TikTok is a “social media platform designed for creating, editing, and sharing short videos between 15 seconds and three minutes in length. TikTok provides songs and sounds as well as filters and special effects that users can add to their videos.” The app, launched in 2018, is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. For more on the history of TikTok, visit Encyclopaedia Britannica.
As noted by Britannica, “Regulators in the United States and the European Union have expressed privacy, safety, and security concerns about TikTok.” Specifically, there are concerns that the company could share sensitive user data with the Chinese Communist Party (the CCP), track the videos watched by Americans, and even manipulate the information seen by Americans to sway public opinion about China and influence American elections, serving, in a sense, as a propaganda and spying arm of the CCP. Some observers see this mission as part of China’s “Digital Silk Road” initiative, launched in 2015. These concerns have led to debates about whether to ban the app on government devices and, further, for everyday citizens.
On Aug. 6, 2020, President Donald Trump issued Executive Order 13942 that banned transactions between ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company) and U.S. citizens, effectively banning the app altogether. However, on Nov. 12, 2020, citing a court case brought by three TikTok stars–Douglas Marland (comedian), Cosette Rinab (fashion influencer), and Alex Chambers (musician)–the U.S. Department of Commerce stated it would not enforce the ban. President Joe Biden then went one step further, signing Executive Order 14034 on June 11, 2021, that overturned Trump’s Executive Order 13942 (as well as two other Trump executive orders that focused on Chinese social media companies) and ordered a review of foreign-owned apps by government agencies.
Further restrictions on TikTok, however, followed in 2022. The Consolidated Appropriations Act, signed on Dec. 29, 2022, included the No TikTok on Government Devices Act championed by Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO). The act requires TikTok to be removed from all U.S. government devices and bans government employees from downloading the app on government devices as of Mar. 29, 2023 (30 days after the memorandum), instructing the heads of executive departments and agencies to enact the change). Other efforts to ban the app have been considered in Congress, including the DATA Act and the RESTRICT Act, both introduced in 2023, but no legislation had passed as of May 24, 2023.
Both the Trump and Biden administrations have tried to force ByteDance to sell TikTok, or to sell TikTok’s American operations. Thus far, ByteDance has refused to do so, though TikTok has reportedly taken steps to secure American data on servers in the United States.
Concerns about the app intensified in Mar. 2023 when reports that the FBI and Department of Justice were investigating TikTok for allegations that its employees had inappropriately accessed American journalists’ data. Many observers worried that the app was spying on journalists for the Chinese government.
Following the federal lead, a majority of states have also banned TikTok on government devices and networks. Only 17 states and D.C. did not have a statewide ban of TikTok on government devices as of May 24, 2023, and four of those 17 have partial bans. For a list of these states, click here.
Montana has gone a step further. On Apr. 14, 2023, legislators in that state passed SB0419 that would ban TikTok in Montana and prohibit online stores from offering the social media app as of Jan. 1, 2024. The ban includes a $10,000 penalty per violation per day for TikTok and the app store providing the platform. However, individual users would not be subject to the fine. If TikTok were sold to “a company that is not incorporated in an adversarial nation,” the ban would be lifted. Montana governor Greg Gianforte sent the bill back to the legislature with amendments that would expand the ban to all social media apps that provide “certain data to foreign adversaries” and remove penalties for app stores. Gianforte signed the amended bill into law on May 17, 2023, banning TikTok in Montana. The next day, five TikTok content creators filed a lawsuit and TikTok filed a lawsuit against the state on May 22, 2023, both lawsuits claim the law violates the First Amendment.
To the dismay of many students, some college campuses have banned TikTok from college WiFi networks or on college-owned devices (many colleges are state-run, meaning college WiFi networks and devices are state-owned). Among those with bans are Auburn University, Arkansas State University, Boise State University, the University System of Georgia, Idaho State University, University of Idaho, University of Iowa, Iowa State University, University of Northern Iowa, Montana University System, Oklahoma State University, The University of Central Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma, South Dakota state universities, University of Texas at Austin, University of Houston System, and Texas A&M University.
Beyond U.S. borders, TIkTok was banned on NATO-issued devices on Mar. 31, 2023. Australia, Canada, Denmark, the European Union, France, Latvia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Taiwan have banned TikTok from government devices. Bangladesh, Belgium, Indonesia, and Pakistan have had temporary bans on the social media app, while Afghanistan (2022) and India (2020) have banned the platform altogether. China has retaliated by prohibiting the U.S. version of TikTok and all other American social media apps.
50% of Americans support a TikTok ban by the U.S. government, with 22% opposed and 28% unsure. However, only 19% of TikTok users themselves support a ban, with 56% opposed and 24% unsure, according to a Mar. 31, 2023, poll by the Pew Research Center.
The question remains, with 150 million monthly American active users, should the U.S. government or state governments enact TikTok bans?
Should TikTok Be Banned?
TikTok poses a threat to U.S. national security, serving as a propaganda arm of the Chinese Communist Party.
While TikTok may seem filled with innocuous cat videos and dance challenges, Chinese law requires that Chinese companies share information it gathers with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), including users’ private data. “The CCP’s laws require Chinese companies like ByteDance to spy on their behalf. That means any Chinese company must grant the CCP access and manipulation capabilities as a design feature,” explains U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA).
Should Chinese government officials gain access to TikTok user data, intelligence opportunities could be uncovered to recruit a spy, blackmail a target, or otherwise influence American culture to its benefit. The issue is not that the site collects personal data—many online sites do that—but that the country widely perceived as a competitor if not an enemy of the United States can see the information if not also manipulate content for nefarious, political purposes.
Further, the Chinese government could manipulate TikTok’s algorithm or other operations to expose Americans to communist propaganda, which could be used to influence elections, domestic and international policy, and other political processes.
“The US government cannot ignore TikTok as a potential national security threat, even if efforts to crack down on the company alienate a generation of future voters…. Republicans [and] Democrats agreed this is a threat…. We have to deal with it before it’s too late,” implores U.S. Representative Mike Gallagher (R-WI).
TikTok is rife with dangerous misinformation that the government can and should rightly ban.
“TikTok is a misinformation minefield,” says journalist Queenie Wong.
19.4% of TikTok videos contain misinformation according to a Sep. 2022 report. From “tutorials” to make dangerous drugs at home to extremist false political claims to misleading clips of speeches to “deep fake” videos, TikTok not only contains but promotes dangerous, inaccurate, and inappropriate information.
While misinformation is a problem in and of itself, the concern is magnified significantly because, according to Google data, TikTok is being used as the primary search engine of Gen Z, so much so that the Wall Street Journal called the app the “new Google.”
Researchers from the University of Regina note that TikTok is an especially difficult case because the platform only hosts videos: “misinformation videos may pose a uniquely difficult target for debunking attempts because they often appear highly immersive, authentic, and relatable, which might cause people to process videos more superficially and believe them more readily.”
“We shouldn’t be playing Whac-a-Mole with every individual piece of content, because it feels like we’re playing a losing game and there are much bigger battles to fight. But this stuff is really dangerous, even though it feels like a fact checker or reverse image search would debunk it in two seconds. It’s fundamentally feeding into this constant drip, drip, drip of stuff that’s reinforcing your worldview,” says Claire Wardle, Co-director of the Information Futures Lab at Brown University. Banning TikTok is much more effective than the “Whac-a-Mole” approach to misinformation.
Further, TikTok is unique in promoting challenges that are dangerous and deadly. The “Tide Pod challenge” put TikTok on the radar in 2018 with an increase in calls to poison control centers, The dangerous and deadly challenge asked users to bite down on a laundry detergent packet, which lead to the consumption of toxic chemicals that seriously burn the mouth, esophagus and respiratory tract.
Despite at least six deaths from the laundry pod challenge, TikTok persists in promoting dangerous challenges from daring people to shave down their teeth with nail files to the “Coronavirus challenge” in which users licked public toilet seats and subway hand grips to see who could contract COVID-19 first (not to mention any number of other communicable diseases).
The “Borg challenge” called for mixing alcohol with caffeine, electrolytes, and water and led to the hospitalization of many college students. The “Blackout challenge” dared kids to choke each other to the point of unconsciousness and resulted in at least 20 deaths. The “Beezin’ challenge” asked young people to put menthol or peppermint lip balm on their eyelids under the mistaken impression that doing so would increase their alcohol or drug “buzz;” though the act could also cause blindness.
No matter how many fact-checking and safety notices companies release to consumers, click-hungry and impressionable people will be misinformed and endanger themselves on TikTok. Taking away the platform is the only answer, and the American government has the authority to ban platforms linked to foreign adversaries.
A “tough on China” approach is needed to safeguard the United States and its citizens.
China is a growing national security concern for the United States. The FBI cautions that the “counterintelligence and economic espionage efforts emanating from the government of China and the Chinese Communist Party are a grave threat to the economic well-being and democratic values of the United States.”
Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT), who sponsored the Bipartisan RESTRICT Act, explains, “Congress has recognized that the Chinese Communist Party is not our dear friend. Any question about what China intends to do and what authoritarians intend to do, is able to be seen by their treatment of the people in Hong Kong, the Uyghur people in China. You can see what authoritarians want to do [by] watching what Russia is doing in Ukraine. We have to recognize that we face geopolitical adversaries that are serious and threaten our security, our prosperity, and even the peace and freedom that we enjoy.”
“One thing that is a lot worse than having our government infringe on our privacy is having the Chinese Communist Party infringe on our privacy and be able to track us and follow us. Whether it is with social media or other technologies—communication technologies or the hardware that they devise over the coming years—we have to make sure we have the resources in place and the authorities in place to stop those things before they endanger us,” concludes Romney.
While the threat may seem abstract to those who just want to participate in the #booktok or #musictok communities, China has been amping up espionage activities. A Chinese spy balloon operated over the United States from Jan. 28 to Feb. 4, 2023, collecting “intelligence from several sensitive American military sites” including electronic signals from weapons systems and communications from those on the military sites. And two New York residents were arrested for operating an “illegal overseas police station… for a provincial branch of the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)” in Apr. 2023.
TikTok is but one crucial piece to a tough stance on China.
TikTok is no more a threat than American-owned social media sites that collect and sell user data.
The Washington Post and Pellaeon Lin, researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, both examined TikTok independently and came to the conclusion that TikTok “does not appear to collect any more data than your typical mainstream social network.” In fact, Facebook and Google both collect more personal data from users than TikTok.
As Lin argues, “Governments around the world are ignoring their duty to protect citizens’ private information, allowing big tech companies to exploit user information for gain. Governments should try to better protect user information, instead of focusing on one particular app without good evidence…. What I would call for is more evidence-based policy.”
Further, data security issues are endemic to the industry: “At Twitter, internal controls were so lax that an ex-employee was convicted of using his access to spy on Saudi dissidents, and a whistleblower said that the company had hired an employee in India who had used his access to spy on Indian dissidents.”
Rather than make TikTok a scapegoat for the social media industry, the U.S. government should better regulate the industry as a whole.
TikTok has no more dangerous information than other social media sites, and attempts to ban it are unconstitutional.
“For the average user, TikTok appears no more risky than Facebook. That’s not entirely a compliment,” explains technology columnist Geoffre Fowler.
“No government, as far as we know, has ever told Americans what they can or can’t download from an app store or access on the web,” TikTok states in a response to Montana’s ban.
Banning TikTok would violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. As activist Evan Greer explains, “The US government can’t ban you from posting or watching TikTok videos any more than they can stop you from reading a foreign newspaper like the Times of India or writing an opinion piece for The Guardian.”
“Do we really want to emulate Chinese speech bans? We don’t ban things that are unpopular in this country,” states Senator Rand Paul (R-KY).
Further, banning TikTok amounts to the government criminalizing specific businesses without evidence of wrongdoing. Not only would TikTok itself suffer, but the many businesses that use the platform could also be decimated. TikTok estimates “nearly 5 million businesses seeking expansion and success, including countless small businesses,” use the app. Many small businesses rely solely on TikTok for promotion and sales.
The government shouldn’t be allowed to remove a legitimate revenue stream from TikTok influencers, whether the additional income is a small boost (small accounts report between $9 to $38 a day) or a large brand deal like that of Jon Seaton, football player for Elon University, who earned $250,000 through TikTok deals with Meta and Dr. Pepper.
The bottom line: banning speech and legal jobs is discriminatory, un-democratic, un-American, and unconstitutional.
Singling out China and TikTok for recriminations is xenophobic and rank political theater.
Xenophobia is the “fear and contempt of strangers or foreigners or of anything designated as foreign, or a conviction that certain foreign individuals and cultures represent a threat to the authentic identity of one’s own nation-state and cannot integrate into the local society peacefully.”
In other words, TikTok bans are being considered solely because the U.S. and state governments fear China.
Herb Lin, senior researcher at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, explains, “Nobody would be paying this kind of attention if it were British. It’s because it’s Chinese.”
“This is xenophobic. And it’s part of another Red Scare,” explains U.S. Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-NY). Far more dangerous, he says, was the 2016 Russian disinformation campaign, the amplification of toxic rhetoric preceding the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, and the organization of Jan. 6, 2021 insurrectionists on Facebook—all were more dangerous than TikTok and its Chinese owner.
Plus, banning TikTok would give preference to American companies who commit the same data collection sins. Journalist Kara Swisher notes the bans will help other social media sites, primarily Facebook.
“Twitter,” she explains, “is no Nirvana garden party, it’s a very toxic place – and so this is a bigger issue that they [the U.S. government] should be dealing with, but in this case, they’re going to aim at TikTok because of the Chinese government.”
“I’m not at all saying TikTok is innocent, but focusing specifically on one app from one country is not going to solve whatever problem you think you’re solving. It truly misses the point. Do we really think that Facebook or Google are not capable of being influenced by the Chinese government? They know a market when they see one. I think the pressure that’s building is basically a race to be seen as tough on China,” concludes David Kahn Gillmor of the ACLU.
The chance of an everyday person being specifically targeted by the Chinese government is low. “If you’re not a defense contractor or you’re not someone who’s likely to be of specific interest to the Chinese government…then I would say your risk is much higher from Facebook and Instagram, all those things where those companies are doing the best to hire people to figure out how to make you more addicted to their product,” says Justin Cappos, engineering professor at New York University.
“I cannot stress this enough — the national security concerns are purely hypothetical. And rather hysterical,” argues CNN Senior Editor Allison Morrow.
Journalist Karl Bode calls the ban rhetoric “the great TikTok moral panic of 2023” and notes the uproar over TikTok is simply a purposeful distraction from the lack of larger policy solutions for the industry at large.
In the end, what we have here is “a big dumb performance in which we pretend that banning a single app actually does anything of use. After all, the Chinese, Russian, and U.S. governments can all just buy data from the poorly regulated data broker market. They don’t need TikTok for surveillance and propaganda; they have plenty of data brokers and U.S. tech giants for that,” Bode continues.
“Just that myopically fixating on the ban of one app — but doing nothing about the shitty policy environment that created the problem — is more political performance than meaningful solution. A performance that will annoy young voters, make it tougher on researchers and educators, uproot established community, face numerous First Amendment challenges, and not actually fix the core issues,” explains Bode.
Calls to ban TikTok gives politicians the opportunity to appear to be “tough on China” without pinpointing or addressing actual threats.
State Bans on TikTok
|Alabama||Dec. 12, 2022||Memo: Protecting Alabama from Chinese Infiltration by Prohibiting the Use of TikTok on State IT Infrastructure||Governor Kay Ivey|
|Alaska||Jan. 6, 2023||Memo: Prohibiting the Use of TikTok on State Electronic Devices||Governor Mike Dunleavy|
|Arizona||Apr. 4, 2022||Executive Order 2023-10||Governor Katie Hobbs|
|Arkansas||Jan. 10, 2023||Executive Order to Protect State Information and Communications Technology from the Influence of the Adversarial Foreign Governments||Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders|
|California||*no restrictions as of May 24, 2023|
|Colorado||*no restrictions as of May 24, 2023|
|Connecticut||*no restrictions as of May 24, 2023|
|Delaware||Feb. 2023||DigiKnow newsletter||CIO Jason Clarke|
|District of Columbia||*no restrictions as of May 24, 2023|
|Florida||*no statewide ban though the Department of Financial Services has banned Tiktok|
|Georgia||Dec. 15, 2022||Memo: Prohibiting the Use of TikTok and Other Harmful Programs on State Devices||Governor Brian Kemp|
|Hawaii||*no restrictions as of May 24, 2023|
|Idaho||Dec. 14, 2022||Executive Order: Banning TikTok on State Devices||Governor Brad Little|
|Illinois||*no restrictions as of May 24, 2023|
|Indiana||Dec. 7, 2022||Statement to media||Indiana Office of Technology|
|Iowa||Dec. 13, 2022||Press release||Governor Kim Reynolds|
|Kansas||Dec. 28, 2022||Executive Order: Prohibiting the Use of TikTok on State-Owned Devices and Networks||Governor Laura Kelly|
|Kentucky||Jan. 2022||State Employee Handbook||Governor Andy Beshear|
|Louisiana||*no statewide ban though various departments have banned TikTok|
|Maine||Jan. 19, 2023||Maine IT||Maine Information Technology|
|Maryland||Dec. 6, 2022||Emergency Directive 2022-12-001: Remove Prohibited Products and Platforms
(no longer online)
|Office of Security Management, headed by Chief Information Security Officer Chip Stewart|
|Massachusetts||*no restrictions as of May 24, 2023|
|Michigan||Mar. 1, 2023||Without public announcement|
|Minnesota||*no restrictions as of May 24, 2023|
|Mississippi||Jan. 11, 2023||Memo: Governor Reeves Directs Mississippi Departments and Agencies to Ban TikTok from Government Devices||Governor Tate Reeves|
|Missouri||*no restrictions as of May 24, 2023|
|Montana||Dec. 16, 2022||Memo: Prohibiting the Use of TikTok on State IT Infrastructure||Governor Greg Gianforte|
|Nebraska||Aug. 12, 2020||Press Release (no longer online)||Governor Pete Ricketts|
|Nevada||Mar. 6, 2023||New State Security Standard: System, Application, and Service Blacklisting||State Information Security Committee (SISC)|
|New Hampshire||Dec. 14, 2022||Executive Order: An Order Prohibiting Use of Certain Foreign Technologies||Governor Chris Sununu|
|New Jersey||Jan. 9, 2023||Statement||Governor Phil Murphy|
|New Mexico||*no restrictions as of May 24, 2023|
|New York||*no restrictions as of May 24, 2023|
|North Carolina||Jan. 12, 2023||Executive Order: Prohibiting the Use of Certain Applications or Websites on State Information Technology||Governor Roy Cooper|
|North Dakota||Dec. 13, 2022||Executive Order 2022-10||Governor Doug Burgum|
|Ohio||Jan. 8, 2022||Executive Order: Prohibition of Certain Applications, Platforms, and Websites onState-Owned and State-Leased Devices||Governor Mike DeWine|
|Oklahoma||Dec. 8, 2022||Executive Order 2022-33||Governor Kevin Stitt|
|Oregon||*no restrictions as of May 24, 2023|
|Pennsylvania||*no statewide ban though the Treasury Department has banned TikTok|
|Rhode Island||*no restrictions as of May 24, 2023|
|South Carolina||Dec. 5, 2022||Memo to Marcia Adams, Executive Director of the Department of Administration||Governor Henry McMaster|
|South Dakota||Nov. 29, 2022||Executive Order 2022-10||Governor Kristi Noem|
|Tennessee||Dec. 10, 2022||Statement to Press||Governor Bill Lee|
|Texas||Dec. 7, 2022||Letter to State Agency Heads||Governor Greg Abbott|
|Utah||Dec. 12, 2022||Executive Order: Prohibiting the Use ofTikTok by State Agencies and on State-owned Electronic Devices||Governor Spencer Cox|
|Vermont||Feb. 16, 2023||Cybersecurity Standard Update 2023-01 Memorandum||Shawn Nailor, Secretary, Agency of Digital Service and State CIO|
|Virginia||Dec. 16, 2022||Executive Order: Banning the Use of Certain Applications and Websites on State Government Technology||Governor Glenn Youngkin|
|Washington||*no restrictions as of May 24, 2023|
|West Virginia||*no statewide ban though the Auditor’s Office has banned TikTok|
|Wisconsin||Jan. 12, 2023||Executive Order: Relating to Cybersecurity and Prohibiting the Use of Certain Foreign Technologies||Governor Tony Evers|
|Wyoming||Dec. 15, 2022||Memo: TikTok||Governor Mark Gordon|
1. Should American federal or state governments ban TikTok on government devices? Why or why not?
2. Should TikTok be banned for the average American citizen? Explain your answer(s).
3. What policies should be enacted (if any) to minimize the risk of social media challenges and private data leaks? Explain your answer(s).
1. Consider the plight of TikTok influencers in Montana with Gizmodo.
3. Brainstorm ways to counter misinformation on social media with University of Regina researchers.
4. Consider how you felt about the issue before reading this article. After reading the pros and cons on this topic, has your thinking changed? If so, how? List two to three ways. If your thoughts have not changed, list two to three ways your better understanding of the “other side of the issue” now helps you better argue your position.