TikTok’s owner pushes a new app, while under Washington’s glare

WASHINGTON – As TikTok’s CEO Chew Shou Zi was getting grilled by lawmakers last week about the app’s relationship to Beijing, with some even calling for a ban, the company’s Chinese owner was sending a message to Americans who regularly make and publish posts on social media: Come join our new app.

“ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, invites you to become a launching creator on their new Lemon8 platform before it officially rolls out in the United States!” said one of the messages sent to creators last week from marketing companies hired by ByteDance to do the outreach.

The notes and linked materials, which were reviewed by The New York Times, declared Lemon8’s ambition to become a top global social media service and cited the success of its “sister company TikTok”.

It added that the platform, which has already been quietly introduced on app stores, used “the same recommendation engine that helps TikTok succeed”. It will initially focus on topics like fashion, healthy food and wellness.

The outreach is a sign that ByteDance appears undeterred in its ambitions to become one of the top makers of apps in the world, including in the United States, despite the growing calls in Washington to ban TikTok or force the company’s Chinese owners to sell it. TikTok has amassed 150 million US users, and ByteDance appears eager to replicate its success with Lemon8.

But lawmakers and regulators may have similar concerns about Lemon8 as they do with TikTok, which has become a central battleground between the United States and China over technological and economic might. Washington officials have said TikTok poses a national security risk, citing concerns that Beijing could gain access to sensitive data about the app’s users, like location information, or that China could use TikTok’s content recommendations for misinformation.

“It’s a social media platform like Instagram, it has to do with gathering information on users, and it has the same ownership structure, being a child of ByteDance, so I think the same issues are going to come up,” said Ms Lindsay Gorman, head of technology and geopolitics at the German Marshall Fund and a former tech adviser for the Biden administration.

Even if the app initially appears innocuous, she added, “ultimately, with social media platforms in particular, they involve content, and eventually, that’s always going to lead to political content and news content”.

Ms Jennifer Banks, a spokesperson for ByteDance, did not respond to questions about Lemon8 and whether the company anticipated any regulatory scrutiny.

Lemon8 is available to download, but it has not been formally launched. ByteDance is planning a global marketing push to attract more users in May, according to e-mails to creators. The online news site Insider reported on Lemon8’s entry into the United States in February.

Mr Krishna Subramanian, a founder of the influencer marketing firm Captiv8, described the app as a combination of Pinterest and branded posts on Instagram, with a greater focus on pictures and more text than TikTok. It has two columns of content and is packed with product recommendations and tips, with an eye to fuelling shopping.

Its “ideal creator portrait” is a 22- to 26-year-old woman in the New York or Los Angeles area with a focus on fashion or beauty, according to presentations that Lemon8 shared with marketing agencies in January. The vision for Lemon8, one page said, was “to build the most inspiring and informative platform to discover, share, and bring ideas to life.”

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