One of the most popular social apps in America is getting hit with increasing government restrictions. In late December, President Joe Biden signed legislation prohibiting the use of the Chinese-owned social-media platform TikTok on devices owned by the U.S. federal government, with a few exceptions in the interest of law enforcement and national security. Across the country, 14 states recently barred the video-sharing app from their state-owned devices, as well, and some members of the U.S. Congress want to go further—with an outright ban nationally. The thinking behind these initiatives is that TikTok—which casual observers might associate with viral clips of people dancing, talking about books, or demonstrating skincare routines—could represent a national security threat, given that the Chinese state influences and extracts data from the Chinese company that owns it. But with more than a billion monthly users worldwide, TikTok is meanwhile only gaining popularity, especially among younger people. Over the past two years, the share of American adults who claimed to regularly get news from TikTok effectively tripled, rising from 3 percent in 2020 to 10 percent in 2022. About a quarter of people in the U.S. under the age of 30 do now. And fully two-thirds of teenagers use or have used it. All of which would suggest a lot of tension between governments and the public. What’s happening with the politics of TikTok in America?
Aynne Kokas is the C.K. Yen Professor at the Miller Center and an associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and the author of Trafficking Data: How China Is Winning the Battle for Digital Sovereignty. There’s a general consensus, Kokas says, among U.S. political elites to guard against national-security threats from TikTok—a general consensus that belongs to a broad, bipartisan commitment to challenging China—but the Republican and Democratic parties have taken different approaches to the issue. Republicans, who’ve made attacks on Big Tech companies central to their politics in recent years, have been bolder in their public rhetoric against TikTok—while Democrats may have to tread more carefully, not least because they get more political donations from the tech sector than Republicans do. The challenge, as Kokas sees it, is that the fundamental problems with TikTok can’t really be addressed by clamping down on it directly—because they’re ultimately problems with the “digital ecosystem” as a whole.
Graham Vyse: Let’s start with the thing itself: There are a lot of social-media platforms, including popular incumbents like Instagram. Why has TikTok surged to such popularity over the past few years?
Aynne Kokas: It first emerged in China as Douyin, a short-video social app, which is still the Chinese version of the platform. Douyin’s parent company, ByteDance, then acquired an American video lip-syncing app for middle-schoolers called Musical.ly, integrated it into Douyin, and launched TikTok in the United States.
So TikTok was originally made for teenagers. But during the pandemic, with so many people of different ages stuck at home and looking for new kinds of entertainment, it started rapidly moving out of its original demographic and became wildly popular. Now it’s a key news source for more than 25 percent of people under the age of 30.
The story of TikTok also has to do with U.S.-China relations: The American government has forced the sale of a number of different foreign-owned social apps that engage in different types of data gathering. For example, Grindr, the LGBTQ social-and-hookup platform, was acquired by a Chinese firm, but then the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Committee on Foreign investment in the United States forced them to divest from it. TikTok’s relatively wholesome origins have in some ways protected it from that fate—though now TikTok is under investigation by the Committee on Foreign Investment too.
Vyse: Critics of TikTok raise a number of issues—about its addictiveness, its spread of misinformation, its effect on teenagers’ mental health, and whether it sufficiently protects users’ privacy. What do you make of these concerns?
Kokas: I think most of them are really with social media more broadly. We’re living now in a digital ecosystem where not just TikTok but Facebook and Instagram—and any number of other platforms your friends and family might use—are deeply data-extractive. There’s very little oversight of the type of user data these platforms gather. And there’s very little transparency about how their algorithms gather it. TikTok just happens to represent one of the most successful versions of this phenomenon at the moment.
That said, one of the reasons for its success was TikTok’s acquisition of Musical.ly, which gave it massive data-gathering capabilities, allowing it to build an algorithm that drew on huge pools of user data. So this is where TikTok differs from other social platforms with respect to privacy and security concerns—and where we see the relationship between ByteDance and the Chinese government taking center stage.
Because TikTok’s parent company is based in China, the company faces pressures from the Chinese government to share its data as part of Beijing’s national-security audits. It also faces pressures in something called civil-military fusion—pressures from the Chinese government to allow the use of any commercially developed products for military purposes.
TikTok was originally made for teenagers. But during the pandemic, with so many people of different ages stuck at home and looking for new kinds of entertainment, it started rapidly moving out of its original demographic and became wildly popular.
Beijing meanwhile keeps a very close watch on all social-media platforms and the type of content they distribute. Even as it’s operating in the United States, there’ve been indications of censorship on TikTok on topics considered sensitive in China—like the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province, or the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, or Taiwan. WeChat—another platform run by a Chinese firm, Tencent—has a similarly documented history of censoring content in the United States and other countries.
So when we’re thinking about the issues of privacy and security, it becomes extremely important to think not just about the general extractive nature of social media—which is a vital social issue—but also about the specific context of data extraction as it relates to China and the Chinese government.
Vyse: And what exactly does the threat look like in that context? One might wonder, for example, how much it matters that the Chinese government would have access to data from a teenager sharing her dance moves. Where are the real risks?
Kokas: We see them on multiple levels—with multiple timescales. One level is the surveillance of individuals. That’s something that gives people the most immediate pause, but you’re right, it actually represents the smallest risk.
Now, this excludes, for example, people who are on government networks or use government devices. We saw some of the first U.S.-government bans on TikTok among these people, because they’re precisely the people with whom Chinese-government surveillance would yield direct results—access to federal or state or local networks—which could potentially lead to hacking, the monitoring of government officials, and so on.
And let’s remember, hackers allegedly affiliated with the Chinese government have already stolen security-clearance data from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. So it’s not a big leap to imagine that they’d want to access other U.S. government networks.
Beyond individual-surveillance risks, there are risks to economic competitiveness. For instance, because ByteDance was able to acquire Musical.ly and operate in both China and the United States, TikTok’s algorithm has been able to out-compete other products.
And then there are national-security risks. A lot of the tools we see developed on platforms like TikTok are dual-use technologies that can help develop improved algorithms for things like deep-fake synthetic media. They can also be useful for developing new capabilities to scan biometrics, monitor community activities, and other applications.
Let’s remember, hackers allegedly affiliated with the Chinese government have already stolen security-clearance data from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. So it’s not a big leap to imagine that they’d want to access other U.S. government networks.
Vyse: How has U.S. policy toward TikTok changed in this context?
Kokas: In 2020, the Trump administration established U.S.-market bans on TikTok and WeChat. Those bans never went through, because they were immediately challenged in court—interestingly, not just by TikTok or WeChat but by influencers and users. Which indicates how deeply integrated into the U.S. digital ecosystem these apps have become.
This is one of the big challenges the U.S. faces when making any policies affecting tech firms that are already operating in the market. It’s also one of the reasons why it’s so important to anticipate risks—as opposed to waiting until companies are already deeply integrated, when it’s much harder to pull them back. At that point, it’s not just the companies that are invested; it’s people across a wide range of different congressional districts, involved in advertising or marketing or various kinds of business with China.
Another big challenge for the U.S. is that there isn’t a very clear precedent for blocking a communications platform. And one of the reasons why the WeChat ban didn’t hold up in the courts was because of the First Amendment free-speech rights of WeChat users who wouldn’t otherwise be able to communicate with people in China.
So when we think about the power of corporations to lobby members of Congress and protect their business interests, or when we think about free-speech rights, managing the risks from a platform like TikTok becomes very complicated very quickly.
The main concern with the Trump administration’s bans was in how quickly they were enacted, without really considering legality—or second- and third-order effects. Which is one of the reasons why the Biden administration pulled back and has instead been pursuing efforts to work with TikTok on moving its servers to the U.S.—or to try to divest the U.S. version of TikTok from ByteDance altogether.
So far, none of those efforts have come to fruition. And because of that, we’ve seen state governments taking action. Compared to the U.S. federal government—which has resources like U.S. Cyber Command at its disposal to track digital incursions—state governments are much more vulnerable to potential phishing attacks or malware attacks.
When we think about the power of corporations to lobby members of Congress and protect their business interests, or when we think about free-speech rights, managing the risks from a platform like TikTok becomes very complicated very quickly.
Vyse: Of the 14 U.S. states that have recently banned the app from use on government devices, I notice they all have Republican leaderships. As you mention, Democratic leaders and the Biden administration have certainly criticized the app, and there’s clearly bipartisan concern about it. But how do you see the differences in the ways the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are approaching TikTok?
Kokas: In campaigns for the U.S. Congress, and also in a lot of races for state governor, there tends to be much less concern among Republican candidates about alienating or making enemies with donors from the tech sector—because it’s not a core base of support for the Republican Party.
Vyse: You’re saying part of the reason the Republican Party has been more aggressive on these issues is that the Democratic Party has more tech-sector donors?
Kokas: Politically, the Democratic Party has to be more careful with how it approaches regulation in the tech sector. And TikTok has meanwhile become a Republican rallying point. But there’s also just the fact that Democratic states like New York or California have lots of stakeholders who’d be significantly affected if TikTok were to face major legal challenges in the U.S.—whether influencers working on the platform or large advertising and marketing firms invested in it. Those are areas of awareness for Democratic politicians in a way that they’re generally not for Republicans.
Vyse: You refer to TikTok having become a Republican rallying point. I noticed that Representative Mike Gallagher, a Republican from Wisconsin, recently referred to the app as “digital fentanyl.” What do you see driving the development of this issue among Republicans?
Kokas: It’s definitely an issue the Republicans are speaking out more publicly on—across America. But you’ll hear almost the exact same language from Democrats more privately—and even from people working in the tech sector. So I think the difference comes down mostly to the extent to which the Republican Party has been able to gain politically by taking up the issue aggressively in a way the Democratic Party hasn’t.
At the same time, the Biden administration’s continued oversight of TikTok through the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States certainly doesn’t indicate that they think everything’s okay here. The fact that there was bipartisan agreement on the decision to ban TikTok on government devices, too, indicates that people in the Democratic Party are very aware of the risks it poses.
In campaigns for the U.S. Congress, and also in a lot of races for state governor, there tends to be much less concern among Republican candidates about alienating or making enemies with donors from the tech sector—because it’s not a core base of support for the Republican Party.
Vyse: Meanwhile, this is a moment of transition for governments in the United States, with Republicans now taking power in the U.S. House of Representatives and new state and local officials assuming office across the country following the 2022 elections. Where do you see American public policy on TikTok going from here?
Kokas: My sense is that U.S. policy-making on the issue will focus on specific responses to TikTok—as well as WeChat and other Chinese tech firms operating in the U.S. And I don’t think that that’s the best approach. I think we would ideally look for a more comprehensive oversight of the entire American digital environment.
One of the things I learned from researching data trafficking is that there are a lot of loopholes in a lot of industries that we may never expect.
For example, in the appliance industry, General Electric Appliances was a high-profile American brand purchased by a Chinese consumer-electronics company. And when it was purchased, there were no real concerns about data gathering. But as smart appliances developed, the type of data that appliances were gathering started to become more sophisticated—and has only become more sophisticated. Now these devices are installed in people’s homes all across the country.
So targeting just one specific company, or two specific companies, or even several specific companies doesn’t really get a country like the United States to where it needs to be—in managing the kind of data that’s being gathered, where it’s been stored, how we can protect consumers from data trafficking, and, in the end, how we can secure the entire information ecosystem.
Vyse: Given how many Americans, especially young people, love using TikTok, how do you anticipate U.S. public opinion evolving on the issue?
Kokas: One of the things that really strikes me, teaching a class called “The Data Ethics of TikTok” at the University of Virginia, is that when we read the app’s Terms of Service, my students are appalled by the data it’s gathering on them and how little control they have over it—but they also feel deeply resigned, because it’s the main way they interact with their peers.
So I think that even if people are able to take a step back from their delight in using the platform and consider its implications, TikTok’s deep integration into their lives—and the U.S. communications infrastructure they’re connected to—makes it really difficult at this point to enact legislation that would control it.
Which is one of the reasons why I’d advocate for an approach that addresses the entire communications ecosystem rather than just individual platforms—because ultimately, these problems are pervasive across a range of different social platforms, even if they’re especially worrying in some ways with TikTok on account of its unusual capabilities and close ties to the Chinese government.