As the future of TikTok hangs in the balance, the general manager of the Chinese-owned app’s operations in North American said she wanted to “dispel any disinformation” — saying that none of TikTok’s businesses are based in China itself.
However, in practical terms, any distinction between TikTok’s U.S.-based operations and its ownership by Beijing-based ByteDance doesn’t matter given how TikTok has become a geopolitical football.
“For the U.S. market, it’s U.S.-led operations,” Vanessa Pappas, who is now GM of TikTok North America and Australia/New Zealand, said Tuesday during a session during Vox Media’s Pivot Schooled virtual event series.
For the American market, where TikTok says it has 100 million users, all decisions about moderation, security and features in TikTok are handled by Pappas and her L.A.-based team, she said. “We have a really strong leadership locally,” she said.
“I think politics aside, what I can say is we’re extremely confident on the long-term success of TikTok,” Pappas said.
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Donald Trump has demanded that ByteDance divest U.S. operations to an American buyer, or face a shutdown of TikTok by Sept. 15. Trump and other U.S. officials have claimed they’re concerned over TikTok’s ties to China and the potential for Chinese authorities to secretly track TikTok users and their data.
Microsoft is in talks to buy TikTok from ByteDance. Microsoft said that if it reaches a deal for TikTok’s U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand operations it would move all data servers covering U.S.-based users to America (although if Pappas’ claim is correct, none of those servers are in China).
As part of any sale of TikTok, Trump told reporters Monday, the U.S. government “should be paid a substantial amount of money” because “we’re making it possible for this deal to happen.” On Tuesday, White House officials were unable to explain how the U.S. government would legally receive a cut of a deal involving TikTok, Reuters reported.
Asked by Pivot Schooled host Kara Swisher if Pappas had obtained her “Microsoft ID” at this point, Pappas smiled and said, “Not quite.”
Regardless of who ends up owning TikTok, Pappas said, “we’re so proud of the product we’ve built and the community on the platform… The beauty of TikTok and what it provides is this place of positivity and joy, and just creativity, and that’s what we are going focus on.”
While TikTok may operate on a country-specific basis, much of the code that powers the app, including the artificial-intelligence algorithms for its video feed, is shared with ByteDance’s sister Chinese app, Douyin, with the same engineers working on both, the Wall Street Journal reported this week.
Meanwhile, ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming, in a memo to staff earlier Tuesday, wrote that the U.S. government’s aim was not to force a sale of TikTok’s U.S. operations but simply to ban the app, per a Reuters report. It’s unclear that an attempt by Trump to “ban” TikTok would stand up in court, but the administration’s threats could effectively result in the app being blocked in the U.S. anyway if ByteDance doesn’t clinch a deal with Microsoft or someone else.
In an attempt to burnish its image in the U.S. and forestall retaliatory action by the Americans — all for naught, it turns out — ByteDance earlier this year hired Kevin Mayer, formerly chairman of Disney’s Direct-to-Consumer and International segment, as CEO of TikTok and chief operating officer of ByteDance. Where Mayer will wind up remains to be seen given the fluid situation with the Microsoft deal talks.
Pappas joined TikTok in January 2019 as the U.S. general manager and last month expanded her role to GM of North America and Australia/New Zealand, overseeing the strategic business direction and content, operations, marketing, user growth, and product teams in those markets.
Prior to joining TikTok, Pappas worked for over seven years at YouTube where she most recently was global head of creative insights. She received two master’s degrees in media from the New School in New York and the University of Queensland in Australia.