Recently, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew appeared before a U.S. House Committee to reassure representatives over TikTok privacy concerns. There has been increasing fears that the widely popular social media platform could expose millions of Americans, and given China’s penchant for involving itself in Chinese-based business practices, many believe they’ll stick their noses in TikTok. Not only might this allow access to private data concerning U.S. citizens, but it also enables China to influence public sentiment through propaganda and deepfake campaigns. Thus, Congress is considering banning TikTok completely in the U.S. despite a possible TikTok ban backlash among users.
Unfortunately for TikTok’s CEO, he did little to appease TikTok privacy concerns. He touted new privacy plans to store user data outside China. This failed to address the Chinese government’s capacity to “push” unwanted content toward U.S. users, and as such, the momentum for banning TikTok seemed to be gaining bipartisan support. But will such a move accomplish anything? And what are the real motives behind such a ban when other platforms might pose similar risks?
“They’ve actually united Republicans and Democrats out of the concern of allowing the [Chinese Communist Party] to control the most dominant media platform in America. It’s not just exfiltrating data from an American phone, it’s what they’re able to push to Americans through the algorithm — control our sense of reality, control the news, meddle in future elections.” – U.S. Representative Mike Gallagher, House Select Committee on U.S. competition with China
The Risks Related to TikTok
The obvious risks that TikTok imposes on American citizens relates to China’s inherent political philosophies. Any Chinese company is subject to governmental oversight in some form or fashion. As such, the data of the 150 million Americans who regularly use TikTok could be exposed. Understanding these TikTok privacy concerns, the company has introduced Project Texas. This represents efforts to appease Congress by storing American user data in Texas as opposed to within China’s national boundaries. While this seems reasonable, it’s not clear how this can truly protect Americans on the platform. Access to their data is only half of TikTok privacy concerns.
The other major risks involving TikTok relate Chinese governmental officials influences TikTok users via propaganda. Regardless of whether American’s TikTok data is stored out of the country, these impacts will still occur. One only has to consider the Russian interference during the 2016 election to appreciate this fact. Because TikTok is so popular, the potential for disinformation influence is tremendous. Naturally, this is not necessarily related to TikTok privacy concerns, but it is still worrisome. This is what has lawmakers considering a ban of the Chinese social media giant despite the potential TikTok ban backlash.
“TikTok gives us access to connect, share our stories and educate ourselves. TikTok is a modern Library of Alexandria. And we must keep it from burning down.” – Hannah Maruyama, Co-Host of the Degree Free podcast
The Potential TikTok Ban Backlash
Despite TikTok privacy concerns and propaganda risks, Americans have not been deterred from using the platform. Many TikTok advocates are extremely outspoken about the potential ban on the platform. Its capacity to allow users to share valued content without censorship has been one of its valued features. And as highlighted by many users, TikTok has enabled many to gain an education beyond formal structures. The access to this type of information has empowered a generation who now see little value in formal collegiate pursuits. Thus, TikTok is much more to them than simply an entertainment site. The possible TikTok ban backlash that might occur if Congress pursues actions against the company stems from this.
It is rather ironic that Congress is considering such a ban against TikTok considering America’s underlying democratic principles. Freedom of speech and the press are protected under the Constitution. However, few in Congress appear very concerned about how such a ban looks from this perspective. Stating the ban reflects national security priorities, it pushes aside such protections. In fact, such a move would be one that might be expected more from China with its pervasive media control. For many younger adults, this First Amendment violations loom much larger than TikTok privacy concerns. And such censorship will undoubtedly trigger an even greater TikTok ban backlash among this population segment.
“America does not do suppression of free speech particularly well, which is a good thing…For the United States, the risks of TikTok are far outweighed by the risks of banning TikTok.” – Zachary Karabell, Politico Magazine Op-Ed
Fighting a Losing Battle
From a larger perspective, a ban would in all likelihood do very little to address TikTok privacy concerns. The TikTok ban backlash would be notable as users would oppose the change. Likewise, the censorship imposed would raise larger concerns moving forward. Bill 686, known as the Restrict Act, would allow the federal government to shut down unwanted content. This would pertain to any online activity in which a million or more Americans were involved. This crosses a line well beyond the initial TikTok privacy concerns and extends governmental overreach. It is quite probable such a move would rest uneasy with many Americans including active TikTok users.
This is only half the battle that Congress may have to face. On the corporate side of things, ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok is already making moves. Specifically, ByteDance is boosting the presence of an alternative social media platform named Lemon8. Though initially launched in March of 2020, it only recently appeared to iOS and Android app stores. Using influencers on TikTok to promote Lemon8, there has already been 16 million downloads in recent weeks. This catapulted it to the top 10 apps currently. Given this, Congress would not only need to ban TikTok but expand their efforts more broadly. Therefore, moving down their current path to ban the platform over TikTok privacy concerns will certainly demand additional actions. All of this suggests that getting rid of TikTok in the U.S. will be much harder than anticipated.