Congress has recently found a way to put their bipartisan issues aside — banning TikTok. As one of the most used social media and entertainment platforms to date, with over one billion users scrolling through a highly personalized feed every day, the company’s ties to China and its grasp on American youth has caused lawmakers from all backgrounds to worry.
Just a few weeks ago, the CEO of TikTok — Shou Zi Chew — visited Capitol Hill, hoping to answer pressing questions about the platform and to stay involved in the United States market. Instead, he was greeted by a fairly intense grilling, with lawmakers convinced that American data is being leaked to the Chinese government and of young users’ mental health withering away.
An institutional restriction on TikTok has been in the works for a while, on both the national and state level. Just this past week, Florida barred state universities from allowing TikTok use on campus Wi-Fi or on school devices. The ban is aimed to protect university data, such as academic research and financial information.
It is difficult to determine if the Florida university ban will set a pattern for other academic institutions, but it is safe to say that a concern over data privacy is on the rise. Though the University’s plans for TikTok are unclear, there may be similar unease around the platform on Grounds as found in Florida.
Anthony Guevara, a widely followed TikTok creator and fourth-year College student, notes the hitches of a potential University TikTok ban. Guevara sees the platform — which is heavily utilized by the administration and students — as a necessary marketing tool for the school.
“Anytime I make a video about U.Va., it always blows up,” Guevara said. “I've had questions about admissions, I've had questions about things like financial aid, the best places to eat on grounds and stuff like that. I'm doing free promo for them.”
As a Latinx student creative who has been able to serve himself and his community with TikTok, the ban is particularly nefarious in Guevara’s eyes. He sees the ban as removing financial support from those that need it most, citing his own experience with the app.
“On my old TikTok page, during my second year, I wasn't making any money,” Guevara said. “Anything, like my food, my clothes…that was all from financial aid. I was living very, very humbly.”
However, after staying on the platform longer and gaining brand deals, Guevara was able to receive incredible opportunities that let him expand his reach.
“Going into a little bit of third-year and most of my fourth-year, I've been able to eat out because of TikTok,” Guevara said. “I've been able to pay for travel to meet up with other organizations to help them start a chapter of their Central American organization. All of that would not have been possible without the money I make on TikTok.”
Similarly, Asst. Media Studies Professor David Nemer said a TikTok ban would be eliminating empowerment for underrepresented voices, a common aspect of social media.
“Social media platforms are known to be homes for marginalized groups in certain ways,” Nemer said. “For example, we all know about Black Twitter. That’s where Black folks have found their community online, where they exchange tweets, where they engage in important debates, where they create their memes.”
Since this creation of uplifting, protected spaces is a feature of social media, the same can be said about TikTok giving minority voices a chance to speak.
“On TikTok, it’s not different,” Nemer said. “There is Black TikTok. It's also a very important platform for the LGBTQ+ community as well, where they find important information about healthcare, about their network of support. By taking that away, then you also take away these safe spaces that these minority groups have built online.”
Of course, there is more to the story. A 20th-century era “prohibition” of TikTok is only one half of the discussion. The RESTRICT Act is that other half, and serves as the heralded, proposed solution to TikTok’s data leakage predicament.
Introduced by Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) and Virginia’s own Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), supporters of the RESTRICT Act hope to surveil social media consumers and punish users should they use apps coming from a “foreign adversary” like China, Venezuela and Russia. VPNs — Virtual Private Networks — may also be restricted, since they can hide a user’s access to enemy state platforms by covering up IP addresses and browsing history.
However, the evasive, vague language pervading the act is troubling to Nemer, and does not seem to solve the problem of what should be asked of social media platforms.
“It's a very broad act, and it sets a dangerous precedent,” Nemer said. “It certainly requires more conversations about larger issues, like regulations about platforms. Why aren't we going and tackling the issue around section 230 [of the Communications Decency Act], which is what protects Google and Facebook from being held liable for the content that's shared on their platforms?”
Rather than actively crafting requirements for all social media platforms to protect their users, Nemer finds the act to be too targeted — it is hung up on information getting into the wrong hands but refusing to confront American tech companies for snatching consumer data in similar ways.
“I think we should be worried about surveillance,” Nemer said. “But if we were to be effective about it, we need to start regulating platforms in general, and not just focus on one platform and think that this will solve the whole problem.”
In all, the debate around the TikTok ban and the RESTRICT Act force users to ask themselves who they really trust their data with — semi-independent corporations or the federal government. Right now, the path for TikTok’s ban and the RESTRICT Act remain quite ambiguous, considering the waves of backlash coming from users, free speech advocates and tech geeks alike — only time will tell in determining whether users will have to wave goodbye to their favorite 30-second dances or if they can continue connecting with creators as before.
In the meantime, posters recently placed around Grounds by The Blue Ridge Center advertise “Should the US Ban TikTok,” in which Aynee Kokas, author and associate Media Studies professor, and Hudson Institute scholar Rebeccah Heinrichs will discuss the recent legislation on April 18 at 6:30 PM in Monroe 130.