On the ballot: The TikTok ban’s role in the election


TikTok, America’s most beloved and despised social media platform, recently found itself on the legislative chopping block. The U.S. House of Representatives voted 352-65 to ban TikTok in the U.S. unless its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, agrees to sell it. 

Beyond Tiktok, the bill also brazenly challenges freedom of speech precedent. The American Civil Liberties Union has already expressed concern about the bill’s potential First Amendment violations.

The bill allows the president to impetuously designate foreign social media apps as national security threats. Apps deemed national security threats must prove they have no ties to a “U.S. adversary” within six months. 

President Joe Biden already said he would sign the bill if it makes it through the Senate. 

Proponents of the bill cite vague national security concerns about ByteDance’s relationship with the Chinese government. There is no doubt TikTok is partly connected to the Chinese government, in fact, the Chinese government owns a 1% stake in ByteDance and makes up one of three board members in the Beijing-based company.

But the premise of the TikTok ban uses the real connection between ByteDance and the Chinese government to make lofty and cynical assumptions about the app’s purpose. 

Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence revealed to NPR the reason he and many others think TikTok exists in the U.S.

“Based on Chinese law, that company has no option other than to respond to the needs of the Communist Party of China,” Warner said. “That takes primacy over return to shareholders or to customers.”

The notion that TikTok, the world’s highest-grossing app in 2023, has its foremost objective of maliciously spying on Americans rather than profiting off of Americans is rooted in paranoia and xenophobia. 

Ironically, the same Senate Select Committee on Intelligence led by Warner and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has experience in dealing with American’s personal data falling into the hands of foreign countries. Earlier last year Warner and Rubio accused American tech giant Meta of allowing both the Chinese and Russian governments access to Facebook users’ sensitive data.

Why was there not bipartisan support to force the sale of Meta? This inconsistency is where the TikTok-specific ban becomes illogical.

There are undoubtedly problems with Meta, Bytdance and other tech companies taking and benefiting from user data. With this data, they are able to make the customized algorithm addictive and in effect turn users into commodities. 

But TikTok’s problems are social media problems, not national security problems. They should be met with government legislation that prioritizes user safety over American tech companies’ profits. 

Instead of crafting a broadly-supported and necessary bill regulating data brokering or requiring more honesty from tech leaders, this bill erroneously targets one of Americans’ favorite apps. 

Just months away from election day on Nov. 5, the bill’s supporters are positioning themselves against a crucial group of voters: young adults. 

TikTok is now used by all sorts of people, but its most fervent demographic is younger generations. BestColleges found that 82% of undergraduate and graduate students report using TikTok and 67% say they use the app frequently or somewhat frequently. That same study found that 59% of college students would feel angry about a TikTok ban.

Could TikTok’s termination really harm Biden’s reelection campaign? 

Considering Biden is only polling at a 35% approval rating from people aged 18-39, largely due to his policies regarding the Israel-Gaza conflict, banning young voters’ favorite app is a risky political calculation, to say the least. 

Some of Tik Tok’s biggest stars have not responded kindly to the news. American model and actress Emily Ratajkowski theorized to her 2.7 million followers that the TikTok ban is meant to silence progressive politics. 

“TikTok is being banned because the U.S. government is legitimately scared with the influence that it’s having on the American people and the general population,” Ratajkowski said. “Which to me indicates that TikTok is a very powerful tool for organization, for alternative thinking and for activism.”

Whether Ratajkowski’s claims are true or not, many young voters are legitimately enraged about the potential ban. 

The extent to which that anger will affect young voters’ turnout in November remains to be seen, but Biden would best be suited to spare TikTok and not continue the moral panic surrounding the app’s future.


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1 Comment

  1. This argument misses the mark to the actual specifics of TikTok and ByteDance – the US would’ve never allowed the Soviets to own CBS or NBC and that is the analogy that should be used. First Amendment objections also fail to understand the situation, you can still post whatever you want, this is a foreign ownership issue where an adversary has shown they can interfere with domestic infrastructure at the drop of a hat for geopolitical influence. By the logic of freedom of speech being impact by communication infrastructure ownership, the breakup of Bell telephone in the 80’s would also have been a First Amendment issue as well.

    This article makes no mention on the body of research supporting TikTok pushing down political topics contrary to the Communist Party’s official line. Pushing down “progressive politics” is a farcical notion when the alternatives to TikTok such as Instagram Reels are already overwhelmingly skewed towards progressive activism as compared to any other form of political representation – seriously, what Lehigh student’s instagram page is not flooded with dozens of progressive infographics?

    “Why was there not bipartisan support to force the sale of Meta?” Because Meta is not based out of a foreign adversarial nation and has stronger checks and balances in place? If Meta were based out of Moscow or Google out of Tehran I think DC might have more concern! Does that change the fact that we still need more comprehensive privacy regulation a la GDPR? No, but letting the Communist Party of China have a direct in for TikTok’s every breath is an own goal no matter how you slice it.

    Before you question the veracity of ties between ByteDance and the Communist Party, maybe ask why the PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs official social media accounts make no pretense of separation, much to the chagrin of ByteDance’s extensive lobbying efforts (the TikTok lobbying campaign is probably the most obvious attempt of trying to sway narratives in DC at this point). Forgive me for being skeptical that Beijing is doing this out of their commitment to free speech, when Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, and even TikTok itself are banned within the mainland PRC (and opposing political speech actually is scrubbed quite regularly).

    Moral panic is a good summary term for this “ban” though, as most moral panics are based on fiction rather than fact

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