Chris Stokel-Walker is a British journalist who writes about technology. He is the author of “TikTok Boom: China’s Dynamite App and the Superpower Race for Social Media.”
But a ban would be an entirely un-American, undemocratic and inappropriate response to an unproven risk that the Chinese-owned platform will share users’ data with Beijing for nefarious purposes. What’s more, banning TikTok would be completely useless in combating a different, much better-evidenced social media pitfall — the spread of dangerous propaganda.
An outright ban of the social media app in the United States is moving closer. Last week, the Biden administration threw its support behind a Senate bill that would give the Commerce Department that power. Cross-party consensus is building around the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats That Risk Information and Communications Technology, or Restrict, Act. The bill follows moves by more than two dozen states that have banned their employees from using TikTok on official work devices. The federal government has done the same, and there have been similar measures in Europe and Canada.
There’s an argument that government workers shouldn’t be mindlessly scrolling through social media on their work phones. For some, time spent on TikTok is time spent not working, though, of course, many government organizations use the app as a way to connect with users. But what about the rest of us? The worry is that TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, would hand over data to the Chinese government. Then ranks of analysts in Beijing would use that information, gleaned through exhaustive viewing of our video consumption habits, against us — though it’s not clear how.
It’s also not clear why this is a worry at all. TikTok’s U.S. executives have repeatedly denied that they have been pressed by the Chinese government to share data and say they would refuse to do so if the request ever came. Reporters, including me, have tried for years to prove these executives are not telling the truth but have turned up nothing. Current and former TikTok staff members have dished plenty of dirt on the company to me, but no one has ever confirmed a great data transfer.
Of course, even if ByteDance hasn’t handed over data, who’s to say it wouldn’t in the future? But is that any different for any number of social media companies, many of whom have extensive, valuable operations in China? Meta, the company behind Facebook and Instagram, was recently fined for mishandling user data under European Union rules.
Meanwhile, TikTok is bending over backward to assuage fears. Project Texas involves a U.S. subsidiary that would control U.S. user data and answer directly to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, while its European equivalent, Project Clover, would do something similar in Europe.
Neither of these projects is likely to satisfy the knee-jerk, anti-China crowd. And maybe none of this would matter if TikTok were less popular or successful. But the platform now has more than 1 billion active monthly users, including the next generation of scientists, educators and politicians. Aging politicians might not get it. But TikTok has become a valued place for learning and communication, as well as online innovation. Banning it would be exactly the kind of suppression of freedom and censoring of the internet that we have come to expect of China, not the United States.
The other concern is that bad actors, including the Chinese government, could use TikTok to foment their own ideas, lacing funny little videos with pages from Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book.” Certainly, the evidence for social media as propaganda tool is much stronger. It already happens. On Facebook. On Instagram. On Twitter. And yes: on TikTok.
This issue is real. But it’s hardly unique to TikTok. Indeed, TikTok is doing as much as any platform to deal with this particular problem.
There is certainly more work to be done in the area of influence and misinformation. Despite government inquiries and investigative journalism projects, we still don’t fully understand the impact of social media on democratic elections and in promoting division and unrest. This has been one of the biggest societal stories of the past half-dozen years or so. Governments are only just coming to grips with it. But that is not a problem specific to one platform.
A very compelling argument exists for more careful consideration of the role of social media, including TikTok, in our societies more broadly. Banning one platform and ignoring the others would solve nothing, while allowing the deeper problems to fester.