TikTok and the Gen Z problem: Government races to ban app most favored by young adults

A Tik Tok logo displayed on an iPhone.
A Tik Tok logo displayed on an iPhone.

In this photo illustration, the TikTok app is displayed on an Apple iPhone on August 7, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo Illustration by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

This story originally appeared on the Daily Montanan.

Andy Austin started using TikTok during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Since travel was so heavily restricted, business was tough for a commercial photographer and travel guide. TikTok seemed like a good way to expand on what his business already offered.

“I think, like a lot of people, I started using TikTok heavier in 2020 during lockdown,” Austin said. “I had it before that, but during lockdown I thought it might be fun to start making some video content around the outdoors and traveling.”

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Austin uses his TikTok account, where he has amassed a following of just more than 184,000 people, to grow his photography clientele and showcase the history and beauty of Montana, among other travel destinations.

Austin splits his time between Bozeman and Billings.

Montana was the first state to attempt a total ban of TikTok – a federal case is still pending. That was before Congress took up the issue that may resolve before the court case is settled. While many politicians, ranging from Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte to President Joe Biden, have expressed concern about TikTok being used as a tool for spying, some other quiet pushback has come from the most powerful and wealthy U.S. companies that already track citizens for the government or for profit.

With a top-secret an highly effective algorithm and a reach that appears beyond the stretch of America power brokers, the app poses a political threat as well.

“A lot of people miscategorize TikTok as just a silly dance platform, but it hasn’t been that in a long time,” Austin said. “There are still people doing that on TikTok, like that world still exists, but there’s also a lot more long-form content coming out on there that has some real merit behind it.”

TikTok’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent years. According to the Digital 2024 Global Overview Report, which pulls data from ByteDance’s monthly advertising reports, TikTok has a global audience of 1.56 billion people, roughly 170 million of whom reside in the United States. That puts TikTok as the fifth most popular social media platform in the U.S., and the fastest growing, with a 12% increase in users since 2021, compared to the somewhat plateaued growth of top platforms Facebook and YouTube. At this rate, TikTok is expected to surpass Facebook in total users by 2026.

While there are many differences between TikTok and competing platforms, the most industry-envied feature of TikTok is its algorithm, the details of which have been kept a strict secret. What is known: Tiktok emphasizes its content based on relevance of previous content, rather than by general popularity or interaction alone. People have the option to mark a video as inappropriate, or “not interested,” further curating each person’s individual “For You Page,” or “FYP,” the home page that features a constant stream of new videos.

“People like it because it makes them happy, makes them smile,” says Eric Van Steenburg, an associate professor of marketing at Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship at Montana State University. “They like it as opposed to some other platforms that make people angry and unhappy.”

In 2021, details of Facebook’s algorithm were released that showed posts with “angry” reactions were weighted five times more than posts with “like” reactions, fostering an environment of rage and misinformation.

“TikTok has also got a really good storytelling format,” Van Steenburg continued. “It feels really tailored to their tastes. They feel more invested.”

Austin seconds the sentiment.

“People love the deep dives. I just did a video on a museum in Wyoming. I just don’t see that kind of long-form content on Instagram, and even if it is on Instagram, it just works better on TikTok. It’s more fun on TikTok,” Austin said.

Standalone tools on the platform increase users’ ability to connect through conversation, such as the “stitch” feature, which allows a person to create a new video by incorporating someone else’s video into their own. TikTok has an option to video-reply to comments, and users have the ability to rewind videos, slow them down, or speed them up.

The combination of unique sharing features and algorithmic efficiency has also launched TikTok to the forefront of 21st century activism and digital mobilization. Users utilization of the “stitch” feature allows crowdsourcing of resources, expertise, funds and action. Gen Z for Change, a nonprofit with a network of social media influencers, the majority of whom are on TikTok, boast a combined reach of 500 million people. For reference, the average number of viewers tuning into prime time news hour for CNN, Fox News and MSNBC combined is just more than 3.8 million.

One clear benefactor of TikTok’s brand of digital activism is the labor movement.

In 2022, when the Starbucks in Nashville, Tennessee, began firing employees involved in union organizing (the Memphis Seven), then posting the open jobs online, Gen Z for Change stepped in. The group launched Change is Brewing, a website that automatically flooded various union-busting Starbucks stores with fake job applications, a strategy that had been used by TikToker Sean Black a few months earlier when Kellogg tried to replace 1,400 striking workers.

Elise Joshi, now executive director of Gen Z for Change, posted a video on X explaining how the website worked.

“We know that it’s fake, but they certainly cannot tell the difference. By clicking two buttons on that website, you are suddenly sending in a job application every two seconds to various union-busting Starbucks chains. You can cook some food, get some work done, binge some TV shows. Meanwhile, that code is still running in the background in your browser and sending hundreds of fake job applications,” Joshi said.

Accounts like More Perfect Union (700,000 followers) and Fight for Fair Wages (449,000 followers) joined in on the efforts, interviewing employees, sharing their stories, and raising funds for fired employees.

The Memphis Starbucks eventually voted to unionize in June 2022, setting off a string of monumental union victories. As of January of this year, 370 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize since 2021, including two in Montana.

Data concerns

On April 24, President Joe Biden signed the long awaited $95 billion foreign aid package into law. Alongside funds allocated for Ukraine, Israel and the Indo-Pacific, were a handful of additional bills, including H.R.7420: Protecting Americans’ Data from Foreign Adversaries Act, which requires the divestment of TikTok from its parent company, ByteDance, within 270 days with an optional one-time, 90-day extension to be granted by the president if needed. If ByteDance fails to divest in that time period, it could face a nationwide ban.

Intelligence officials have stopped short of sharing direct evidence that transfer of sensitive data between TikTok and the Chinese government has already occurred, and have instead stressed the potential of what hypothetically could happen.

In a 2022 hearing before the Committee on Homeland Security in the House of Representatives, FBI Director Christopher Wray was pressed by Rep. Diana Harshbarger, R-Tennesee, for direct examples of TikTok having used data collection for purposes other than targeted ads and content. Wray suggested it would be better addressed in a closed classified setting, stating, “But there is probably not much more that I could add to that, other than to say it is certainly something that is on our radar, and we share your concerns.”

Those concerns center on whether the data TikTok collects could be used to spread misinformation or interfere with U.S. elections, similar to when data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica admitted to harvesting data from 50 million Facebook users for the specific purpose of influencing the 2016 election.

According to a February 2024 executive summary by Digital Forensic Research Lab, the data TikTok collects on Americans, while on the higher end of the spectrum, is within common data collection practices of social media platforms, including those headquartered in the United States. The report goes on to say the data collected by TikTok “pales in comparison” to the data already legally available for purchase through U.S.-based data brokers, including “troves of information collected through social media and credit card companies, consumer loyalty programs, mobile phone providers, health tech services, and more.”

Not to mention the amount of data illegally sold by U.S. companies, such Google, which settled a lawsuit this year for illegally collecting and selling users’ private browsing data, or Verizon, AT&T and Sprint/T-Mobile, who were just collectively fined $196 million by the United States Federal Communications Commission on April 29 for illegally selling access to customer location information.

TikTok claims to have taken steps to ensure its data is housed safely, namely Project Texas, where TikTok has agreed to store U.S. user data inside the cloud environment of global tech security giant Oracle. In a 2022 press release, TikTok states, “We’ve now reached a significant milestone in that work: we’ve changed the default storage location of U.S. user data. Today, 100% of U.S. user traffic is being routed to Oracle Cloud Infrastructure.”

We have to talk about the news

According to the Pew Research Center, TikTok is the No.1 news source among people less than 30 years old, with 32% of 18-29-year-olds getting their news from TikTok in 2023, compared to just 9% in 2020. Among the top three social media platforms where users reported getting their news, each experienced a drop in news viewership among their users from 2020-2023. X, formerly known as Twitter, reported a 6% drop in users who regularly get news from the site, Facebook an 11% drop and Reddit a 4% drop. TikTok meanwhile, showed a 21% increase.

TikTok’s rapid rise as a news source may be linked to an increasing void created by media consolidation. In 2016, five companies owned 37% of all television stations. In November 2017, the FCC eliminated all restrictions on a single media company owning “television, radio, and newspaper properties within a local market,” a move FCC chairman Ajit Pai claimed would allow media organizations to better compete against growing internet companies.

As of 2023, approximately 90% of all broadcast media is owned by six companies: Comcast, Disney, AT&T, Paramount Global, Sony and Fox. This leaves 208 executives in charge of anything and everything considered newsworthy, determining what is and isn’t relevant, and how it should be covered, an issue greatly emphasized in the aftermath of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

As Israel carried out its retaliatory siege on Gaza, one of its most well-established traditions was immediately put under the spotlight: Israel does not allow the entry of foreign journalists into Palestine. During Israel’s 2009 bombardment of Gaza, then head of the Israel government press office Danny Seaman discussed in The Guardian the benefits of keeping foreign journalists out of Gaza, including focus on Israel’s version of events.

The only exception to the blockade of foreign journalists has been Al Jazeera, which has a bureau office located in Gaza City, but by April of this year it was also banned from coverage by Israel.

In addition to the bans, The Center to Protect Journalists reports Israel has killed an unprecedented 97 journalists in Gaza since Oct 7., the highest number killed in any conflict CPJ has ever tracked.

‘We really have a TikTok problem, a Gen-Z problem’

In the vacuum of limited media coverage from western networks and the rapidly decreasing coverage from Arab networks, as journalists are killed or detained and news infrastructure is destroyed, remaining Palestinian journalists and citizens flocked to TikTok, where they live-streamed the unfiltered sights and sounds of Israel’s ongoing siege. By November 2023, pro-Palestine content on TikTok significantly outpaced pro-Israel content. Accusations abound that TikTok was manipulating the algorithm, but the same pattern was visible across other social media platforms as well. In a November 13 press release, TikTok showed the number of Facebook posts tagged in the previous 30 days with the two most popular hashtags for either side of the issue: #FreePalestine and #standwithisrael. The hashtag #FreePalestine had been used more than 11 million times, while #standwithisrael had been used only 278,000 times. Even now on Instagram, the two hashtags still show a remarkable gap in usage, with roughly 336,000 posts under #standwithisrael, and 9.5 million under #freepalestine.

TikTok’s explanation for such a gap was twofold: First, hashtags are not as straightforward as they seem, and second, the majority of TikTok users are young adults who, as of polling recorded by Gallup in March 2023, are statistically more likely to favor Palestine over Israel.

This growing support for Palestine in younger generations was directly referenced in an Anti-Defamation League organizational meeting in November.

“We have a major, major, major, generational problem,” said ADL Chief Johnathan Greenblatt, in a leaked call. “The issue of the United States’ support for Israel is not left and right, it is young and old.”

The ADL has since faced internal upheaval over its newly defined relationship between anti-semitism and anti-zionism.

“We really have a TikTok problem, a Gen-Z problem,” Greenblatt continued. “Our community needs to put the same brains that gave us Taglit, the same brains that gave us all these other innovations, need to put our energy towards this, like, fast, because again, we’ve been chasing this left/right divide. It’s the wrong game. The real game is the next generation.”

The money

Less than four months after the leaked call on March 5, H.R.7521: Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act was introduced by Rep. Mike Gallagher, R- Wisconsin. H.R.7521 is the first bill to force the sale of TikTok that has reached the floor of either chamber for a vote. This bill is virtually identical to H.R.7420, the bill included in the $95 billion foreign aid package, with minor alterations. It was co-sponsored by 54 additional representatives (22 Democrats, 32 Republicans) and passed the House of Representatives on March 14 with a vote of 352-65.

One aspect each of the cosponsors of H.R.7521 have in common: All have received donations from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, within the last two election cycles. According to Open Secrets, in the 2024 election cycle alone, 47 of 55 of H.R.7521 cosponsors have received AIPAC donations totaling more than $3.35 million.

AIPAC, founded in 1953 by Isaiah L. Kenen and originally described as the “American Zionist Committee for Public Affairs,” is a political lobbying group that pushes for pro-Israel policies. In their own words, they are “the largest pro-Israel PAC in America and contributed more resources directly to candidates than any other PAC. 98% of AIPAC-backed candidates won their general election races in 2022.”

The goal of the lobby, as written by former AIPAC employee M.J. Rosenburg in 2019 is, “to ensure that Congress never questions Israel about anything, that it just shuts up and keeps the billions of dollars in aid coming. And above all, without conditions, like requiring Israel to take steps to end the occupation, the blockade of Gaza, or to grant equal rights to Palestinians inside Israel and in the occupied territories.”

AIPAC is part of a larger Israeli lobbying coalition consisting of many different lobbying groups such as J Street, Pro-Israel America PAC, American Principles, US Israel PAC, Friends of Israel, and more, including the Anti-Defamation League. Since 1990, these groups have donated more than $91 billion into various political campaigns, the top recipient being President Biden.

Every 10 years the United States evaluates its position on assistance to Israel. During the last evaluation, in 2019, the U.S. agreed to send Israel a total of $3.8 billion per year — the highest amount ever agreed to — for the next 10 years in the form of cooperative missile defense and military funding, part of which is cybersecurity and intelligence.

AIPAC was Rep. Gallagher’s top donor in the 2022 election cycle. Gallagher recently announced he isn’t running for office in 2024, and has accepted a position with U.S. defense and surveillance company Palantir Technologies, another of his top donors.

Palantir, founded in 2003 by tech investor Peter Thiel, is headquartered in Austin, Texas, and is valued at almost $50 billion. The surveillance giant specializes in turning massive swaths of unlimited data into manageable and interactive formats, such as visualized maps and histograms, allowing clientele, or artificial intelligence, to track and cross-reference virtually any imaginable data set combination.

The name may sound vaguely familiar. Not only is Palantir a reference to the indestructible crystal “seeing-stones” of “The Lord of the Rings,” used to communicate and gather intelligence, but the data mining prodigy holds many claims to fame: It is rumored to be the surveillance company behind the capture of Osama Bin Laden; was directly involved in the Cambridge Analytica data breach; was caught planning an illegal cyberattack campaign against WikiLeaks journalists; and has a long list of alleged human rights violations.

Palantir is not part of the surveillance industry, it is the surveillance industry, with clients such as the NSA, the FBI, the CIA, the CDC, the Department of Veteran Affairs, every branch of the U.S. military, multiple law enforcement agencies, as well as countless hedge funds, banks, financial services firms and utility companies. In September 2023, Palantir was awarded a $250 million U.S. Army AI research contract from the Department of Defense, with the dedicated objective to “research and experiment with artificial intelligence and machine learning.” In March 2024 it won a $178 million dollar contract with the United States Army to build a Next-Gen Intelligence Ground Station, and a $99.6 million deal with the U.S. State Department to track health data.

In addition to Palantir, founder Thiel established Founders Fund in 2005, an investment firm whose two main objectives, according to their website, are “finding ways to support technological development,” and “earning outstanding returns for our investors.” Founders Fund lists its investment projects on its website, but one notable project is missing – a company called Carbyne.

Carbyne, previously named Reporty Homeland Security, is based in Tel Aviv, and along with Founders Fund has been bankrolled by the likes of former CIA Chief David Petraes and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Similar to Palantir, Carbyne specializes in data collection and communication, though its work is specifically focused on health and emergency response data.

Also similar to Palantir is Carbyne’s long list of military intelligence connections. One of its early investors and co-founders was Ehud Barak, former Prime Minister of Israel, former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces, former Minister of Defense and former head of Military Intelligence for Israel.

As of January 2024, Palantir has also agreed to partner with the Israeli Defense Ministry to “harness Palantir’s advanced technology in support of war-related missions,” which includes assistance in Israeli military intelligence operations.

And, in April 2024, Palantir signed on to a new partnership, also in Texas, with the aforementioned tech giant currently storing and monitoring all of TikTok’s U.S. user data — Oracle.

What now?

“Rest assured, we aren’t going anywhere,” said TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew in a video posted on X. “The facts and the constitution is on our side and we expect to prevail again.”

TikTok has already been successful in court once, when it fought against then President Donald Trump’s 2020 executive order banning the app. In 2023, when the Montana Legislature attempted a TikTok ban it was also quickly shot down as unconstitutional on the state level.

Regardless of the outcome, Andy Austin remains disappointed. “I think this is a wasted opportunity to address data privacy laws in general. Instead of singling out TikTok, why aren’t we focusing more on the issue of data privacy altogether?”

According to Rep. Jeff Jackson, R-North Carolina, the priority isn’t the data, it’s which government has access to it.

“What other social media companies don’t have is an adversarial government (China) that can influence the algorithm to manipulate the content you’re shown in ways that will help them politically,” Jackson said, in a now deleted video on his TikTok account where he actively campaigns to more than 2.2 million followers.

While Congress has not yet introduced any additional bills with the goal of addressing data privacy concerns, it has decided to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillence Act (FISA), better known as “warrantless surveillance,” a move urged by multiple Pro-Israel coalition members, including the ADL, in a leaked April letter to the House of Representatives.

As TikTok’s fate, and its newly acquired role in independent, citizen journalism and digital activism hangs in the balance, its U.S. user data will be stored and processed in its new Texas-based cloud infrastructure, overseen by Oracle and surveillance powerhouse Palantir.

In the meantime, multiple lawmakers will continue to use the app for their own campaign purposes, taking part in trending dances and harmless challenges to connect with today’s youth. Users include President Biden, who told NBC News, “TikTok is one of the many places we’re making sure our content is being seen by voters.”

Rep. Jackson will also continue using the app, and in his still deleted video, offered some reassurance to his followers.

“There is also a concern about them having access to your data,” Jackson said, regarding TikTok. “But frankly that applies to all social media companies. They are all sucking up your data.”

Daily Montanan is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Daily Montanan maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Darrell Ehrlick for questions: info@dailymontanan.com. Follow Daily Montanan on Facebook and Twitter.

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