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Week in Review: Snapchat strikes back

Hello hello, and welcome back to Week in Review. Last week, I wrote about the possibility of a pending social media detente, this week I’m talking about a rising threat to Facebook’s biz.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox here, and follow my tweets here. And while I have you, my colleague Megan Rose Dickey officially launched her new TechCrunch newsletter, Human Capital! It covers labor and diversity and inclusion in tech, go subscribe!


Image: TechCrunch

First off, let me tell you how hard it was to resist writing about Quibi this week, but those takes came in very hot the second that news dropped, and I wrote a little bit about it here already. All I will say, is that while Quibi had its own unique mobile problems, unless Apple changes course or dumps a ton of money buying up content to fill its back library, I think TV+ is next on the chopping block.

This week, I’m digging into another once-maligned startup, though this one has activated quite the turnaround in the last two years. Snap, maker of Snapchat, delivered a killer earnings report this week and as a result, investors deemed to send the stock price soaring. Its market cap has nearly doubled since the start of September and it’s clear that Wall Street actually believes that Snap could meaningfully increase its footprint and challenge Facebook.

The company ended the week with a market cap just short of $65 billion, still a far cry from Facebook $811 billion, but looking quite a bit better than it was in early 2019 when it was worth about one-tenth of what it is today. All of a sudden, Snap has a new challenge, living up to high expectations.

The company shared that in Q3, it delivered $679 million in reported revenue, representing 52% year-over-year growth. The company currently has 249 million daily active users, up 4% over last quarter.

Facebook will report its Q3 earnings next week, but they’re still in a different ballpark for the time being, even if their market cap is just around 12 times Snap’s, their quarterly revenue from Q2 was about 28 times higher than what Snap just reported. Meanwhile, Facebook has 1.79 billion daily actives, just about 7 times Snapchat’s numbers.

Snap has spent an awful lot of time proving the worth of features they’ve been pushing for years, but the company’s next challenge might be diversifying their future. The company has been flirting with augmented reality for years, waiting patiently for the right moment to expand its scope, but Snap hasn’t had the luxury of diverting resources away from efforts that don’t send users back to its core product. Some of its biggest launches of 2020 have been embeddable mini apps for things like ordering movie tickets or bite-sized social games that bring even more social opportunities into chat.

Snap’s laser focus here has obviously been a big part of its recovery, but as expectations grow, so will demands that the company moves more boldly into extending its empire. I don’t think Snapchat needs to buy Trader Joe’s or its own ISP quite yet, but working towards finding its next platform will prevent the service from settling for Twitter-sized ambitions and give them a chance at finding a more expansive future.


Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

Trends of the Week

These next few weeks are guaranteed to be dominated by U.S. election news, so enjoy the diversity of news happenings out there while it lasts…

Quibi is dead
Few companies that have raised so much money have appeared quite dead-on-arrival as Jeffrey Katzenberg’s mobile video startup Quibi. This week, the company made the decision to shut down operations and call it quits. More here.

Pakistan unbans TikTok
It appears that the cascading threat of country-by-country TikTok bans has stopped for now. This week, TikTok was unblocked in Pakistan with the government warning the company that it needed to actively monitor content or it would face a permanent ban. Read more here.

Facebook Dating arrives in Europe
Facebook Dating hasn’t done much to unseat Tinder stateside, but the service didn’t even get the chance to test its luck in Europe due to some regulatory issues relating to its privacy practices. Now, it seems Facebook has landed in the tentative good graces of regulatory bodies and has gotten the go ahead to launch the service in a number of European countries. Read more here.

Until next week,

Lucas M.

Read More

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U.S. Judge Temporarily Halts Trump’s WeChat Ban

WASHINGTON — A federal judge has issued an injunction against President Trump’s executive order effectively banning the Chinese social media app WeChat from operating in the United States after midnight on Sunday, presenting at least a temporary setback in the president’s efforts to block an app that he has labeled a national security threat.

The ruling, which came Sunday morning, will temporarily halt Mr. Trump’s efforts to bar WeChat, which is owned by the Chinese company Tencent Holdings, from carrying out commercial transactions in the United States. The Trump administration has said the app offers China a conduit to collect data on Americans and to censor the news and information shared by WeChat’s more than a billion monthly active users.

In her decision, Judge Laurel Beeler of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California said that she had chosen to grant the motion because the plaintiffs had raised serious questions about whether the order would harm First Amendment rights. She also said that it placed significant hardship on the plaintiffs, who had argued that it would shut down the primary means of communication for the Chinese community.

The U.S. government could now appeal to the Ninth Circuit court to seek to overturn the stay. A Justice Department spokeswoman said Sunday that the department is reviewing the order.

The motion for a preliminary injunction was filed Aug. 27 by the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance, a nonprofit group whose trustees include several prominent Chinese-American lawyers. The group says it has no connection to Tencent Holdings or any of its affiliates.

The alliance has argued that Mr. Trump’s attempt to ban WeChat violates several constitutional provisions, including the right to free speech, due process and equal protection against arbitrary discrimination.

In a statement, the group called the ruling “an important and hard-fought victory” against an order that was “a serious violation of the Constitutional rights of WeChat users in the U.S.”

WeChat has been downloaded nearly 22 million times in the United States since 2014, or about 7 percent of its downloads outside China.

The injunction is the latest twist in an increasingly aggressive confrontation between the United States and China over which country will dominate the global technology landscape. The Trump administration has taken aim at Chinese tech and telecom companies, including WeChat, TikTok and Huawei, claiming they are beholden to the Chinese government and pose a national security threat. In part, the administration has pointed to a 2017 Chinese law that requires Chinese companies to support, provide assistance and cooperate in China’s national intelligence work, wherever they operate.

While the United States has long argued for an open global internet, Mr. Trump’s bans against foreign services like WeChat and TikTok have begun to reverse that trend. His moves echo earlier actions by China, which has long banned American services like Twitter and Facebook that it cannot censor directly.

But while Chinese officials can dictate which companies are allowed to operate in that country, U.S. law prevents Mr. Trump from having the same kind of iron fist to quash foreign business.

“What this shows is that in the American system, there are still limits to how much the executive branch can unilaterally influence and control private sector businesses,” said Geoffrey Gertz, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, calling it a “key difference from China.”

“Although the Trump administration is clearly trying to push these limits, it is still constrained,” Mr. Gertz said. “Businesses have channels for pushing back, such as through the court system, that aren’t necessarily available in other places like China.”

Thomas R. Burke, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said they were “grateful” for the decision.

“Never before has a president sought to ban an entire social media platform — used by a minority community to communicate — with such discriminatory animus and haste,” he said.

In their arguments, the plaintiffs also pointed to the president’s anti-Chinese statements around the time he issued the WeChat order — including referring to the coronavirus pandemic as the “China flu,” and saying that China would own the United States if he was not re-elected — arguing that such comments were aimed at bolstering his re-election campaign.

The U.S. government, in arguing its side, described China’s tech industry as a threat to national security, citing reports that identified Tencent and WeChat as a growing risk and a source of censorship and Chinese government propaganda. At a hearing before Judge Beeler on Saturday, a lawyer from the Justice Department said that the order was well tailored to address the threat “posed by WeChat and not penalize people who speak only for the purpose of providing their personal or business information.”

The legal battle followed a surprise executive order on Aug. 6 signed by Mr. Trump that would bar any commercial transactions with WeChat or the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok by any person or involving any property within the jurisdiction of the United States. The administration threatened fines of up to $1 million and up to 20 years in prison for violations of the order.

In rules issued on Friday, the Commerce Department said it would bar both WeChat and TikTok from American app stores beginning Sunday and would prohibit certain transactions between WeChat and American companies. The administration had given TikTok a reprieve on tougher measures until Nov. 12.

But on Saturday, the president approved an investment in TikTok by American software maker Oracle and Walmart that he said would resolve his national security concerns, and the Commerce Department said it would delay its penalties on TikTok by at least one week.

Given the judge’s ruling on Sunday, neither of the apps will be banned as of midnight Sunday.

Tencent declined to comment. The Commerce Department did not provide an immediate response.

In a declaration filed in August in support of the lawsuit, Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, compared the executive order to a “complete ban of a newspaper, a TV channel, or a website used by the tens of millions of U.S. citizens.”

“Never has the government tried to shut down entirely a public forum used by millions of Americans,” Mr. Chemerinsky wrote, calling it an “unprecedented” restriction on speech that was motivated by “anti-Chinese animus.”

“The chilling effect on the exercise of free speech caused by the Executive Order is profound and constitutionally unsupportable,” he added.

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‘It’s So Essential’: WeChat Ban Makes U.S.-China Standoff Personal

Every day for nearly five years, Juliet Shen’s 94-year-old grandmother in Shanghai has begun her day with a WeChat message to her 40 children and grandchildren scattered across the globe.

“Good morning, everyone!” she writes.

And each time, the diaspora of family members across China, the United States and Central America respond with a cascade of warm replies. Ms. Shen, 27, who lives in Brooklyn, also chats with her parents in China and her brother in Nicaragua in a separate WeChat group, where they share thoughts about their daily meals and other quotidian routines.

On Friday, Ms. Shen called her own meeting with her parents and brother to discuss the U.S. government’s plan to hobble WeChat, the hugely popular messaging service that is a lifeline for many Americans to stay in touch with family and friends in China. When she heard the news about WeChat, Ms. Shen said, “I felt like the wind got knocked out of me. It is the only and easiest way I’ve stayed connected to my family.”

The escalating tensions between the United States and China have long been a largely esoteric issue for many people, something that seemed to be made up of officials bickering with each other over measures like tariffs and items like semiconductors. But the U.S. government’s action to cut off the Chinese-owned WeChat and another app, TikTok, from American app stores at midnight on Sunday has now made the battle intensely personal for millions of people.

The feud is jeopardizing an essential means of communication when Americans are already restricted from traveling to China because of the coronavirus and travel rules. The Commerce Department’s action on Friday focused on new downloads of WeChat and the ability to transfer payments through the app, but those who already have the messaging service are likely to see its service degrade over time because they will be unable to update it with software improvements and security fixes.

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Credit…Thomas Peter/Reuters

The Trump administration’s action further decouples the digital systems of China and the United States, creating an increasingly fragmented internet. The United States is imposing the type of exclusionary restrictions that China has long placed on foreign tech companies that tried to operate there. Facebook and Google dominate in most of the world, but they do not offer their services in China. Twitter is also blocked in China.

WeChat, a do-everything social network that is owned by China’s Tencent, was one of the last major bridges connecting the two digital worlds.

“This move is a page ripped straight out of China’s playbook,” said Lan Xuezhao, founding partner of Basis Set Ventures, a venture capital firm in San Francisco.

Ms. Lan, who was born in China and travels there once a year, said that the internet experiences in the two countries had diverged for years, but that this latest escalation was “a new level.” She herself has lots of family in China, including older relatives who all use WeChat and are not prepared to move to a new service, she said.

“There’s no way that people like me don’t use WeChat,” she said. “It’s so essential.”

She added that she planned to use a virtual private network, a service that can disguise the true location of a user, to continue using WeChat in the United States. It’s a common tactic employed by people in China to gain access to Google, YouTube and Facebook.

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Credit…Yan Cong for The New York Times

Much has been made of the Trump administration’s moves against TikTok, the viral video app owned by China’s ByteDance, but the Commerce Department said a full ban of TikTok would not take effect till Nov. 12. TikTok is in deal talks with the American software maker Oracle and others, which may give it a reprieve from being blocked.

That means the fallout is more severe for WeChat users. Lindsey Luper, 17, who lives in central New Jersey and has both TikTok and WeChat, said her family used WeChat to send money and canned goods to relatives in China who needed financial support and food. Losing access to the app is “very scary,” she said.

She enjoys TikTok, but she said what was happening with WeChat was much more distressing.

“It’s like comparing a game on your phone to the messages app,” she said. “If both were getting banned, clearly one you need for communication with pretty much everyone in your life. And the other one, it’s unfortunate, but it’s not a necessity in the slightest.”

To prevent a WeChat ban, a group calling itself the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance has filed a motion in a federal court in San Francisco asking for a temporary injunction against the block.

Other people said they were scrambling to find alternatives to WeChat. Sirui Hua, 29, a resident of Jersey City, N.J., told family and friends in China to sign up for QQ, a messaging app also owned by Tencent. He is also planning to use Apple’s FaceTime to video chat with his parents in China. But it is hard to replicate the experience of WeChat, where he has more than 2,000 contacts, he said.

Every Saturday evening, Mr. Hua’s parents, who live in Jiangsu Province near Shanghai, message him — their only child — on WeChat for a one-hour video chat. Lately, they have warned him to stay home and to always wear his mask as coronavirus rates increase in the United States. It’s a reversal from early this year, he said, when he warned his parents to stay home in China because of soaring infection rates there.

During the pandemic, WeChat has been a particularly important line of connection, he said. Mr. Hua has his WeChat desktop app open during the day, getting messages from dozens of friends in China. His phone app is where he sees the app’s scrolling Moments feed, similar to a Facebook Timeline, which keeps him updated on how they are doing.

Other WeChat users in the United States rely on the service to keep in touch with customers or maintain important cultural traditions.

Hong Allen, 53, works for Usana Health Sciences, a nutritional and dietary supplement company that is based in Salt Lake City and has operations in China. Most of her clients and customers are in China, and she uses WeChat to communicate with them. Now, she is afraid she will lose all her contacts.

“I really don’t know what to do,” said Ms. Allen, a resident of Vancouver, Wash. “How do I live?”

Huajin Wang, 43, of Pittsburgh, uses WeChat to send a virtual red envelope of money — a Chinese tradition of giving a cash gift in red packets for special occasions or holidays — to friends and family. The U.S. restrictions would prevent that small but meaningful gesture, she said.

“It’s just a small amount, like 50 cents a person, but it is a tradition and sending it make me feel connected to these traditions,” Ms. Wang said.

Ms. Shen said she and her family decided to fall back on email and Skype for communication, the tools they used before WeChat became a daily fixture for them. She added that the feud between China and the United States had slowly pulled her family apart.

Her father, a U.S. permanent resident, was held by Transportation Security Administration officials while traveling to China six months ago, and his laptop was confiscated, she said. Her parents, who have lived in the United States since the 1980s, were on their way to take care of their aging parents in Beijing and Shanghai. Now they are afraid they will face difficulties returning.

“It’s an impossible choice,” Ms. Shen said. “They feel pressure to declare loyalty. It feels like no matter what we do, we will be punished.”

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Explaining Trump Ban on TikTok, WeChat

The Trump administration is pushing forward with its plan to ban the Chinese social media apps TikTok and WeChat from American app stores.

The Commerce Department on Friday announced that beginning on Sunday, it would prohibit downloads of WeChat and TikTok in U.S. app stores, and ban transactions made through WeChat. The Commerce Department said the move would protect Americans for national security reasons.

So what does that mean for you?

The details of the prohibition are set to have a significant impact on people who use TikTok and WeChat. TikTok, which has more than 50 million active users in the United States, according to the research firm App Annie, is mostly popular here among teenagers who post short dance videos; WeChat, which has about 3.5 million active users here, is a messaging app with a host of features including a mobile wallet service.

Here’s what you need to know.

The immediate effects of the action: As of Sunday, Americans will no longer be able to download TikTok or WeChat from the Apple and Google Play app stores. WeChat users in the United States will not be able to use the messaging app for sending payments, among other features.

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Credit…Thomas Peter/Reuters

If you have TikTok downloaded on your phone, you are fine — for now. The Commerce Department will wait until Nov. 12 — after the election — to pursue a full ban on TikTok.

However, if you have deleted the TikTok app from your phone, beginning on Sunday you won’t be able to download it again, even if you have a TikTok account. You also won’t be able to receive any software updates that fix bugs and add features.

The prohibition is more immediate for WeChat users. Starting on Sunday, not only will you not be able to download the WeChat app or software updates from the App Store or Google Play, you also won’t be able to send payments to family members or businesses that use WeChat as a payment method.

The Commerce Department also forbade some business transactions between WeChat and American entities, including companies that provide internet hosting services for WeChat — in other words, the infrastructure that makes WeChat work well in the United States.

Yes. Apps like WeChat and TikTok are not static. They are live internet services that require maintenance, which include security and bug fixes, and if you stop receiving updates, they may eventually cease to work properly. So even if you are grandfathered in, so to speak, this type of prohibition could effectively ban you from using the apps alongside other TikTok and WeChat users around the globe. (Best-case scenario, the apps will continue to work, but poorly.)

The situation may be even more dire for WeChat users. Because of the ban on transactions between American businesses and WeChat, the service may begin to degrade on Sunday. Messages may begin sending slowly or even time out.

For TikTok users, that service degradation won’t happen unless a full ban is implemented on Nov. 12.

Nothing practical. TikTok is attempting to reach a deal with Oracle, an American tech company, and others before November to avoid a ban.

Google Android users may try to “sideload” future versions of the WeChat and TikTok apps on to their devices, a process that involves changing some security settings to download apps from outside Google’s official app store.

Apple phones also have methods to install unauthorized applications. But sideloading and installing apps through unofficial channels is impractical, because it can compromise device security, and it is not simple for many people to do.

Apple and Google users could also try to download the apps from foreign app stores by traveling to other countries. Or they could use a virtual private network, a service that creates a virtual tunnel to shield your browsing information from your internet service provider, to manipulate their device location. Again, this is impractical.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting from Washington.

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Forget TikTok. China’s Powerhouse App Is WeChat.

Just after the 2016 presidential election in the United States, Joanne Li realized the app that connected her to fellow Chinese immigrants had disconnected her from reality.

Everything she saw on the Chinese app, WeChat, indicated Donald J. Trump was an admired leader and impressive businessman. She believed it was the unquestioned consensus on the newly elected American president. “But then I started talking to some foreigners about him, non-Chinese,” she said. “I was totally confused.”

She began to read more widely, and Ms. Li, who lived in Toronto at the time, increasingly found WeChat filled with gossip, conspiracy theories and outright lies. One article claimed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada planned to legalize hard drugs. Another rumor purported that Canada had begun selling marijuana in grocery stores. A post from a news account in Shanghai warned Chinese people to take care lest they accidentally bring the drug back from Canada and get arrested.

She also questioned what was being said about China. When a top Huawei executive was arrested in Canada in 2018, articles from foreign news media were quickly censored on WeChat. Her Chinese friends both inside and outside China began to say that Canada had no justice, which contradicted her own experience. “All of a sudden I discovered talking to others about the issue didn’t make sense,” Ms. Li said. “It felt like if I only watched Chinese media, all of my thoughts would be different.”

Ms. Li had little choice but to take the bad with the good. Built to be everything for everyone, WeChat is indispensable.

For most Chinese people in China, WeChat is a sort of all-in-one app: a way to swap stories, talk to old classmates, pay bills, coordinate with co-workers, post envy-inducing vacation photos, buy stuff and get news. For the millions of members of China’s diaspora, it is the bridge that links them to the trappings of home, from family chatter to food photos.

Woven through it all is the ever more muscular surveillance and propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party. As WeChat has become ubiquitous, it has become a powerful tool of social control, a way for Chinese authorities to guide and police what people say, whom they talk to and what they read.

It has even extended Beijing’s reach beyond its borders. When secret police issue threats abroad, they often do so on WeChat. When military researchers working undercover in the United States needed to talk to China’s embassies, they used WeChat, according to court documents. The party coordinates via WeChat with members studying overseas.

As a cornerstone of China’s surveillance state, WeChat is now considered a national security threat in the United States. The Trump administration has proposed banning WeChat outright, along with the Chinese short video app TikTok. Overnight, two of China’s biggest internet innovations became a new front in the sprawling tech standoff between China and the United States.

While the two apps are lumped in the same category by the Trump administration, they represent two distinct approaches to the Great Firewall that blocks Chinese access to foreign websites.

The hipper, better-known TikTok was designed for the wild world outside of China’s cloistering censorship; it exists only beyond China’s borders. By hiving off an independent app to win over global users, TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, created the best bet any Chinese start-up has had to compete with the internet giants in the West. The separation of TikTok from its cousin apps in China, along with deep popularity, has fed corporate campaigns in the United States to save it, even as Beijing potentially upended any deals by labeling its core technology a national security priority.

Though WeChat has different rules for users inside and outside of China, it remains a single, unified social network spanning China’s Great Firewall. In that sense, it has helped bring Chinese censorship to the world. A ban would cut dead millions of conversations between family and friends, a reason one group has filed a lawsuit to block the Trump administration’s efforts. It would also be an easy victory for American policymakers seeking to push back against China’s techno-authoritarian overreach.

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Credit…The New York Times

Ms. Li felt the whipcrack of China’s internet controls firsthand when she returned to China in 2018 to take a real estate job. After her experience overseas, she sought to balance her news diet with groups that shared articles on world events. As the coronavirus spread in early 2020 and China’s relations with countries around the world strained, she posted an article on WeChat from the U.S. government-run Radio Free Asia about the deterioration of Chinese-Canadian diplomacy, a piece that would have been censored.

The next day, four police officers showed up at her family’s apartment. They carried guns and riot shields.

“My mother was terrified,” she said. “She turned white when she saw them.”

The police officers took Ms. Li, along with her phone and computer, to the local police station. She said they manacled her legs to a restraining device known as a tiger chair for questioning. They asked repeatedly about the article and her WeChat contacts overseas before locking her in a barred cell for the night.

Twice she was released, only to be dragged back to the station for fresh interrogation sessions. Ms. Li said an officer even insisted China had freedom of speech protections as he questioned her over what she had said online. “I didn’t say anything,” she said. “I just thought, what is your freedom of speech? Is it the freedom to drag me down to the police station and keep me night after sleepless night interrogating me?”

Finally, the police forced her to write out a confession and vow of support for China, then let her go.

WeChat started out as a simple copycat. Its parent, the Chinese internet giant Tencent, had built an enormous user base on a chat app designed for personal computers. But a new generation of mobile chat apps threatened to upset its hold over the way young Chinese talked to one another.

The visionary Tencent engineer Allen Zhang fired off a message to the company founder, Pony Ma, concerned that they weren’t keeping up. The missive led to a new mandate, and Mr. Zhang fashioned a digital Swiss Army knife that became a necessity for daily life in China. WeChat piggybacked on the popularity of the other online platforms run by Tencent, combining payments, e-commerce and social media into a single service.

It became a hit, eventually eclipsing the apps that inspired WeChat. And Tencent, which made billions in profits from the online games piped into its disparate platforms, now had a way to make money off nearly every aspect of a person’s digital identity — by serving ads, selling stuff, processing payments and facilitating services like food delivery.

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Credit…Wu Hong/EPA

The tech world inside and outside of China marveled. Tencent rival Alibaba scrambled to come up with its own product to compete. Silicon Valley studied the ways it mixed services and followed its cues.

Built for China’s closed world of internet services, WeChat’s only failure came outside the Great Firewall. Tencent made a big marketing push overseas, even hiring the soccer player Lionel Messi as a spokesman in some markets. For non-China users, it created a separate set of rules. International accounts would not face direct censorship and data would be stored on servers overseas.

But WeChat didn’t have the same appeal without the many services available only in China. It looked more prosaic outside the country, like any other chat app. The main overseas users, in the end, would be the Chinese diaspora.

Tencent did not respond to a request for comment.

Over time, the distinctions between the Chinese and international app have mattered less. Chinese people who create accounts within China, but then leave, carry with them a censored and monitored account. If international users chat with users inside China, their posts can be censored.

For news and gossip, most comes from WeChat users inside China and spreads out to the world. Whereas most social networks have myriad filter bubbles that reinforce different biases, WeChat is dominated by one super-filter bubble, and it hews closely to the official propaganda narratives.

“The filter bubbles on WeChat have nothing to do with algorithms — they come from China’s closed internet ecosystem and censorship. That makes them worse than other social media,” said Fang Kecheng, a professor in the School of Journalism and Communications at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Mr. Fang first noticed the limitations of WeChat in 2018 as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching an online course in media literacy to younger Chinese.

Soft-spoken and steeped in the media echo chambers of the United States and China, Mr. Fang expected to reach mostly curious Chinese inside China. An unexpected group dialed into the classes: Chinese immigrants and expatriates living in the United States, Canada and elsewhere.

“It seemed obvious. Because they were all outside China, it should be easy for them to gain an understanding of foreign media. In their day-to-day life they would see it and read it,” Mr. Fang said. “I realized it wasn’t the case. They were outside of China, but their media environment was still entirely inside China, their channel for information was all from public accounts on WeChat.”

Mr. Fang’s six-week online courses were inspired by a WeChat account he ran called News Lab that sought to teach readers about journalism. With his courses, he assigned articles from media like Reuters along with work sheets that taught students to analyze the pieces — pushing them to draw distinctions between pundit commentary and primary sourcing.

During one course in 2019, he focused on the fire at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, which inspired many conspiracy theories on WeChat. One professor at the prestigious Tsinghua University reposted an article alleging that Muslims were behind the fire, which was untrue.

The classes were a big draw. In 2018, Mr. Fang attracted 500 students. The next year he got 1,300. In 2020, a year of coronavirus rumors and censorship, Tencent took down his News Lab account. He decided it was not safe to teach the class on another platform given the more “hostile” climate toward foreign media.

Still, he said that blocking WeChat would be unlikely to help much, as users could easily switch to other Chinese apps filled with propaganda and rumors. A better idea would be to create rules that force social media companies like Tencent to be more transparent, he said.

Creating such internet blocks, he said, rarely improved the quality of information.

“Information is like water. Water quality can be improved, but without any flow, water easily grows fetid,” he said.

In a class in 2019, he warned broadly about barriers to information flow.

“Now, the walls are getting higher and higher. The ability to see the outside has become ever harder,” he said. “Not just in China, but in much of the world.”

When Ferkat Jawdat’s mother disappeared into China’s sprawling system of re-education camps to indoctrinate Uighurs, his WeChat became a kind of memorial.

The app might have been used as evidence against her. But he, like many Uighurs, found himself opening WeChat again and again. It contained years of photos and conversations with his mother. It also held a remote hope he clung to, that one day she would again reach out.

When against all odds she did, the secret police followed.

If propaganda and censorship have found their way to WeChat users overseas, so too has China’s government.

For ethnic minority Uighurs, who have been targeted by draconian digital controls at home in China, the chat app has become a conduit for threats from Chinese security forces. In court documents, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said China’s embassies communicated on WeChat with military researchers who had entered the United States to steal scientific research. The Chinese Communist Party has used it to keep up ties and organize overseas members, including foreign-exchange students.

Not all uses are nefarious. During the pandemic, local governments used the app to update residents traveling and living abroad about the virus. China’s embassies use it to issue travel warnings.

While the Chinese government could use any chat app, WeChat has advantages. Police know well its surveillance capabilities. Within China most accounts are linked to the real identity of users.

Mr. Jawdat’s mother, sick and worn, was released from the camps in the summer of 2019. Chinese police gave her a phone and signed her into WeChat. At the sound of his mother’s voice Mr. Jawdat fought back a flood of emotions. He hadn’t been sure if she was even alive. Despite the relief, he noticed something was off. She offered stilted words of praise for the Chinese Communist Party.

Then the police reached out to him. They approached him with an anonymous friend request over WeChat. When he accepted, a man introduced himself as a high-ranking officer in China’s security forces in the Xinjiang region, the epicenter of re-education camps. The man had a proposal. If Mr. Jawdat, an American citizen and Uighur activist, would quiet his attempts to raise awareness about the camps, then his mother might be given a passport and allowed to join her family in the United States.

“It was a kind of threat,” he said. “I stayed quiet for two or three weeks, just to see what he did.”

It all came to nothing. After turning down a media interview and skipping a speaking event, Mr. Jawdat grew impatient and confronted the man. “He started threatening me, saying, ‘You’re only one person going against the superpower. Compared to China, you are nothing.’”

The experience gave Mr. Jawdat little tolerance for the app that made the threats possible, even if it had been his only line to his mother. He said he knew two other Uighur Americans who had similar experiences. Accounts from others point to similar occurrences around the world.

“I don’t know if it’s karma or justice served, for the Chinese people to also feel the pain of what it’s like to lose contact with your family members,” Mr. Jawdat said of the proposed ban by the Trump administration. “There are many Chinese officials who have their kids in the U.S. WeChat must be one of the tools they use to keep in contact. If they feel this pain, maybe they can relate better to the Uighurs.”

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Credit…Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

Ms. Li was late to the WeChat party. Away in Toronto when it exploded in popularity, she joined only in 2013, after her sister’s repeated urging.

It opened up a new world for her. Not in China, but in Canada.

She found people nearby similar to her. Many of her Chinese friends were on it. They found restaurants nearly as good as those at home and explored the city together. One public account set up by a Chinese immigrant organized activities. It kindled more than a few romances. “It was incredibly fun to be on WeChat,” she recalled.

Now the app reminds her of jail. During questioning, police told her that a surveillance system, which they called Skynet, flagged the link she shared. Sharing a name with the A.I. from the Terminator movies, Skynet is a real-life techno-policing system, one of several Beijing has spent billions to create.

The surveillance push has supported a fast-growing force of internet police. The group prowls services like WeChat for posts deemed politically sensitive, anything from a link to a joke mocking leader Xi Jinping. To handle WeChat’s hundreds of millions of users and their conversations, software analyzes keywords, links and images to generate leads.

Although Ms. Li registered her account in Canada, she fell under Chinese rules when she was back in China. Even outside of China, traffic on WeChat appears to be feeding these automated systems of control. A report from Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto-based research group, showed that Tencent surveilled images and files sent by WeChat users outside of China to help train its censorship algorithms within China. In effect, even when overseas users of WeChat are not being censored, the app learns from them how to better censor.

Wary of falling into automated traps, Ms. Li now writes with typos. Instead of referring directly to police, she uses a pun she invented, calling them golden forks. She no longer shares links from news sites outside of WeChat and holds back her inclination to talk politics.

Still, to be free she would have to delete WeChat, and she can’t do that. As the coronavirus crisis struck China, her family used it to coordinate food orders during lockdowns. She also needs a local government health code featured on the app to use public transport or enter stores.

“I want to switch to other chat apps, but there’s no way,” she said.

“If there were a real alternative I would change, but WeChat is terrible because there is no alternative. It’s too closely tied to life. For shopping, paying, for work, you have to use it,” she said. “If you jump to another app, then you are alone.”

Lin Qiqing contributed research.

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We Tested Instagram Reels, the TikTok Clone. What a Dud.

Millions of people have used the social media app TikTok to make and share short, fun, entertaining videos. I, Brian Chen, am not one of them.

Count me as one of those never-TikTokers. As an older millennial, I have exclusively used Facebook’s Instagram to post photos of my dog. I have never made a 15-second dance video.

But that all changed last week. That was when Facebook released a TikTok copycat called Reels, which is part of Instagram. Its introduction suddenly made making short videos a lot more interesting.

Facebook’s timing was brilliant. That’s because TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese internet company ByteDance, has been under major pressure from President Trump. He has identified TikTok as a national security threat and threatened to ban the app from the United States, prompting numerous panicked TikTokers to look for alternatives.

So here was an opportunity to test Reels and compare it with TikTok. I invited Taylor Lorenz, our internet culture writer and resident TikTok expert, to share her thoughts about how Facebook’s clone worked versus the real thing. With her experience and my novice knowledge, we could assess how both the never-TikTokers and the TikTok die-hards might feel about Reels.

The verdict? For her, it was: Not good. For me, it was: Confused.

Let’s start with what was copied. Both TikTok, a stand-alone app, and Reels, a feature inside Instagram, are free to use. With Reels, Instagram mimicked TikTok’s signature ability to create short video montages, which are overlaid with copyrighted music and embellished with effects like emojis and sped-up motion.

The similarities pretty much ended there — and not in a positive way for Instagram.

On Instagram, the videos are published to a feed known as the Explore tab, a mishmash of photos, sponsored posts and long-form videos. On TikTok, videos are surfaced through For You, a feed algorithmically tailored to show clips that suit your interests. Reels also lacks TikTok’s editing features, like song recommendations and automatic clip trimming, that use artificial intelligence to speed up the process of video creation.

Taylor and I each tested Reels for five days and then talked about what we had found. We didn’t hold back.

TAYLOR I can definitively say Reels is the worst feature I’ve ever used.

BRIAN Please elaborate. As a never-TikToker, I feel that it’s probably the worst Instagram feature I’ve used, too, but your feelings seem stronger than mine.

TAYLOR It’s horrible. Not only does Reels fail in every way as a TikTok clone, but it’s confusing, frustrating and impossible to navigate. It’s like Instagram took all the current functionality on Stories (a tool to publish montages of photos and videos with added filters, text and music clips), and jammed them into a separate, new complicated interface for no reason.

To me, it’s really unclear whom this feature is for.

BRIAN Let’s walk through how to use Reels.

To open the feature, you tap the Explore button (the magnifying glass) and open someone else’s reel before hitting the camera button to start creating your own reel.

So I have to watch someone else’s video before creating my own? This is a waste of time, battery life and cell data.

TAYLOR You can also create a reel by swiping right in Instagram to enter the camera and then selecting Reels, a button next to Story. Which is confusing.

BRIAN It’s totally undiscoverable without reading instructions. But OK, you find the button to create a reel. Then you can start recording videos or add videos you’ve already recorded. Then you can overlay music and some effects like emojis and color filters. Then you write a caption and publish.

How does this compare with TikTok?

TAYLOR TikTok is better in a million ways. The main one being that TikTok removes all of the friction that normally comes with trying to make a good video.

On TikTok, you can just grab a ton of videos (like, hit select on 17 different videos of all different lengths), and dump them all into the app and hit a button. TikTok will automatically select highlights from your videos and edit them in a way to match the beat of whatever sound you choose. This makes it so easy to create a really engaging, smooth video in under 10 seconds from a ton of footage.

Here’s an example of Reels versus TikTok of the same thing. You can see which is better!

Here’s the reel:

Video

And here’s the TikTok video:

Video

Oh, wait, did Reels save without sound?

BRIAN Yeah. Instagram said that there were restrictions and that they were working with third-party rights holders to expand its features. So when you save a video to your device after posting it, the music is automatically stripped away.

What you describe about TikTok just makes Reels sound so lacking. In Reels, you have to manually select where a music track starts to ensure it’s in sync with a clip. You’re saying TikTok automatically figures that out for you?

TAYLOR In TikTok, you have a feature called “sound sync,” which everyone uses. You upload a bunch of clips, and it will reorder and trim them to match whatever sound you choose. It also suggests the best songs for each video.

BRIAN Wow, really? That’s insane.

For music on Reels, I would hit the Audio button and just type in a word that came to mind to search for relevant songs. With this video of my corgi eating bread, I typed the word “hungry” to choose “Hungry Eyes.” Then I had to trim the clips and manually synchronize a portion of the song. That took me about 10 minutes.

Take a look:

Now take a look at an example of a failed reel that I never posted. I was trying to make a montage of dog butts being scratched. After adding the music, I was able to go back and trim the second clip to be in rhythm with the music, but couldn’t go backward to trim the first clip of scratching the Doberman’s butt.

Video

Why am I able to edit the second clip but not the first clip? Instagram said it was still early days and that they were working on the ability to edit earlier clips. (Early days, my butt! They’ve been working on Reels for over a year.)

TAYLOR TikTok makes it very easy to create really entertaining short videos and makes it easy for that content to go viral. Reels makes it hard to create entertaining short videos — and even if you post them, the best you can hope for is to get a little distribution on a very crowded Explore page.

A big part of why TikToks go viral is that they can be easily downloaded and shared across platforms (with credit baked in because they’re watermarked with the handle).

Also, Reels is missing the ability to “duet” content, as you can on TikTok. Duets allow users to create side-by-side reaction videos. This is a core way users communicate and riff off each other. It’s basically the TikTok version of a quote tweet.

Finally, Reels has no “friends only” option. On TikTok, I’m able to post a video only mutual friends can see. I just want an easy way to post to my friends only.

BRIAN Right. Currently the simplest way to do that on Reels is to set your profile to friends-only so that all your posts are viewable only to friends. Otherwise, if you share a reel privately with a friend through a direct message, it acts like a Story and disappears after 24 hours. Which is confusing.

How long would you say you spent on making a TikTok versus a reel?

TAYLOR With TikTok, I can post a fun video of my day in under 15 seconds. Reels took me about five minutes.

Some people do spend an enormous amount of time editing their TikToks and making these really complicated and amazing videos. But for me, just a casual user who uses TikTok to capture fun highlights from my day-to-day life, that’s the time frame.

BRIAN As an Instagram user, I see no benefit to using Reels as opposed to Stories for posting videos. It’s extremely confusing for even us to use, which means it’s going to be much more confusing for casual tech users.

I’ll add that my followers didn’t seem impressed with Reels. The reel of my corgi, Max, eating bread got about 250 likes, down from the 300 to 400 likes that he usually gets from regular Instagram photos.

Maybe I’ll post more Reels one day if Instagram catches up with TikTok. But until then, I think you’ve persuaded me to start a TikTok.

TAYLOR I can’t see myself creating a Reel again. I might use it as a repository to re-upload my TikToks. But over all it just doesn’t have any of the video-editing ability that I’ve come to expect.

It’s also hard to find and discover other Reels. Part of why it’s so easy to be creative on TikTok is that you’re presented daily with a series of trends, memes or challenges. It makes it easy to see what other people are doing and hop on it or riff off it. I just don’t see what Reels is good for.

BRIAN That’s some reel talk.

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Targeting WeChat, Trump Takes Aim at China’s Bridge to the World

TAIPEI, Taiwan — In China, WeChat does more than any app rightfully should. People use it to talk, shop, share photos, pay bills, get their news and send money.

With much of the Chinese internet locked behind a wall of filters and censors, the country’s everything app is also one of the few digital bridges connecting China to the rest of the world. It is the way exchange students talk to their families, immigrants keep up with relatives and much of the Chinese diaspora swaps memes, gossip and videos.

Now, that bridge is threatening to crumble.

Late Thursday, the Trump administration issued an executive order that could pull China’s most important app from Apple and Google stores across the world and prevent American companies from doing business with its parent company, Tencent. Light on details, the decree could prove cosmetic, crushing or something in between.

If enforced strongly when it takes effect in 45 days, the order will take dead aim at China’s single most groundbreaking internet product, which 1.2 billion people use every month. An effective ban on the app in the United States would cut short millions of conversations between investors, business partners, family members and friends. The threat alone will likely start a new chapter in the deepening standoff between China and the United States over the future of technology.

Taken together with Thursday’s twin order against the Chinese-owned video app TikTok, the move against WeChat marks a shift in the American approach to the Great Firewall, which for years has kept companies like Facebook and Google from operating in China. Restricting WeChat and TikTok could be the first steps in an eye-for-an-eye reprisal.

While TikTok may be the fad of the moment in the United States, WeChat is far more important in China. A digital bedrock of daily life, WeChat emerged as a tool for the Chinese authorities to impose social controls. Within China, the app is heavily censored and monitored by a newly empowered force of internet police.

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Credit…Ng Han Guan/Associated Press

Outside China’s borders, the app has become a key conduit for the spread of Beijing’s propaganda. Chinese security forces have also regularly used WeChat to intimidate and silence members of the Chinese diaspora, including minority Uighurs seeking to raise awareness of harsh crackdowns in their homeland in western China.

“The downside of this executive order is that it’s addressing these concerns by taking steps that also make it harder to directly communicate with ordinary people in China,” said Sheena Greitens, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

“It puts this administration’s policy into conflict with another one of its stated goals: to maintain openness and friendly connections with the Chinese people,” she added.

While WeChat and its owner have long straddled the uncomfortable divides that separate China’s internet from the world, they have rarely come under such direct scrutiny from the United States.

Originally created as the copycat brainchild of a Tencent engineer, Allen Zhang, WeChat mostly failed to catch on in overseas markets, even as the company spent hundreds of millions in marketing dollars to compete with WhatsApp. The app’s reliance on other Chinese apps in the isolated Chinese internet ecosystem probably hurt its chances, even as its usage innovations transformed life within China.

Outside China, it has mainly been a tether for the Chinese diaspora to their homeland.

May Han, a Chinese-born American, moved to the United States with her family when she was 9. Lonely when she first arrived, Ms. Han’s parents encouraged her to use another Tencent chat service, QQ, to keep up with her elementary school friends in China. They also hoped it would help her remember Chinese.

Eventually she made the jump to WeChat, where she still whiles away her online days chatting with about 350 friends and family members, many of them in China. Now an environmental science major at the University of California, San Diego, Ms. Han said WeChat had become the cultural glue that holds together much of her Chinese community.

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Credit…Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press

“If we can’t use WeChat, our connections to China will decrease or even vanish,” she said. “Most of us have got used to using WeChat, especially older generations. Changing an app is not easy for them; it means changing their lifestyle.”

Some of her friends, she said, had already begun posting links to Line, a messaging app popular in Japan, in case they were forced to switch. To Ms. Han, the order seemed un-American.

“Trump is violating our rights to connect with our families and friends. If WeChat is really banned, the executive order seems rather unconstitutional, it violates the First Amendment,” she said. “It may sound exaggerated here, but I do hope WeChat won’t be blocked.”

The order could end up restricting a variety of dealings between Americans and Tencent.

American companies could, for instance, be barred from advertising on WeChat, cutting them off from a key channel for reaching China’s vast consumer market. Tencent could be prohibited from distributing WeChat through Apple’s and Google’s app stores, which could leave users unable to receive software updates, or unable to use the app entirely.

Apple and Google did not respond to requests for comment.

The White House order could even prevent Tencent from purchasing American equipment for the servers from which it operates WeChat. If the company uses those same servers to run other internet products and services, then a wider swath of its business could be affected, according to David Dai, an analyst in Hong Kong with the investment research firm Sanford C. Bernstein.

This would be the “worst-case scenario” for Tencent, Mr. Dai wrote in a research note on Friday.

Tencent, which has a market capitalization well above $600 billion, said on Friday that it was reviewing the executive order “to get a full understanding.” The company’s shares fell almost 6 percent in Friday trading on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

TikTok said it was “shocked” by the White House order, which it said had been issued “without any due process.”

At a daily news briefing on Friday, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin called the order a “nakedly hegemonic act,” saying that “on the pretext of national security, the U.S. frequently abuses national power and unreasonably suppresses relevant enterprises.”

Tencent’s own products may have struggled to break through in Western countries. But it has built up a wide-ranging, if low-key, presence in the United States through investments and partnerships — all of which could be affected if the White House order results in a broad ban on working with Tencent.

Some of the company’s most significant overseas forays have been in video games, which account for much of its worldwide revenue. Tencent owns Riot Games, the developer behind League of Legends, and a large share of Epic Games, which makes Fortnite. The company’s film unit, Tencent Pictures, has been involved in Hollywood blockbusters including “Wonder Woman” and the most recent “Terminator” movie.

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Credit…Richard A. Brooks/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Tencent has also taken stakes in companies with less direct connections to its own businesses, including the electric carmaker Tesla and the social media company Snap. It has even invested in the Chinese operations of Tim Hortons, the Canadian coffee chain, to aid in the company’s expansion in China.

As Tencent’s global WeChat expansion foundered, the company tried to purchase WhatsApp but was beaten out by Facebook. If Tencent had succeeded, it may well have looked more like ByteDance, the other Chinese internet company in the cross hairs of the Trump administration. ByteDance’s best known app, TikTok, got a big boost with its takeover of Musical.ly, a short-video app built by Chinese entrepreneurs that had found success in Europe and the United States.

Both companies’ workarounds functioned only because Washington did not follow Beijing’s censorship cues. That may now be changing, though Yaqiu Wang, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said the Trump administration’s executive orders looked puny compared to Beijing’s Great Firewall. While they raise free speech questions, she said, the concerns about WeChat’s role in democracies are very real.

“For many overseas Chinese, the popularity and multifunctionality of WeChat has made apps popular outside of China unnecessary,” she said.

“That means the Chinese government is able to control a significant portion of the information overseas Chinese receive, even outside its borders,” she added. “This could have real domestic political implications, as many members of the Chinese diaspora are voters of the countries they reside in and are, or can be, politically mobilized.”

Lin Qiqing contributed research.

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Trump Targets WeChat and TikTok, in Sharp Escalation With China

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has announced sweeping restrictions on two popular Chinese social media networks, TikTok and WeChat, a sharp escalation of its confrontation with China that is likely to be met with retaliation.

Two executive orders, released late Thursday and taking effect in 45 days, cited national security concerns to bar any transactions with WeChat or TikTok by any person or involving any property subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. The order essentially sets a 45-day deadline for an acquisition of TikTok, which is in talks to be acquired by Microsoft.

Tensions between the United States and China have already escalated to levels not seen in decades over rifts in geopolitics, technology and trade. In recent months, Trump administration officials have challenged China on its crackdown in Hong Kong, its territorial claims in the South China Sea and its efforts to produce global tech champions. The campaign has been provoked in part by China’s more assertive posture, but also President Trump’s desire to convince voters that he is tough on China as the election approaches.

Mr. Trump’s advisers have zeroed in on technology companies, which they say are beholden to the Chinese government through security laws. Many companies that do business across the Pacific have been left paralyzed or begun to reconsider their partnerships, unsure of whether these tensions will spill into a new Cold War. The restrictions announced Thursday would also represent a further balkanization of the global internet, as nations continue to cut off foreign technology companies from one another’s markets.

In the announcement, Mr. Trump accused WeChat, made by Tencent, and TikTok, made by ByteDance, of providing a channel for the Chinese Communist Party to obtain Americans’ proprietary information, keep tabs on Chinese citizens abroad and carry out disinformation campaigns to benefit China’s interest.

“The spread in the United States of mobile applications developed and owned by companies in the People’s Republic of China (China) continues to threaten the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States,” the president wrote.

Much remains unclear about the scope of the ban, including precisely which transactions would be covered. But it appears to have even more severe consequences for WeChat than for TikTok, which could be rescued through its talks with an American suitor.

WeChat is used widely around the world, particularly by people of Chinese descent, to communicate with friends, read news and carry out business transactions, and such a ban could effectively cut off much informal communication between people in China and the United States. Questions remain as to whether the order will affect businesses tied to Tencent, WeChat’s parent company, which is an investor in many popular American technology and gaming start-ups.

TikTok and Tencent did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A press officer for Microsoft declined to comment.

TikTok is in talks with at least three other American companies, including Microsoft, regarding a potential acquisition of TikTok’s business. Last week, Microsoft said it planned to pursue the negotiations for a purchase of TikTok’s service in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and would do so by Sept. 15.

Mr. Trump for weeks has been urged to intervene with TikTok, and by a range of advisers. Many of those advisers, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, had counseled Mr. Trump to follow the recommendations of a national security panel, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, and allow Microsoft or another suitor to buy the Chinese-owned service.

But other advisers, like the White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, pushed for more sweeping action. By Friday evening, as the president flew back to Washington from Florida, Mr. Trump told reporters that he did not want TikTok to be acquired by an American company and that he would use his presidential authority to bar TikTok from operating in the United States.

That position did not last long. Mr. Mnuchin and other officials scrambled to find people who would intervene with the president, imploring people like Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican from South Carolina, to explain to the president why the Microsoft deal was a good option. Mr. Graham and Mr. Mnuchin cautioned Mr. Trump about a risky political calculation if TikTok simply went dark.

By Sunday, Mr. Trump had come around. But he has never seemed completely settled on one approach.

The threat of an outright ban on transactions is a serious blow for ByteDance and Zhang Yiming, the company’s chief executive, whose goal for years has been to connect the world through his various consumer apps. Nicknamed the “app factory” in China, ByteDance is home to more than 20 apps, including personal financial apps and productivity programs.

TikTok is far and away the crown jewel of ByteDance’s portfolio. Used by more than 800 million people globally, TikTok grew popular for its short, catchy videos that spread quickly and virally over social media channels. Mr. Zhang took steps to allow TikTok’s presence in some of the world’s most important consumer markets, like storing user data on servers in Virginia and Singapore, and hiring heads of business in the United States.

For many in China, the ban of WeChat will be a bigger deal. TikTok does not operate in China, where ByteDance instead offers an equivalent service, called Douyin.

WeChat, on the other hand, spans Beijing’s system of internet filters, connecting communities within and outside China. Exchange students use it to keep in touch with their families, investors use it to broker deals, and diaspora communities rely on it to keep in touch with relatives. Within China there are few alternatives to WeChat, because most other international messaging apps are blocked.

The order appeared to ban transactions between U.S. companies and Tencent, the owner of WeChat. Such a block would become a major difficulty for American firms in China, which use the ubiquitous WeChat social media app to do marketing, advertising and after-sales service.

Tencent is also widely invested in American gaming and social media companies, including Snap, Activision Blizzard and the makers of Fortnite, Clash of Clans and League of Legends. It’s not clear how the order might affect such investments.

Over the years WeChat went from copycat chat app to a force all its own. Crammed with services that enable online payments, e-commerce orders and other services, it grew into an inspiration for Silicon Valley. Companies like Facebook followed some of its cues in adding features to their own messaging apps.

Yet WeChat has also long been used by the police in Beijing to track dissidents. More recently, the app has emerged as a data conduit for the newly empowered internet police, who examine discussions for signs of political disloyalty. The app is also heavily censored, turning it into a sort of state-controlled filter bubble. Rumors not acceptable by Beijing are quashed, while others are left to spread.

Concern has been growing among Trump administration officials that WeChat offers the Chinese government not merely a way to gather data and information within the United States, but also a potent channel for spreading alternative narratives and disinformation. Matthew Pottinger, the deputy White House national security adviser, and Mr. Navarro have both been strong supporters of the executive orders.

But the national security cases against TikTok and WeChat are far from clear. Even within the national security community — and the nation’s intelligence agencies — there are doubts that the United States can successfully cut its networks and technologies off from China. There is also a realization that a good number of communications will run over Chinese-controlled computers, networks and switches no matter what the U.S. government does.

“While TikTok is being singled out in this executive order, their data collection and sharing practices are fairly standard in the industry,” said Kirsten Martin, a professor on technology ethics at the University of Notre Dame’s business school. “In fact, many fitness apps were banned from use in the military for tracking location data, but we did not ban them from all U.S. citizens.”

It’s not yet clear how a ban on WeChat or TikTok would be enforced, but users could adopt the same tactics many take in China when a service is banned and look for workarounds. If the app is taken down from app stores, people might find other ways to download it. If its use is blocked, they can turn to services that mask the origin of an internet connection. Even so, as Beijing has found out, many lack the savvy and patience for such technical fixes, and may cease using the service.

Ana Swanson reported from Washington, Mike Isaac from San Francisco and Paul Mozur from Taipei. Maggie Haberman and David Sanger contributed reporting.

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Snow’s avatar app Zepeto registers 150M users, eyes China market

Some of you may recall the South Korean app Zepeto that went viral among Gen Z users a year and a half ago. The app, which renders selfies into animated avatars and lets people adorn their computer-generated manifestations with virtual items, appears to have sustained its relevance. It has amassed 150 million registered users, the company told TechCrunch recently, although its number of monthly active users, which is a better metric to gauge an app’s performance, hovers around 10 million.

China is by far the largest market for Zepeto, locally known as Zaizai (崽崽), an affectionate nickname for children. “Zaizai aspires to develop into a comprehensive ecosystem while also offering robust content across China,” affirmed CEO Daewook Kim.

The app could benefit from its pedigreed background. It’s developed by the selfie app Snow, of which parent company Naver also owns the Asian messaging giant Line.

It’s not uncommon for a popular photo-editing tool to fade out as people move onto the next trending alternative, either because the new player arrives with more impressive visual capabilities or its marketing stunt creates a spell on many — or both. As such, apps that are disposable and serve utility purposes often have to think hard about retaining their users or engage aggressively to monetize them while the going is still good.

Zepeto did both.

Screenshot: a user shares videos of herself dancing and her Zepeto character dancing on Douyin

The app includes a social networking function where users can interact anonymously through their avatars in virtual spaces akin to The Sims. The challenge with that, of course, is building a big enough network that lures people to keep returning.

Zepeto also comprises of a series of mini games that are evocative of what Lee described as peaceful exploration people are enjoying in red-hot Animal Crossing.

In other words, the business is ripe for selling virtual items. Indeed, the leader in this category of business, Tencent, once generated the bulk of its income from the items it sold to decorate users’ virtual profiles and spaces, a business modeled on the South Korean internet pioneer Cyworld. That was before Tencent earned a wider global reputation by building WeChat and operating blockbuster video games.

Zepeto has so far generated some $10 million from 600 million pieces of virtual items sold. It stepped up the effort recently by launching a creative marketplace where third-party artists can offer their virtual lines of clothes and accessories. Called Zepeto Studio, the store clocked around $700,000 in sales in its first month. Many add-ons are branded — a common strategy for photo-enhancement apps — so you can sport things like virtual Nike apparel.

“We’ve partnered with global brands like Disney and Nike, as well as celebrities like BTS. We hope to continue to bring exciting partnerships to Zaizai Studio as well as better service to our creators,” said Rudy Lee, head of Zepeto’s global business, adding that the Studio feature for China is scheduled to launch mid-May.

Branded Nike apparel on Zepeto

If enough people keep using Zepeto, the third-party store can be a lucrative pursuit for designers. Among Zepeto’s 60,000 registered artists, the highest-paid creator pocketed some $9,000 in sales in the first month.

But as numbers grow, Zepeto is also getting cautious about keeping its marketplace civil. The firm maintains an internal moderation team that weeds out “political messaging, hate speech, or discriminatory messaging on the virtual clothes,” said Lee. The rule is particularly pertinent to its development in China where the flow of information is strictly controlled.

Another way to survive as a utility tool is to piggyback off another app’s success. We have written about the way PicsArt, a photo-editing app that rivals VSCO, managed to stay in the game by supporting TikTok-inspired stickers. Zepeto has taken notice. Many of its users are now sharing their animated avatars on Douyin, the Chinese edition of TikTok, observed Lee.

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