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, integrated it into Douyin, and launched TikTok in the United States.

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