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TikTok Ban: Potential for Spillover?

What is happening?

On March 13, the US House of Representatives passed its TikTok bill. While President Biden confirmed he will sign the bill, the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Actmust first be approved by the Senate. If it passes, the law will ban any “foreign adversary-controlled application” from operating in the U.S. For the Chinese-owned TikTok, this would mean either leaving the U.S. or selling it to a U.S.-based company.

The immensely popular mobile app among youngsters has attracted the attention of security analysts and officials, as well as politicians and regulators, due to a variety of risks associated with the social network app. The global tendency towards restricting the mainland China-originating app is steadily increasing for mainly security reasons. However, personal security is not this interactive social network’s only risk.


What is the broader picture?

TikTok is a short video-sharing social network owned by Chinese company ByteDance. It is used mainly by youngsters and children and is among the most popular social apps, with millions of downloads globally. Its Chinese sister version, Douyin (抖音), is available for users only in mainland China. Interestingly, TikTok, along with Western social media platforms, is not available for users in mainland China.

Recently, TikTok has faced criticism and investigation primarily due to security concerns arising from its collection of enormous amounts of data on its users. Being based in a country run by the Chinese Communist Party, ByteDance could be compelled to cooperate under Chinese laws.

TikTok’s application of Chinese government-style censorship guidelines has been extensively documented in several scandalous cases. For instance, sharing content on human rights issues in China has been hidden or limited to TikTok users. One notable scandal, the make-up tutorial scandal that went viral in 2019, illustrates how TikTok censored topics related to Uyghur human rights violations in China. Additionally, TikTok has been reported to restrict the visibility of posts from ‘special users,’ such as those who are disabled or overweight, under the premise that these categories are vulnerable to bullying. Furthermore, TikTok has admitted to spying on foreign journalists.

Most TikTok users are youngsters between 18 and 24 years old who admit it is a significant source of information for them. It can be a powerful instrument and an ideal space for misinformation and disinformation spread. Due to its robust algorithm that tailors never-ending content to the user’s preferences, it can serve as a source of cheap dopamine. It is not only time-consuming but can also become highly addictive. This addiction can cause problems, especially for children whose brains are not yet fully developed.

Globally, many countries have taken steps to limit the risk associated with TikTok usage. Some governments have already banned TikTok from government devices for fear of data safety. Others, such as Afghanistan, Nepal, and Pakistan, are more worried about the content and have banned TikTok for this reason. In Czechia, the political discussion about TikTok could be more advanced. The political parties want to be present on TikTok to engage with younger generations and their potential electorate despite severe security warnings from organizations.

In reaction to the current steps taken by the U.S. government, TikTok called on its users to take action, prompting them to contact their legal representatives and protest the bill. The case only illustrates how powerful the app is when it comes to influencing users and how data on them can be collected.

Elections, powerful TikTok algorithms, and disinformation spread excite U.S. legislators, especially before the upcoming presidential elections. Donald Trump, who, during his presidential term, called to ban TikTok himself, has changed his opinion now as he sees Facebook as an “enemy” and is afraid that this U.S.-based company would “double the size” if TikTok is banned. Another surprising vocal enemy of the ban is U.S. billionaire and owner of X (previously Twitter) Elon Musk, who equaled the prohibition to an attempt of “censorship and government control”.


Why it matters?

If the bill passes, TikTok will have to leave the U.S. soil or be sold within six months. The urgency and speed with which the bill has been pushed through the legislature is unprecedented. The discussion about security in the U.S. amid the presidential election is far more advanced than in Europe, which is preparing for the elections to the European Parliament and many national polls in the following months. Suppose we aim to safeguard our democratic values and uphold our perception of the world order. In that case, we should take a more proactive approach to addressing the risks associated with unregulated social networking platforms, such as TikTok.