As an avid podcast listener (top three worst ways to describe yourself?) I often use podcasts for my inspiration for writing, or as a way to delve further into a topic that I want to learn more about. As I was listening to a podcast recently on predictions for the year ahead, one really stuck out to me, and that was that 2023 might be the year that TikTok was banned in the US.
I’ve been meaning to write about TikTok for a while, and not just how I thought Quibi was going to be bigger than it, and it really blew me away that there was a possibility that it could be banned in one of the largest markets in the world. I know Trump had his infamous spat with the social media giant, but surely that was just posturing and not something the US government would actually pursue again, right?
Well, since I listened to that podcast, mainstream news has blown up with a slew of governmental actions on TikTok, both in the US and in the UK, of so I wanted to delve deeper into the feasibility of the whether the US government may take the final step and push through a ban of one of the biggest social media platforms in the world.
It’s no use looking at just the potential issues TikTok may have without first examining what makes it so damn successful. TikTok is a verifiable social media unicorn, being the go-to social media for younger demographics and holding an almost otherworldly grip on the attention of entire generations of users.
TikTok basically is the spiritual successor to a platform called Vine, which popularised short form video content, but it can safely be said that now TikTok has completely eclipsed it’s millennial-focused forefather (RIP Vine though, life was simpler back then).
TikTok has over a billion monthly active users, and it’s known for its incredible “stickiness” which is a software term for when people spend way too long on the toilet because they’re engrossed in the app. Not really but you get the point. This stickiness is so pervasive that the average user is on TikTok for 95 minutes a day. One day!
TikTok’s unique blend of super short, accessible videos, focus on user generated content (over 80% of users have created content for the site), and unpurchasable coolness mean it's the platform the entire world is watching.
The tech industry has certainly shot to attention at these sky high engagement metrics, with so many platforms completely reshaping their UI and functionality to essentially copy TikTok so they can sell more sweet sweet ad space.
Not all the attention on TikTok is adulatory though. For all the good aspects of TikTok’s functionality and design, the fact that it appeals mainly to a younger demographic and prioritises/emphasises videos for short attention spans means parents and lawmakers are becoming increasingly concerned with the effect TikTok is having on the youth.
This feels like a massive overreach by large organisations, and potentially misplaced anger, but is TikTok completely innocent on all charges? Well for that we have to determine what the charges actually are…
There are many constituent parts that go into making a social media phenomenon, and at each stage of development, there is room for error or misjudgement.
So TikTok doesn’t technically have one sole problem that means it may fall in the crosshairs of the US government. Instead, the concerns are spread amongst a variety of factors, but for the purpose of this blog, I’ll focus on the two main concerns, starting with probably the most pertinent for the US government.
TikTok has one massive main difference from companies like Instagram, Facebook, SnapChat and Twitter : it didn’t originate in the US.
TikTok is a creation from a Chinese company called ByteDance, and as such, most of the data processing from TikTok is suspected to take place on Chinese servers. Given Chinese companies usually have to have very close links with the ruling CCP party, this gives US lawmakers a lot of pause, as the data of millions of Americans is handled by an “outside” company. This was the main sticking point in Trump’s infamous spat with the social media company, as he tried to force TikTok to be sold to an American company or cease operations in the region.
As global tensions between superpowers increase, it stands to reason that TikTok will be examined more and more closely, especially as accusations of Chinese surveillance have ramped up in 2023 (seriously who knew spy balloons were even a thing). This protection of US customer data is one of the main reasons the US government may step in and either close TikTok down or try and force a sale to a US company (again). But this isn’t the only pillar they may have for legislation, as there is a more disturbing trend emerging that may bolster the case.
Nearly 60% of teenagers report themselves as daily users of TikTok. That’s an awful lot of impressionable minds spending a lot of time on an app every single day. It’s been explored how photo-sharing social media sites like Instagram are affecting happiness levels in teenagers. It’s even alleged Instagram themselves know the impact on teen girls that their app has, but do very little to stop it, according to whistleblower Frances Haugen.
It’s posited by some academics that the shorter form content, increased performative nature of the content published to TikTok and the fact their algorithm prioritises watch time over engagement metrics, leading to more extreme content, could all have an adverse mental health effect on the young brains using it.
Now, again, this all seems like over dramatised clickbait to foster fear, similar to the way rap music, metal music and countless other “boogeymen” were used to scare parents of teens, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that research finds a strong correlation between negative mental health affects and TikTok. Combined with US fears over data security, this could be a potent mix that leads the government to banning TikTok.
This blog sounds like I wrote it whilst wearing a tinfoil hat and sitting in a bunker surrounded by Spam, but there’s some legitimate precedent for government action on TikTok.
First of all, an official act was passed last year in the US called the No TikTok on Government Devices Act and I’ll give you a tenner if you can decipher that cryptic name to have a guess at what that act does. Yep, that’s right, US government devices can’t have TikTok on them due to security and privacy concerns. And also, because it would be kind of weird to picture a spy just flicking through TikTok on the job.
This gives us a clear indication of the US government's viewpoint on TikTok, that it is a security risk and a large enough one to sign an act specifically banning it on certain devices. This was followed by the UK enacting similar rules last week, so it’s pretty clear the US isn’t alone in their negative perception of the company.
But there’s a huge difference between a ban on government devices and widespread censorship to consumers. Historically TikTok has been protected by federal judges, however that all changed this month, when the US government signed the expert bit of acronym work and powerful legislation called the “Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology” act, also known as the RESTRICT act.
Give the intern that came up with that a raise, or an actual wage.
This act is specifically designed to give US lawmakers more power to act on any technology with over 1 million US users from one of a set of countries deemed to be in opposition to the US, most importantly including China. It doesn’t explicitly take any action on TikTok or even threaten action, but it certainly is a warning shot, and a noted escalation in the drama surrounding TikTok.
This is all hardcore, legislative groundwork that could lead to a US ban, or at the very least a forced sale, but the real world is far more complex than the dusty offices of lawmakers in the US, so let’s look at real world examples of other countries reaction to the two main TikTok concerns the US government has.
TikTok has certainly had it’s fair share of drama in the US and it’s not fairing much better internationally either.
In fact, TikTok is fully banned for consumers in one of the largest markets in the world, India. On 29 June 2020, the India government fully banned TikTok for being "prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order". The severity of this ban cannot be understated.
What’s more, 18 countries in total have enacted some form of censorship on TikTok. This suggests a pretty unfriendly global climate for the tech company, and sends a very clear message to Chinese tech companies that want to work in the rest of the world.
Now a wholesale ban in America, the land of the free, seems unlikely, but what about a forced sale? This is what Trump tried to do, force ByteDance to sell TikTok to a US owned company so that US user data didn’t leave the country. However, this was blocked by federal courts, which effectively killed Trump's campaign against TikTok. But Trump didn’t have the strength of something like the RESTRICT act, he was just kind of going off vibes.
With their brand new legislative powers, another campaign by the US government could potentially be successful. In fact, TikTok themselves have claimed the US government is pressuring for a sale again, so keep your eyes peeled for breaking news on the subject, as the RESTRICT act wasn’t signed because the US government was bored on a Tuesday, they plan to do something with it.