip-syncing app with an established following that inspired Douyin’s creation.

July 2018

July 4

Indonesia temporarily bans TikTok, citing concerns of “pornography, inappropriate content and blasphemy.” The ban was lifted less than a week later after the app agreed to censor some of its content.

August 2018

Aug. 1, with its 100 million active users, and TikTok merge into one video app, triggering massive growth.

October 2018

Oct. 31

Worldwide monthly installs of TikTok surpass both Facebook and Instagram for the first time, according to Sensor Tower data, emphasizing the app’s power in an industry long dominated by American companies.

February 2019

Feb. 21

TikTok crosses 1 billion downloads globally on the App Store and Google Play.

Feb. 27

The Federal Trade Commission fines, now known as TikTok, $5.7 million over allegations that it collected children’s data, in violation of federal law. The FTC claims the company didn’t notify parents about the app’s collection of personal information from users under 13. The company had received thousands of complaints from parents of young users.

TikTok content creator Lauren Kettering is known for her choreographed dances, lip-syncs and style videos. (Video: @laurenkettering/TikTok)

November 2019

Nov. 1

The U.S. government investigates TikTok over national security concerns, reviewing the 2017 deal in which Beijing-based ByteDance bought for up to $1 billion.

December 2019

Dec. 31

The U.S. Army bans TikTok on military devices, following a Pentagon missive urging employees to uninstall the app. The Pentagon generally avoids weighing in on individual social media companies, and the move reflects burgeoning concerns about the app.

April 2020

April 20

TikTok reaches a total of more than 2 billion downloads on the App Store and Google Play, generating the most downloads for any app in a single quarter.

May 2020

May 18

TikTok hires Disney executive Kevin Mayer as its new CEO, which is seen as an effort to win over American officials skeptical of TikTok’s Chinese roots and to grow the company’s entertainment prospects.

Melissa Ong called upon her TikTok followers to create a cult with her. They dubbed themselves “Step-Chickens” and crowned her “Mother Hen.” (Video: Melissa Ong/TikTok)

June 2020

June 20

TikTokers and K-pop fans claim they sabotaged President Donald Trump’s Tulsa rally registrations by reserving free tickets but having no intention of showing up.

“TikTok Grandma” Mary Jo Laupp calls on the app's users to register for free tickets to foil a Trump rally set on Juneteenth. (Video: @maryjo.laupp/TikTok)

July 2020

July 6

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the United States is considering banning Chinese social media apps, including TikTok, citing security and privacy concerns and setting off the Trump administration’s campaign against the app.

July 31

Trump says he plans to bar TikTok from operating in the United States because of national security concerns

August 2020

Aug. 5

Facebook launches Reels, a copycat feature in Instagram designed to compete with TikTok. The release illustrates TikTok’s dominance within younger audiences, as legacy social media companies scramble to replicate its success.

Aug. 6

The U.S. Senate approves a bill banning federal employees from using TikTok on government-issued devices, and Trump signs an executive order to effectively ban the use of TikTok in the United States.

Aug. 24

TikTok sues the Trump administration over its efforts to ban the app.

Aug. 26

Amid the Trump administration’s impending ban, Mayer resigns after three months as TikTok’s CEO.

As Washington wavers on TikTok, Beijing exerts control

Aug. 27

After Trump says TikTok can continue to operate domestically with American ownership, Walmart and Microsoft join forces in a bid to acquire the app’s U.S. operations.

French comedian and actress Emma de Bermingham uses the “tell me without telling me” trend to joke about a problem to which Parisians might relate. (Video:

September 2020

Sept. 27

A federal judge temporarily blocks the Trump administration’s ban on TikTok.

December 2020

Dec. 7

A second federal judge halts Trump’s TikTok ban, finding that the administration probably overstepped its authority and, by using presidential emergency powers, “acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner by failing to consider obvious alternatives.”

June 2021

June 9

President Biden revokes Trump’s TikTok ban but sets up a security review of foreign-owned apps.

TikTok creator Emily Zugay went viral for her deadpan humor and reimagining of well-known corporate logos. (Video: @emilyzugay/TikTok)

March 2022

March 10

The White House briefs TikTok stars about the war in Ukraine, highlighting the app’s ascendant power as a news platform and a key tool in the Biden administration’s efforts to reach young people.

October 2022

Oct. 25

Biden meets with TikTok creators ahead of the midterm elections.

Kahlil Greene, known as the “Gen Z Historian,” shares details from a Biden administration meeting held with social media influencers. (Video: @kahlilgreene/TikTok)

November 2022

Nov. 10

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) call for national ban on TikTok in a Washington Post op-ed, warning of TikTok’s supposed threat.

Nov. 29

South Dakota bans TikTok from state-owned devices, sparking a wave of state bans.

December 2022

Dec. 14

The Senate passes a bill to ban federal employees from using TikTok on government devices.

Dec. 22

ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, fires four employees after an internal investigation found that they had accessed data on two journalists and other U.S. users while attempting to track down a company leak.

A TikTok from the Washington Post's Dave Jorgenson was made using CapCut, a free video-editing tool popular with creators. (Video: @davejorgenson/TikTok)

January 2023

Jan. 1

TikTok becomes the most-downloaded app in 2022, with about 730 million worldwide installations for the year, compared to Instagram’s 701 million and Facebook’s 641 million.

Jan. 10

Over a frenzied five-week stretch, nearly two dozen state governors and officials restrict TikTok in their states, dialing up the dim political sentiment against the app.

Jan. 24

The University of Wisconsin joins several universities in banning TikTok on system devices. Students quickly figure out loopholes, using their phones’ data plans rather than school WiFi to access the video app.

February 2023

Feb. 15

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew launches an aggressive push in Washington to prove that the Chinese-owned app is not a national security threat. The diplomatic offensive ends months of silence, a strategy shift for TikTok.

Feb. 27

The White House gives government agencies 30 days to ensure that they do not have TikTok on federal devices.

March 2023

March 15

The Biden administration pushes a plan that would require TikTok’s Chinese owners to divest from the popular app, in an escalation of the White House’s efforts to address national security concerns.

March 23

Shou Zi Chew appears before Congress for the first time. He struggles to diminish mounting worries that the app is a national security threat in a five-hour hearing that highlights the app’s precarious future in the United States.

May 2023

May 17

Montana becomes the first state to enact a total ban on the use of TikTok, imposing fines of $10,000 per day on any mobile store making the app available, and on TikTok itself if it operates the app within the state. The law, which is likely to be challenged in court, is set to take effect Jan. 1, 2024.

Editing by Karly Domb Sadof and Alexis Sobel Fitts.