By: David Seddon
June 20th, 2023
Few social media platforms can claim to have the popularity that TikTok does; the website BusinessofApps declared it “the most popular app in 2019 and 2020.” Many people online compare it to Vine, another social media platform which was notable for limiting all videos on it to being only six seconds long. TikTok users are shown a select number of short videos on their ‘For You Page’, ranging from joke skits to creators explaining their opinions on another video.
Despite, or perhaps partly because of, its popularity, TikTok has not been any stranger to controversy. In a video talking about social media’s impacts on ordinary people’s lives, popular video essayist SarahZ discussed how TikTok’s algorithms helped create a national uproar. In more recent news, many people have come out to talk about the numerous conspiracy communities that use TikTok to spread misinformation.
However, all of those issues seem to pale in comparison with a much larger issue; the potential banning of the app within the United States.
This topic didn’t arise on its own, and instead seems to be a result of building tension between the US and China. China is on its way to becoming another world superpower, and often threatens US interests. For example, China has a lot of money flowing into the “global south”, funding infrastructure and other projects, which historically were more reliant on the International Monetary Fund.
Former President Donald J. Trump did not help ease these diplomatic relations either. In speech after speech, he blamed U.S. issues on the Chinese. He also attempted to shift the blame of the COVID pandemic onto China, despite his own failures to address the crisis domestically.
It seems, to some degree, impossible to separate the attempts by US lawmakers to ban the app from this larger global picture. On the other hand, the issues they raise don’t seem entirely unreasonable either.
The Chinese government can request data from numerous platforms operating within its border, and this appears to be true for TikTok. There is a real fear that the Chinese government, by leveraging TikTok’s popularity in the states, could spy on hundreds of thousands—potentially millions—of US citizens. And despite its overwhelming power, the US can’t exactly force another country, certainly not one as powerful as China, to change the laws within its own borders.
However, it’s worth noting that this fear, while grounded in reality, can feel a bit irrational. Dozens of companies already have access to private data of millions of Americans, and can feel free to do so without the fear of their products or services being banned domestically. The US government itself famously secretly collected, and still collects, huge amounts of data from its citizens.
Banning a social media app could have dire consequences. Specifically, it could very easily be perceived as an attack on the free expression of American citizens. Freedom of speech and expression are core elements of American ideology, and have been since they were enshrined in the first amendment of the US Constitution.
Rights have to have some limits, but those limits should be justified by some great harm which could be caused if people had that right. For example, there are limits on the average American’s freedom of speech; one cannot legally use their freedom of speech to try and make others break the law. TikTok’s banning could be justified under the same idea, but many people feel that the threats aren’t severe enough for that.
Some human rights groups have spoken out in protest of national bills that would affect TikTok’s usage in the US. The director of social media and merchandise at the ACLU, Emily Patterson, was quoted in this NBC news article saying that TikTok “has literally changed how people consume information, how they expect to get their news, how they want to interact with one another and the way that they build community online.” She suggested that, at this point, banning TikTok will deeply affect how people can communicate.
Despite all of this, the state of Montana has already made Tiktok illegal within its borders. It’s not actually the first government to do so, as there have been large TikTok bans in other countries prior to this. Many countries have specifically banned it on government phones, most notably India, where the app has been banned entirely within the nation’s borders.
Unlike in India, TikTok has taken measures to try and fight its ban within the US state. They are currently engaged in a lawsuit with the state of Montana over this ban, and as of the time this was written the lawsuit has been going on for almost a month. It seems unlikely that it will be settled for some time.
How this court case pans out may determine if TikTok has a future within the United States, but saying anything more than that comes across as idle speculation. What is clear is that we’re at an interesting intersection of U.S. history and technology.
David Seddon is a senior undergraduate student with a major in professional and public writing and a minor in Chinese. A big fan of fantasy and sci-fi, David can often be found playing games, reading books or working on his own self-published books in his free time.