In a bulging post-pandemic attention economy, it is no surprise that TikTok has been able to rise high above its competition. Although many factors have contributed to the popular social media app’s colossal success, it mostly boils down to one word: ease. With videos on average lasting mere seconds and an advanced algorithm that determines what content appears on the customized “For You page” of each user, attention is extracted and capitalized. TikTok is owned by the Chinese company, ByteDance, and because of its intrusive algorithm, there have been growing concerns about Chinese influence on American culture through the app. In addition, several allegations have been brought forward that the company is collecting sensitive user data and giving it to the Chinese government. TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, recently appeared in front of Congress for the first time where he was questioned for over five hours about his company’s financials, data privacy, relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and sunglass filters. According to TikTok, the Biden administration wants ByteDance to either sell the app or face a possible ban in the US, and recently, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to advance a bill that would allow President Biden to ban the app. Opposition to this legislation claims that banning TikTok in the US would not only infuriate millions of (teenage) users, but would also curtail free speech and expression, representing an attack on First Amendment rights. So, should TikTok be banned?
One of the biggest concerns brought up by US lawmakers was TikTok’s relationship to the CCP. Texas Representative, Dan Crenshaw, pointed out that because TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is based in China, it must comply with Chinese data collection laws. “In other words, ByteDance and also your TikTok employees that live in China, they must cooperate with Chinese intelligence whenever they are called upon,” Crenshaw said.
The usage of American data by the Chinese government could be detrimental to US national security and to the already oppressed citizens of China. Through large amounts of user data collected through TikTok, the Chinese government gains knowledge about American culture and can use the app as a means to spread propaganda which aims to weaken American democracy.
Collected data can also be used by the Chinese government in order to further oppress their citizens. Already, Chinese citizens are subject to intense surveillance which is only growing in severity. Through the usage of American data, the Chinese government is able to continue perfecting their surveillance technology and gain even more control over the lives of their people.
Many of the US’ allies such as Australia, Canada and the UK have already addressed these security concerns by implementing measures to limit access to the app. Furthermore, FBI director, Christopher Ray, told Congress: “this is a tool that is ultimately within the control of the Chinese government.” And, Arizona Representative, Debie Lesko, recently asked, “How can all of these countries and our own FBI director have been wrong?”
Advocates for a ban cite claims that these privacy concerns overshadow the free speech and expression uses of the app. And, in the event of a ban, US citizens would still have access to other social media platforms to voice their opinions.
Adam Bergeron, CHS’s AP Biology teacher, says, “Nobody is stopping anybody from saying what’s on their mind without political repercussions by not allowing them to post a TikTok here in the states.” Bergeron also believes that there are worse offenses to First Amendment rights taking place in state legislatures that far outweigh the implications of a potential ban on TikTok. “If we’re worried that we’re not going to be able to post cat videos on TikTok anymore, we’re missing the forest from the trees.”
In tandem with discussions about privacy on TikTok, lawmakers have also emphasized the harmful role social media plays in the mental health of young adults. California Representative, Doris Matsui, recently said, “I’m concerned about the app’s tendency to exacerbate existing mental health challenges.” During Shou Zi Chew’s hearing, Matsui went on to question whether or not TikTok has policies that amplify extreme and potentially harmful content because it receives more views. Chew addressed these concerns by saying, “We are working on it.”
I wish I didn’t have TikTok because it takes up way too much of my time. […] Once I get on the app I don’t get off for a long time. The content doesn’t cause me stress, it’s just that it takes a lot of time out of my day when I should be doing other things like homework.
— Marina Hagedorn, CHS Junior
Users of TikTok acknowledge that the app can be addictive. CHS junior, Marina Hagadorn, says, “I wish I didn’t have TikTok because it takes up way too much of my time. […] Once I get on the app I don’t get off for a long time. The content doesn’t cause me stress, it’s just that it takes a lot of time out of my day when I should be doing other things like homework.”
When surveyed, 84% of CHS students who have TikTok report using it multiple times a day. Shiv Patel, a sophmore, explained that the entertainment TikTok provides is what drives its appeal. “It’s addictive because it’s entertainment,” says Patel. “All addictions stem from the fact that you’re doing something that makes you feel good. […] TikTok just entertains you.”
Furthermore, TikTok can prove harmful to young people’s self esteem. By constantly comparing oneself to unrealistic online standards, one can feel inadequate, like they need to fundamentally change themselves in order to fit in. According to Bergeron, “The inherent need and want of comparing yourself to someone else is not healthy. You have no idea if that person is truly presenting themselves accurately.”
Hagedorn also recognizes the way TikTok can encourage unhealthy patterns. “People can learn about new experiences from TikTok, but it also encourages people to act a certain way instead of being themselves,” she tells us. “I don’t think it’s beneficial for any person, especially a young person, to feel that they have to change in order to fit in.”
Bergeron advocates for a solution known as “age gating.” Although there will always be work-arounds, age gating provides a barrier to protect the group most susceptible to the harms of social media: young children. “Why are we allowing for the youngest most impressionable members of our population to use a technology which doesn’t support their mental wellness?” Bergeron asks. Whether it be through a nationwide ban or simply more restrictions, he emphasizes the importance of protecting children from the harms of social media. “We as adults need to step in and say enough is enough.”
Not all Representatives are in support of a ban on TikTok in the US. In a viral video, New York Representative, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, explained her reasons for opposing the proposed ban. She first emphasizes the unprecedented nature of a ban. As with any legislative major action, this decision requires thorough research and should not be made without ample evidence. Ocasio-Cortez argues that this evidence does not yet exist. She also claims that members of congress have not been briefed on any national security threat and to pass a ban without being clued in on the issues would “just not feel right.”
Instead, Ocasio-Cortez advocates that Congress focus on regulating social media as a whole. “The solution here is not to ban an individual company but to actually protect Americans from this kind of egregious data harvesting that companies can use without your significant ability to say no.”
It’s just another social media app. Why are we trying to ban this particular social media? I mean do you know how Big Brother our phones already are?
— Laura Chisholm
CHS teacher and TikTok user Laura Chisholm corroborates Ocasio-Cortez’s point saying, “It’s just another social media app. Why are we trying to ban this particular social media? I mean do you know how Big Brother our phones already are?”
Representatives across the isle also oppose a ban due to large cultural influence that TikTok garnered in America. Paul Rand, Kentucky Representative, objected to a proposed ban, saying, “If Republicans want to continuously lose elections for generations, they should pass this bill to ban TikTok, a social media app used by 150 million people, primarily young Americans.”
David Aiello, CHS’s AP psychology teacher, also expresses his concerns about a ban. “I’m not a fan of banning things that are widely used,” he tells us. “As a history teacher looking back at prohibition in the 1920s and as a psychology teacher, the euphemism for it is the forbidden fruit syndrome.”
Forbidden fruit syndrome is the idea that things that seem unattainable are often perceived as more desirable. Aiello fears that a ban would do little to actually reduce usage, and actually increase the desire to use TikTok.
Pressure already exists for young people to remain engaged with what happens online. “There’s a bit of a societal pressure to stay up to date on the latest trends,” Hagedorn explains. She also points out the immense cultural impact that TikTok has in the US, claiming that a ban on the popular app would “cause an uprising.”
The affinity that TikTok’s over a billion users have for the platform stems from the algorithm’s ability to connect people with shared interests. For example, Compton tells us that she primarily uses TikTok to connect with other educators. “Most of my friends are not in education so they don’t get the stresses and nuances of being in education. By connecting with people through social media I don’t feel alone.” Opposers of the ban claim that banning an app that so many use to create connections with others would no doubt cause some degree social upheaval.
Many have also cited concerns that a ban could violate First Amendment rights. Open media and a free press are key tenets of democracy and some worry that banning TikTok will be the first domino to fall towards the censorship of American citizens. The flow of information that social media provides has been incredibly impactful in the organization of social movements. Many believe that removing this channel of communication could be detrimental to the advancement of American society.
Jenna Levontoff, a senior policy council member at the ACLU, said, “Whether we’re discussing the news of the day, live streaming protests, or even watching cat videos, we have a right to use TikTok and other platforms to exchange our thoughts, ideas, and opinions with people around the country and around the world.” In accord with this view, Compton tells us, “I think it comes dangerously close to harming free speech […] I feel like it could open up a can of worms.”
Many of Chew’s responses on the House floor were focused on an initiative called Project Texas. Project Texas refers to the $1.5 billion plan that TikTok is executing in order to restore American confidence in the app, especially in response to concerns about data security. TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is based in China, and many US lawmakers have raised concerns about its potential affiliation with the CCP. At a time of extreme tension between the two nations, US officials are weary of Chinese influence on American society through TikTok. ByteDance’s connection to the Chinese Government has led lawmakers to scrutinize the app more so than other social media companies, like Meta, who have had scandals relating to data privacy.
As a result of the watchful eyes of many US lawmakers, Chew introduced Project Texas. The project allows ByteDance to have continued ownership over the app, but introduces steps to ensure that the Chinese government does not have access to US data.
Firstly, the project would place all US data in servers run by Oracle, a cloud company based in Austin, Texas. Data in these servers would be blocked from being transferred out of the country and would not be accessible to the international employees of TikTok or ByteDance. Secondly, the project would form a new subsidiary called the TikTok US Data Security Inc. This group would be in charge of the parts of TikTok that are most likely to cause security concerns. The members of the board would be nominated by TikTok and reviewed by a US congressional committee. Thirdly, the project would allow regular audits from American security experts and engineers to ensure data privacy. These groups would also have access to the source code of the app for frequent evaluation. As Chew put it, “American data stored on American soil by an American company overseen by American personnel.”
A consequence of the project would be a reduction in TikTok’s international presence. Company executives claim that users will have a slightly worse experience on the app outside of the US as a result of Oracle server operation costs. It would also restructure TikTok’s core functions such as human resources, engineering and privacy operations.
Throughout the hearing, Chew cited the plan as evidence that American data would be protected. When questioned by representatives from Ohio, Florida and North Carolina about whether or not the CCP has access to TikTok user data, Chew answered by simply saying, “Yes. After Project Texas, no.”
It is clear that Chew believes Project Texas is the catch-all solution to the US’ concerns about national security. However, the plan does not have everyone convinced. Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Representative, told the New York Times, “I come in somewhat skeptical — I prefer a ban or a forced sale, but I’m more than willing to do my due diligence in examining the technical aspects of such an arrangement.” Others, like Missouri senator, Josh Hawley, are less willing to consider the merits of Project Texas. Hawley recently said, “A halfway solution is no solution at all.”
While it is unclear whether or not Project Texas will be what it takes for TikTok to avoid a ban, it demonstrates a change in ByteDance’s strategy, as it attempts to maintain US connections. Graham Webster, the editor-in-chief of the DigiChina Project at Stanford University, told the New York Times, “[It] is really their best chance of a sustainable business path in the United States.”
The battle between Congress and Chew represents a greater political struggle between China and the US. These two powers have been at odds for the past several decades and an ever-changing technological landscape has emerged as a primary source of conflict. Whether or not TikTok is banned in the US will have broader implications on the relationship between these two nations and will shape how the internet functions across borders.
In a broader sense, this trial extends the ongoing battle between humanity and their creations. With social media continuing to grow in influence, we must strive to keep up and regulate its impacts. While positive change and social progress have certainly been made as a direct result of increased social media usage, the risks that come with such powerful technology should never be overlooked or forgotten.
While there is no simple fix for the helpful harm of technology, it is paramount that we continue to learn and educate others. “The most important part is education,” Aiello tells us. “The more we understand what it does to us and the more we can share that information with parents, kids, and educators, hopefully the better it will be.”
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