How can a fun social media platform that promotes creative dancing, life hacks, pink sauce and all things super trendy be anything short of awesome? How could anyone be a TikTok hater?
Well, they exist. In fact, some of these naysayers are anxiously prepping for doomsday like Joel from the Last of Us. But instead of fungus, these doomsayers are bracing for a great battle against, in their eyes, America’s greatest foe, China. TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is Chinese, and as TikTok has grown into one of the world’s most popular apps, many fear it will be used as a tool for misinformation campaigns, spying, espionage, and calculated IQ degradation.
Over the past month, it seems like the anti-TikTok movement has really picked up steam. Since December, the US government banned the platform on all federal devices, Bi-partisan legislation has been announced (labeling TikTok as “digital fentanyl”), and dozens of university campuses like UT-Austin, and Texas A&M have outright blocked it.
To top it off, on Tuesday, Republican Senator Josh Hawley released a very forward challenge.
With election season fast approaching, and new information becoming available, the battle against TikTok is only going to get more intense. In this highly polarized country, this could soon be one of those pressure points used by politicians. So, to stay on top, here’s a breakdown of how the TikTok narrative has transpired and what it means going forward.
How did we get here?
Josh Hawley’s first sentence,”TikTok is China’s backdoor into American’s lives,” encapsulates why a lot of people are freaking out over the app. Not to brush aside the extremely problematic subversion campaigns committed by The US Government, China’s no boy scout. The fact is, China has harvested data and stolen trillions of dollars of IP (Intellectual Property), using hacking capacities that eclipse every nation on earth combined, as reported by CBS.
At the core of this conflict is TikTok’s Chinese-based parent company, ByteDance. The concern is basically that ByteDance, while controlling an app with over a billion users, could disclose oceans of private data about American citizens to the Chinese Government if they demanded it. Once mostly a Republican concern, this has since become more bi-partisan, as Democratic Senator Mark Warner mentioned, “TikTok, ByteDance, and other China-based tech companies are required by Chinese law to share their information with the Communist party.”
Even FBI Director, Christopher Wray has verbalized his concerns over TikTok’s influential algorithm and its spying capacity. All of this to say, if the Chinese wanted to weaponize TikTok, they certainly could. That’s not really up for debate.
So… Was Trump Right?
If you remember pandemic days, these TikTok concerns reached mainstream attention when Donald Trump ordered the app to be banned if ByteDance didn’t sell their American operations to an American company within 45 days. Software juggernaut Oracle seemed a contender, but alas, the deal never went through. This 2020 executive order was soon replaced by Joe Biden’s new initiative for the US Committee on Foreign Investment (CFIUS) to thoroughly investigate TikTok’s potential threat. That security review has still not concluded.
All the while, ByteDance continued to invest millions into lobbying, and over a billion dollars on campaigns such as Project Texas to bolster confidence that American data would never be shared with China. ByteDance made assurances that their US user data was stored in Virginia, backed up in Singapore, and even made sworn testimonies that only US security teams could determine who accessed data.
Tensions boiled after bombshell reports from BuzzFeedNews in mid-2022 revealed that in fact, several Chinese-based ByteDance employees had toiled with private data. Leaked audio of several executive meetings revealed, “everything is seen in China,” and there’s even a guy known as “Master-Admin” who has access to everything.
The Bans: What’s the other side of this?
The result has been, most notably, the ban of the app on all federal devices. These revelations fueled the fire of many lawmakers, like Texas Governor Greg Abbott, already skeptical of TikTok, to take further action. 31 States have even taken the ban to the state level, and thus public universities have followed suit. Auburn University, University of Texas-Austin, and Texas A&M are just some of the many schools that have banned the app on their campus Wifi. As of this writing, no private schools have reported blocking access to the app.
Students haven’t been quiet over the matter. The bans on public campuses have provoked a huge uproar about censorship and opened debates about free speech violations. Here’s a thread from UT Austin content creator Eric Aaberg’s TikTok account.
It’s not just outraged TikTok users who feel like this is overkill. There are many who question: is this solely a TikTok issue? In reality, other platforms like Google and Facebook / Meta also harvest swaths of data. Lawmakers fear TikTok’s access to keystroke patterns, searching habits, location, names, ages, and phone numbers can be weaponized, but Meta is just as snoopy and tracks browsing history even when not using the app.
All these software programs harvest your data, target you for ads, and strive to keep victims glued to the screen for eternity. But the most important question is this: Is it to maximize profits or for a foreign regime’s geopolitical ambitions? The answer to that will determine what’s banned and what’s allowed to run wild. While dystopian and concerning, the issue of data privacy concerns stretches beyond just TikTok.
Some wonder if politicians are using this ban on TikTok as a symbolic attack on China to win political points. Following the Congressional ban on federal devices, American TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter noted “We’re disappointed that Congress has moved to ban TikTok on government devices — a political gesture that will do nothing to advance national security interests.”
While there’s an inherent bias in that comment, it begs the question: Is this really just a political gesture? Should we be concerned? And what are people willing to give up for national security?
Bottom Line: Will TikTok be banned nationwide?
While Josh Hawley declared he would bring this nationwide ban to the Senate floor for a vote, an outright ban is unlikely. Though a lot can be done to dissuade the use of TikTok (Take the Universities blocking TikTok access on their Wifi), a simple VPN or switch to personal data can revive a TikTok enthusiast’s precious treasure.
So, why exactly is the nationwide ban unlikely? (Check here if you want to dig deeper) Basically, the government has the ability to take “narrowly tailored” specific action to limit speech if it concerns national security, and for that reason, the ban of the app on federal devices is lawful. For example, a government employee could have sensitive information that they could be blackmailed for, whereas, does it really matter that “Master Admin” knows you’re obsessed with Charli D’Amelio?
Regulating ordinary citizens’ speech is a whole different animal. While it’s possible, the legislative hoops that would need to be jumped through to prove its constitutionality would be rigorous. A nationwide ban should not be expected any time soon, however, as election season approaches, be prepared for the topic to come up as a hot-button issue.