HARDIN, Mont. - Carly Ann Goddard, a 22-year-old stay-at-home mom, drives an hour past grazing cattle, sheep and horses to buy groceries, a testament to her isolation in a rural pocket of eastern Montana.
But when she uploads a short video to her TikTok account, which she does several times a week to chronicle life as a rancher's wife, she reaches an audience of 99,000 - more people than inhabit nine of her state's 10 largest cities and 660 times the population of the town where she lives.
That audience allows Goddard an opportunity that wouldn't be available otherwise in her part of Montana. As an influencer on TikTok, she earns between $2,000 and $6,000 a month for endorsing the merchants who sell the items she talks about in her videos. She says she's developed friendships and business partnerships that would have been impossible without the app.
"I feel like I have found my purpose," Goddard said. "I wake up every morning, loving that I do this, loving that I get to stay home with my son. . . . It's built my confidence."
Now she worries all that could disappear. Montana last month became the first state to outlaw TikTok, citing concern that the app could allow the company's Chinese owners to hoover up Americans' personal data and become a font of anti-American propaganda - though Goddard's videos of her son, her furniture and her favorite recipes are decidedly wholesome.
The prospect has forced Goddard and her husband to put on hold plans of expanding their family and contemplate moving to Florida, where they met, though the ban doesn't go into effect until next year and faces at least two legal challenges - including the lawsuit Goddard joined last month with four fellow TikTokers who say the ban violates their First Amendment rights.
Goddard considers herself apolitical; she's never voted. But in standing up for her right to post to TikTok, she's firmly taken a side in a heated debate that roils not just Montana but much of the rest of the country. While many TikTokers have sent supportive messages, she's also gotten a deluge of hateful comments from strangers calling her a communist and accusing her of "ruining" Montana. The comments are so alarming that she insists on meeting a reporter far from her home.
At first glance, Montana seems like an unlikely place for the TikTok drama to play out. Only a million people live here; the state is one of the nation's largest by area and least densely populated. Its dominant industries - agriculture, forestry, mining, oil and gas extraction, tourism - are more rooted to the land than tethered to the cloud.
The latest technology is present but not ubiquitous: It's possible to drive 800 miles and encounter only one Tesla on the highway. People aren't noticeably filming videos or snapping selfies for social media in public, though each of the influencers suing Montana distinctly remembers the first time a fan recognized them on the street.
Still, technology is driving a lot of change in Montana, and not everyone is happy about it. During the pandemic, digital nomads from other states flocked to Missoula and Bozeman, the state's second- and fourth-most populous cities, driving up property prices and infusing a big-city intensity and sense of anonymity into places that locals say not long ago felt like small towns.
Outsiders are even importing their water sports. On a recent Saturday, over a dozen people were surfing in the Clark Fork River in Missoula. And it didn't take long to find a California transplant among them who's troubled by the rightward current in Montana politics.
Montana was once solidly purple, frequently electing governors of one party while giving the other control of the state legislature. One of Montana's two U.S. senators, Jon Tester, is a Democrat who's been in office since 2006, though he's up for reelection next year.
But lately, the state has grown more red. In 2020, Republicans gained control of the governor's office and the state legislature, where GOP lawmakers outnumber Democrats 2 to 1. It's only the second time in the past 75 years that the GOP has had such an across-the-board majority.
To some extent, the state's divisions over politics and access to technology mirror those in the country at large: Conservatives are clustered in rural areas, where broadband access and cellphone reception can be spotty, and liberals are more likely to reside in cities, where it's easier to get online and engage with the wider world. Last year, Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) announced a $309 million effort to expand Montanans' access to reliable broadband.
TikTok is one of many national debates raging in Montana. Abortion remains legal here, though the governor recently signed new restrictions on the procedure. The legislature recently silenced its first openly transgender lawmaker, state Rep. Zooey Zephyr (D), after she spoke out against a bill aimed at banning gender-affirming care. And though the Montana constitution enshrines a right to a clean environment, Gianforte last month signed a bill barring the state from calculating the climate impacts of major projects such as coal mines and power plants.
Interviews with dozens of residents show that Montanans, like Americans at large, are divided on what to do about TikTok. According to a national Washington Post poll conducted in March, 41 percent of Americans support banning TikTok while 25 percent oppose a ban and 34 percent said they were unsure. Republicans were more likely than Democrats to support banning the Chinese-owned social media app; federal and state calls for a ban have largely been led by Republicans.
Goddard's four co-plaintiffs live in or near the liberal college towns of Missoula and Bozeman. One of them, Heather DiRocco, 36, is a military veteran who said she felt compelled to speak up against the ban because she took an oath to protect people from foreign and domestic enemies - and she considers that oath to be everlasting.
"I served in the Marines because I believe in the freedoms we have in this country," DiRocco said while sitting on a city bench in Bozeman. "I don't believe we're a communist country. I don't believe that we are a fascist country. Do I see warning signs of it? Absolutely."
Montana is among several states that have introduced bills this year seeking to restrict access to health care, sports and public accommodations by transgender people and bar them from changing their name or gender on a driver's license or birth certificate. The Montana legislature exiled Zephyr from the House chamber during debate over one such bill, a move that free-speech proponents say bears troubling similarities to the TikTok ban.
Zephyr doesn't make the connection herself. But she criticizes the ban for not meeting Montanans' desire for data privacy. The last time voters amended the state constitution was to pass a 2022 amendment requiring a search warrant to access residents' electronic data or communications.
One of Zephyr's fellow Democrats proposed amending the TikTok bill so that it would apply to any social media company sharing user data with a foreign adversary, but the legislature rejected it. The governor suggested a similar amendment before signing the legislation into law, but the bill's proponents shot it down.
The law's failure to target any company but TikTok is a key issue in the company's own legal challenge, which says the law violates the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on bills of attainder, or laws that punish a specific business or person without a judicial proceeding.
The debate over TikTok exploded here after a Chinese spy balloon was spotted floating over the state in February. The bill's lead sponsor, state Sen. Shelley Vance (R), argued that banning TikTok would put "an end to China's surveillance operation in Montana."
Vance didn't respond to a request for comment. But at a grocery store in her district, voters voiced an array of views. Shayla Burch, 26, of Belgrade (Montana's eighth-largest city, with a population of 13,500) called the ban "a breach of our freedom."
"We should we able to express ourselves," Burch said, adding that watching videos on TikTok makes her feel better when she's sad. "It's a coping thing. Please don't take that away."
Cheyanne Erickson, 23, said she's "hardcore" in favor of the ban. "I do believe it's something that's used to watch over us, and it's the most useless app ever."
But Erickson said she doesn't despise only TikTok: She got rid of all her social media accounts and is opposed to many technological advances. "I'd go back to paper and pen," she said, adding that she'd "love to live in the 1950s."
"I was hated for being a country kid instead of a city boy," McKay said, adding that he's seen Montana change immensely in his lifetime.
How much Montana has changed is another theme that surfaces in conversations about TikTok. McKay grew up in Bozeman, a city that some now derisively call "Bozeangeles" because it grew rapidly in recent years as remote workers arrived from California seeking more space and a laid-back lifestyle. McKay can't afford to live there, he said, so he moved to Belgrade, about 10 miles away.
When asked about TikTok, many Montana residents say they have stronger feelings about skyrocketing prices on everything including homes and lattes. According to a March analysis of home prices on Zillow by real estate firm Boulder Home Source, Montana home prices have increased 79 percent in the past five years, to an average of more than $430,000.
"The resentment toward outsiders has been around for quite awhile. But I think lately it has intensified," said Mike Dennison, a longtime political reporter based in Helena, the state capital. Montana used to be a place where incomes weren't great but the cost of living was low, Dennison said. "Now, you still don't get paid that much, and it's super expensive to live here."
Outside Lynn's Superfoods grocery store in Hardin, a town of about 4,000 in eastern Montana, truck driver Mike Hampton, 58, said he supports the ban because he has grandchildren who are glued to TikTok "to the point of distraction." One was so absorbed by the app that she walked right into a tree in the backyard, he said.
Patti Medicinehorse, a critical-care paramedic in Big Horn County, said she, too, supports the ban because of her grandchildren. She worries that they'll imitate one of those viral challenges where people do ill-advised things like cooking chicken soaked in NyQuil or gluing vampire fangs to their teeth.
"We try to teach them to think and to be responsible and respectful, and they get caught up in what everyone else is doing and they don't think about the danger," said Medicinehorse, 62.
Then there's Goddard, who started experimenting with TikTok when she was feeling depressed and isolated as a stay-at-home mother in a small town. After seeing posts by a woman with a son the same age as hers, Goddard said she was inspired to try it herself.
Her short videos about life as a young mother and rancher's wife quickly resonated with viewers from Texas to Britain.
"At first, obviously, I didn't really know that I would impact people," Goddard said as her son toddled outside a general store in Hardin, chasing his shadow in the morning sun. But people soon started telling her things like, "Oh, I hope that I can be the mom you are someday," or "I can't wait to be the wife that you are. I want to have that life."
The social media platform has since become her lifeline to the outside world. In the summer, Goddard's family relocates to the ranch where her husband works. Cell service is so spotty there that it's easier to get on TikTok than make a phone call.
As her following grew, brands such as Caraway cookware and Baby Bjorn came calling. Before the brand deals, Goddard said her family could afford to go grocery shopping just once a month. Now, she said, "we can go whenever we want."
"I've gotten so used to making this money," Goddard added. "I don't think I can go back to being just paycheck to paycheck."
- - -
The Washington Post's Drew Harwell contributed to this report.