Untangling the Drama Swirling Around TikTok as Talk of a Ban Heats Up
Every social media platform has upset the masses at some point, but if it feels as if there's something extra about the attention being paid to TikTok lately...
You're not imagining it.
The short-form video app that boasts more than 1 billion active users a month, introduced the world to Charli D'Amelio and Addison Rae, and has provided countless people with all the life hacks they never knew they needed is under fire from U.S. lawmakers who allege the app is a threat to national security.
And not because Congress is averse to diamond lips.
Politicians from both sides of the aisle have expressed concern about all the data TikTok collects from users—from when they first download the app through every little tap, like and share—and whether the app's Chinese parent company ByteDance might funnel that info to its home country's government to use for nefarious purposes.
And though TikTok execs have denied that this is happening or is likely to happen, talk of banning the app is all the rage in Washington.
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But can officials just—poof—get rid of TikTok? What happens to...all the TikTokers?
The platform accounts for an increasingly lucrative slice of the $100 billion content creator economy, with eMarketer projecting $6.8 billion in ad revenue for TikTok in 2023, according to NBC News.
And while a crop of TikTok-fueled celebrities have joined—and in some circles surpassed—the ranks of stars who found their fame through traditional means (like making movies and stuff), those bold-faced names are a relatively small portion of the people who are earning income through the service.
"You have a lot of small businesses across America who have leveraged that platform to build their customer bases, to build their audiences around their companies, their brands or their ideas, and it's scary to think that they won't have that outlet as a way to grow their businesses," Joe Gagliese, CEO of talent and marketing agency Viral Nation, which represents hundreds of TikTok creators, told E! News in an interview. "People truly underestimate the influencer economy."
This isn't the first time that there's been talk about barring people in the U.S. from accessing TikTok on their phones (which, for Gen Z especially, is pretty much the point), but the idea is gaining traction as officials at every level of government are grappling with how to keep people safe online and throwing all sorts of ideas against the wall to see what sticks.
Here's what's happening:
What is the U.S. government's problem with TikTok?
Most of the youngsters who make TikTok videos and those who scroll through them endlessly probably could have gone their whole lives without wondering what was happening to their data—other than being used to recommend more videos.
But tensions are high between the U.S. and Chinese governments, and TikTok has entered the crosshairs of the uncharacteristically bipartisan conversation.
"Anyone with TikTok downloaded on their device has given the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] a backdoor to all their personal information," alleged Rep. Mike McCaul of Texas in a statement released by his office in February. "It's a spy balloon into your phone." The Republican, who's chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, has proposed a bill—the Deterring America's Technological Adversaries (DATA) Act—that would pave the way for the Biden administration to impose a nationwide ban on TikTok.
In mid-March, it was widely reported that the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. had demanded that ByteDance sell TikTok or else face banishment in the U.S., and the company confirmed that to be the case.
What did TikTok's CEO tell Congress?
Over five hours of questioning on March 23, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew adamantly denied that TikTok or ByteDance was a tool of the Chinese government.
"TikTok itself is not available in mainland China," he told the House committee, per NBC News. "We're headquartered in Los Angeles and Singapore, and we have 7,000 employees in the U.S. today."
Chew, who's been CEO since May 2021, said he's seen "no evidence" that the Chinese government had access to TikTok users' data—and that officials have not asked for it. "I think a lot of risks that are pointed out are hypothetical and theoretical risks," he said.
"Still," he continued, "we have heard important concerns about the potential for unwanted foreign access to U.S. data and potential manipulation of the TikTok U.S. ecosystem. Our approach has never been to dismiss or trivialize any of these concerns. We have addressed them with real action."
Chew highlighted the company's Project Texas plan, a collaboration with Austin-based tech firm Oracle to store all data mined from TikTok users in the U.S. within the country's borders. "Under this structure," he said, "there is no way for the Chinese government to access it or compel access to it."
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He also maintained that TikTok was in line with what other social media companies were doing as far as data collection. "We are committed to be very transparent with our users about what we collect," Chew said. "I don't believe what we collect is more than most players in the industry."
"We believe what is needed are clear, transparent rules that apply broadly to all tech companies," Chew said. "Ownership is not at the core of these concerns."
On the content front, Chew testified that the company was always working to make TikTok safer for its users of all ages, especially children. For instance, at the beginning of March, TikTok announced an automatic 60-minute-per-day screen time limit for users younger than 18.
And, according to the chief executive, they're always fiddling with how the app works. "We are trying out some policies together with experts," Chew noted, "to understand certain contents that are not inherently harmful, like extreme fitness, for example, but shouldn't be seen too much."
Who's defending TikTok?
The opposition to TikTok as it is run today has been uncharacteristically bipartisan, but a small group of lawmakers—including New York Reps. Jamaal Bowman and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who made her TikTok debut days ago—have spoken out against a ban.
"Banning TikTok? I mean, are you trying to engage young voters or not? What are we doing here?" Bowman told NBC News ahead of the March 23 hearing. "They will absolutely stay at home. There's no question about that."
In her "TikTok about TikTok," Ocasio-Cortez said, "I think it's important to discuss how unprecedented of a move this would be. The United States has never before banned a social media company from existence, from operating in our borders. And this is an app that has over 150 million Americans on it."
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky also spoke up March 29 to block Republican colleague Josh Hawley's proposed bill, the No TikTok on United States Devices Act, calling it a violation of the First Amendment rights of American stakeholders in Tiktok and the "millions of young Americans" who use it.
And, Paul added pointedly, "If Republicans want to considerably lose elections for a generation, they should pass this bill to ban TikTok."
Equal opportunity to turn off voters aside, the heart of the issue really is "two generations colliding," Viral Nation's Gagliese told E!. While TiKTok hosts a wide range of ages, it's primarily considered a Gen Z app and that group hasn't yet made an inroad with most of the "millennial crowd and older" having this debate in Washington.
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"When I'm listening to the politics of it," Gagliese explained, "there's almost a slight ignorance toward the size of that market. For a lot of people who aren't familiar with this generation, they still might have the connotation of, 'Well, it's just kids making stuff on social, they'll figure it out and move on,' or 'Ah, it's silly anyway, what's an influencer?' And that's not productive when you think about the magnitude of what's going on here."
A TikTok Chew posted a day after the hearing amassed 5.3 million likes and more than 193,000 comments. Kat Clark, a reigning TikTok Creator of the Year, left heart emojis, while Ophelia, aka "Shoe Lover 99" (11.4 million followers), remarked, "They treated you terribly and I'm so sorry."
"You're the best and tiktok is the only reason I get to travel the world so much," wrote Jorden Tually, who has 3.3 million users following his globetrotting exploits. "Parenting Unexpert" Momma Cusses, who shares her life with 3.3 million followers, wrote, "Thank [sic] for putting up with the inept and inane questions. You handled yourself so well."
"We love our vibrant creator community, and have been overwhelmed and humbled by their support for TikTok and for Shou," TikTok spokeswoman Brooke Oberwetter told NBC News about the feedback. But, they haven't exactly taken to the streets yet to speak their peace.
Gagliese posited to E! that the entire community—the creators and those who do business with them—is "in a weird place."
On the one hand, he explained, people have their own personal love and use for TikTok, and on the other... there's the minefield of politics. Which is why, from what he's seen so far, "creators are turtling a little bit."
What sort of TikTok bans are already in effect?
The spending bill President Joe Biden signed into law in December 2022 bans the federal government's more than 4 million employees from using TikTok on any devices owned by the agencies they work for, and an ever-growing list of state and local governments have followed suit. (White House employees were already prohibited from using TikTok on work devices.)
Reuters reported Feb. 27 that all federal agencies in question were being given 30 days to rid their devices and systems of TikTok.
In response, TikTok's Oberwetter said in a statement, "The ban of TikTok on federal devices passed in December without any deliberation, and unfortunately that approach has served as a blueprint for other world governments. These bans are little more than political theater."
Outside the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Norway, New Zealand, the European Union's European Parliament, European Commission and the EU Council, and Denmark's Defense Ministry are among the bodies that have implemented bans on government-owned devices, while India has banned TikTok and other Chinese-owned apps entirely.
How are TikTokers dealing with the possibility of a nationwide ban?
The Trump administration was first to talk about banning the app for the aforementioned reasons regarding China after TikTok, which had been making inroads for a few years, blew up in 2020 during the more homebound, desperately-in-need-of-entertainment days of the pandemic. (Videos tagged #tiktokban have 1.9 billion views, including content made at the height of the furor in 2020.)
The ban never happened, and TikTokers are hoping to ride out this period of political turmoil as well. But, just in case, many are making contingency plans.
"I've been able to tap into an audience that I probably never would have been able to," New York-based fashion influencer Kelsey Kotzur, 29, told the Los Angeles Times, explaining that she's been backing up her content on Pinterest and YouTube in case TikTok goes away. Talk of a ban has been "messing with our creativity," she added. "We're nervous. We're all on edge, basically, waiting for the other shoe to drop."
At the same time, Valeria Fridegotto, a 23-year-old who's tapped into the TikTok-famous deinfluencing trend, told the Times that she isn't seeing much uproar—but maybe people should start worrying.
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"I don't think people really believe that anything's going to happen," she said. "I hope people take it a little more seriously— because now that I'm on the inside I'm like, 'OK, this could drastically change the way I support myself.'"
Gagliese said that the least lawmakers can do is "give people the time to figure out ways to make adjustments."
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Should the TikTok app really be given an end date in the U.S., then companies such as his "have to go back internally and figure out what that shift looks like," he said. "Are we going to move that budget, are we going to look for a new platform, are we going to hold steady here? It's going to cause a lot of discussion on the business front, and then creators are going to panic. And when creators panic they're going to all of a sudden put a larger emphasis on crosspollinating their social media, launching YouTube channels, etc."
Viral Nation survived one "social media extinction," Gagliese shared, back when their business was "80 percent Vine" and that app was discontinued in 2017.
So as managers of online influencers, when they sign a TikTok star, he explained, "the first line of business is, 'Hey, how do we diversify you off this platform?' Not necessarily that that can't be their main platform forever—it's just, how do we make sure that they're safeguarded for what they're building? The only thing you can do is preemptively plan."