More Americans back a TikTok ban than oppose one, with a majority expressing concerns over the company’s links to China, underscoring that distrust of the foreign-owned app has spread beyond Washington, even as its domestic user base soars.
But the poll shows sharp divisions between generations, political parties and people who actually use the app. A small majority of people who did not use TikTok in the past month support banning the app, while an identical majority of daily TikTok users oppose it.
The poll exposes the mixed relationship Americans have with the China-linked app, which has exploded in popularity over the past few years in the United States, where it has ballooned to 150 million active users. But as Americans flock to the app, many politicians have pushed for restrictions, citing national security concerns and worries about its impact on young users.
“It’s changing everything about the way that we relate to each other, the way that we see ourselves, the way that we can reprocess our lives,” said Bernadette “Bird” Bowen, a professor who studies critical media ecology at Miami University.
The Post poll’s findings roughly mirror the dynamics on Capitol Hill. Some lawmakers have rallied around a ban of the app in the United States, while others have taken a wait-and-see approach, urging the Biden administration to continue to closely review the app. These tensions stand to escalate when TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew appears before Congress on Thursday to defend the company from accusations.
While more Republicans support a ban than Democrats by a significant margin, public opinion doesn’t fall neatly along party lines.
A Republican in San Antonio, Victoria Martinez is far from a TikTok power user or staunch defender — she doesn’t post her own videos and has privacy and security concerns about all social media. But she is wary of politicians’ claims that the app she uses three to five times a day is dangerous because it’s owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance.
As calls to ban the app grow in Washington, she finds herself opposing what she considers a drastic proposal.
“I would just want some type of real justification before they decide to ban it other than just saying simply, the Chinese government is spying on us,” Martinez said. “There are so many more issues that are more valid in the present day that need to be addressed.”
The Post poll finds widespread concerns about TikTok’s China ties along with other potential negative effects of the app. Americans have significant concerns about the platform’s impact on younger users, with 72 percent saying it is likely to be causing harm to teens’ mental health. Another 50 percent say it is likely that TikTok is encouraging illegal activity through trends seen on the app.
About two-thirds (65 percent) say they believe TikTok is likely to be collecting personal data on Americans for the Chinese government, while 56 percent say it is likely to be letting China control what content U.S. users see.
There’s no definitive evidence to back the China claims, and TikTok has testified to Congress that it has not shared U.S. user data with Chinese government officials, nor allowed them to influence its content decisions.
But the findings suggest those assurances have not significantly resonated with officials in Washington, let alone the public at large.
Kyla Cross and her husband made the decision to only install the app on his device and not hers a couple of years back. Their reason? Concern about China.
“He was like, let’s not download it on our both our phones, let’s have one China-free device,” said Cross, a 28-year-old music teacher in Jackson, Mich. “There’s the concern they could see your other apps.”
She would like to hear more about lawmakers’ rationale for wanting to force a sell or ban it. If it really is a risk, she’s all for the government taking the next steps.
“If I had to pick one way or another, I feel like ban it. Better be safe than sorry. We’d go back to Vine or something.”
As Washington scrutinizes yet another tech company, a TikTok ban may uniquely upset Millennial and Gen Z voters, who are still underrepresented in Congress.
Unsurprisingly, TikTok is vastly more popular with younger Americans, with 59 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds using the app, compared with 46 percent of those ages 35 to 49, 29 percent of people ages 50 to 64, and 13 percent of those 65 and older. Its users also are more likely to be female, non-White and to have lower incomes, according to The Post’s poll.
“There is a huge disconnect between lawmakers and many of the new technologies … and with TikTok, it’s easier to just say, ‘Ban it, sell it or let us control it’ because it’s not an American company,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), whose verified TikTok has over 150,000 followers, in an interview.
While few lawmakers have spoken out in defense of TikTok, a handful of prominent users of the app in Congress have come to its defense, including Bowman. He said TikTok has helped him connect with new constituents in an environment somewhat free of political divisions and hateful rhetoric. An October report by a D.C.-based think tank found that more than 200 candidates for federal and top state office used TikTok during the 2022 elections, including roughly 1 in 3 Democratic campaigns.
Some officials have openly mused about whether banning TikTok could prompt backlash from younger voters. In an interview with Bloomberg News, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo quipped that if the government followed through, “The politician in me thinks you’re gonna literally lose every voter under 35, forever.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has been leading calls in the Senate to ban the app altogether, took umbrage at the remark, saying at a hearing earlier this month that politics should not be “the reason we don’t take strong action against it.”
Chris Schornak has watched his share of TikToks in the past and he even likes how the app can get him outside his own bubble. But the good isn’t enough to outweigh the danger to children and from the Chinese government, he says. The 53-year-old from Clinton Township, Mich., wants Washington to take action, whether it’s banning or forcing a sale.
“One or the other, just take it away so the Chinese can’t control it,” said Schornak, a self described right-wing Republican who has stopped checking the app. “Who knows what trackers they can put on this stuff.”
Republicans support banning TikTok by a more than a 2-to-1 margin (51 percent to 21 percent), with independents similarly supportive (48 percent support vs. 23 percent opposed). Support is lower among Democrats (33 percent), with 26 percent opposed and 41 percent saying they are not sure. Calls for a ban in Washington and around the country have largely been driven by Republican officials.
The Post poll finds 40 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds oppose banning TikTok, with 28 percent supporting a ban and another 32 percent saying they are not sure. Opposition to banning the app rises to 55 percent among adults of the same age who use TikTok, while those who don’t use the app support a ban by 48 percent to 18 percent.
At 69 years old, Frank Flores probably isn’t whom politicians have in mind when they’re considering TikTok-savvy voters. Flores, a retired Democrat in San Diego, says he’s constantly discovering new things on the app and can get stuck scrolling for an hour.
He says TikTok’s dangers have been blown out of proportion, and would instead like to see politicians focusing on broader privacy protections, closer to what Europe has.
Americans do not see TikTok as particularly aggressive in its collection of personal data, according to the poll, with 34 percent saying TikTok collects more personal data than other social media apps, 3 percent saying it collects less data and 43 percent saying it collects “about the same amount.” Among TikTok users, 58 percent say TikTok collects about the same amount of data as other apps.
Some digital rights groups have pushed back on calls to ban TikTok and argued that lawmakers should focus instead on passing consumer privacy standards to regulate all tech companies, not just those owned by Chinese firms. The panel bringing in TikTok chief executive Chew has been spearheading efforts in the House to pass such standards, which have been bogged down for years.
“Anybody who thinks that not getting on TikTok is going to protect them from something is sadly mistaken. Google, Microsoft, Amazon have got everything they need from us — they probably sell it to the guys at TikTok,” Flores said. “I think it’s out there. What’s done is done.”
At the end of the day, a politician’s position on TikTok is not going to sway him, even though he’d be sad to lose it. “That is the least of our problems.”
This Washington Post poll was conducted March 17-18, 2023, among a random national sample of 1,027 U.S. adults. The sample was drawn through SSRS’s Opinion Panel, an ongoing survey panel recruited through random sampling of U.S. households. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.