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The Latest 'Red Scare'

Legislators have called for a TikTok ban, citing concerns about potential national security risks associated with the app's Chinese ownership. This effort has xenophobic undertones and the potential to impede free speech.

 

TikTok has had the world dancing for the past several years, but time may be running out for the video-sharing app. The app originally took form in 2014 under the name of Musical.ly. In 2017, it was purchased by ByteDance, a Chinese company. In August of 2018, Musical.ly merged with TikTok, and became the social media giant we know today.


Now, TikTok has more than 2 billion downloads worldwide, and over 150 million users in just the United States. TikTok’s popularity stems from its “For You Page,” which offers an endless variety of videos based on each user’s personalized algorithm. Videos discuss anything from presidential speeches to the most recent New York Fashion Week shows. It’s become a cultural center, in which teens and adults alike facilitate discourse around news and political opinions. The 2020 Black Lives Matter movement was covered by 15-second videos filmed by protesters and their allies. Cries against the Willow Project were shared all around TikTok, and resulted in a “Stop the Willow Project” petition signed by 5 million individuals.


On March 23, 2023, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in response to a potential TikTok ban in the United States. Lawmakers, suspicious of the company’s ties to the Chinese government through its China-based parent company, ByteDance, are labeling the app a security threat.


The concerns have largely come from suspicion of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the authoritarian body that has controlled China for decades. The Chinese government has executive oversight over tech companies and data, and American legislators worry that TikTok data from U.S. users might be turned over to the CCP through ByteDance. Congressman Michael McCaul (R-TX-10) even described TikTok as a “spy balloon in your phone.” Are such concerns warranted?


Despite claims from TikTok that users’ information is private, the reality is unclear. A Buzzfeed report suggested that U.S. user data had been repeatedly accessed by China-based employees. TikTok has since claimed that U.S. data is stored in the United States and backed up in Singapore. This, however, does not necessarily mitigate the risk of Chinese employees accessing data.


The Biden administration has offered two options: that TikTok’s Chinese owners sell the app, or face a ban in the United States. The Chinese government has announced it will “resolutely oppose” those measures. Given the app’s success, it seems unlikely that ByteDance will give up TikTok.


A total ban would still be difficult to achieve: legislators would remove the app from all US app stores, however, the government would not be able to delete the app from users’ phones who had already downloaded it. The ban would prevent updates, which would eventually render the app useless. The ban would supposedly increase national security for the U.S., but it would have a myriad of negative impacts as well.


The “Creator Fund,” established in 2019, supports many TikTok influencers with a source of income, whether it be their only job or supplemental. Businesses (especially small ones) use TikTok to advertise. The inclusive nature of the algorithm means that small business owners and creators have a greater shot at going viral than on other social media platforms. A TikTok ban would mean the destabilization of countless creators, many of whom rely on TikTok as their primary source of income. Charli D’Amelio, who has one of the app’s largest followings (150.5 million), has landed deals with brands Hollister, Dunkin Donuts, and Invisalign through her TikTok fame. Influencers charge up to $250,000 to post sponsored content.


Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY-16), has led a progressive push against the proposed ban. The congressman compared the rhetoric around the ban to a “red scare,” suggesting that comprehensive legislation focusing on the industry would better serve the United States rather than singling out one app. Rather than an outright ban, the federal government could protect citizens by enacting privacy regulations on all social media applications.


The government’s hyperfixation on Tiktok is merely a reflection of its hyperfixation on China. In late January, a Chinese-operated balloon floated above North American airspace until it was shot down by the U.S. Air Force on February 4, 2023. The rhetoric around TikTok, especially after the Chinese Spy-Balloon incident and the Covid-19 pandemic, has xenophobic undertones that have the potential to trigger anti-asian hate. A study by Human Rights Watch observed a 900% increase in hate speech on Twitter towards the Chinese and China after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Proposed laws in Texas and Virginia have already attempted to keep U.S. land away from those with foreign ties. Rather than fixating on China, the conversation should be focused on a larger question: how do we deal with information sovereignty in the age of social media?


Authoritarian governments worldwide are notorious for filtering social media platforms. In China, the CCP allows no direct criticism and suspends accounts that condemn the party. The country recently banned 1,120 accounts that spoke out against China’s Covid-19 policies. With the potential of the U.S. government to ban media simply because of its potential security threat, platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram could be similarly banned and manipulated. Social media has become integral to the fabric of modern society and culture–limiting access to information on these platforms could quickly become a violation of the First Amendment.


While a reevaluation of foreign media may be warranted, a ban is extreme and potentially disastrous. Rather than rushing to conclusions, the U.S. ought to consider comprehensive privacy legislation that applies to all apps. Banning TikTok will not solve the privacy issue. It will, however, directly impact Asian-Americans, destabilize TikTok creators, and challenge a core pillar of American democracy.


Anna Huener is a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs studying Political Science. She is a Staff Writer for the Agora.


Image courtesy: Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

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