TikToking Time Bomb: Bipartisan Bill Would Address More Than Just China
Despite the intensely polarized state of partisan politics in the United States today, an unlikely policy appears to have generated the support of both the GOP and Democrats: banning TikTok.
The popular China-based social media platform, which rose to prominence amid the lockdowns and isolation of 2020, has sparked discourse among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle about the potential for Chinese propaganda and spying. Because Chinese companies are required to share information with their government, many fear that the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can use the app to acquire data about American citizens and push harmful messages to American audiences.
This Sunday, Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.) said that he is introducing a bipartisan bill with Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) that would outline a method of banning foreign technology, structured with TikTok in mind. The New York Times reported on Monday that the Biden administration is weighing in on the bipartisan bill and considering supporting the legislation once introduced. Back in January 2023, Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) also introduced the No TikTok on United States Devices Act, seeking “to prohibit the Chinese-based TikTok app from being downloaded on U.S. devices and ban commercial activity with TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance.”
Warner told “Fox News Sunday” that, while he is concerned about the Chinese government accessing American data, he is even more concerned about the potential for TikTok to serve as a “propaganda tool.” In 2022, reports showed that the Chinese government had sought to work with TikTok to establish an undercover public relations account targeted at Western audiences. Even more distressingly, one study found that TikTok’s algorithm could push suicide-related content to kids in under three minutes of app use, and eating disorder content in under eight minutes.
Even beyond blocking China from weaponizing TikTok, a ban on the social media platform has the potential to reap additional benefits, say officials. State attorneys general are seeking the release of internal documents from TikTok that could reveal whether its staff are aware of negative consequences that the app is causing among adolescents. Between 2019 and 2021, the years in which TikTok became a life staple for many American teens, suicide attempts by high school girls increased by 51%, which has caused American leaders to see social media platforms as significant contributors to the youth mental health crisis.
“There are legitimate reasons to ban TikTok that have nothing to do with the freedom of speech. Preventing your enemies from spying on you is in the national interest and [spying] is what TikTok exists to do in significant ways,” Joseph Backholm, FRC’s senior fellow for Biblical Worldview and Strategic Engagement, told The Washington Stand. “In addition, we need to consider creating barriers for children’s access to technology. Social media and screen time is arguably more harmful than other age restricted items like cigarettes and tobacco. Like recent efforts to age restrict access to online pornography, age restricting access to a variety of online platforms and activities is simply wisdom.”
While surprisingly bipartisan, the push to ban TikTok has not been met with universal support. An opposition letter from the progressive American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stated, “In a purported attempt to protect the data of U.S. persons from Chinese government acquisition, this legislation will instead limit Americans’ political discussion, artistic expression, free exchange of ideas — and even prevent people from posting cute animal videos and memes.” The letter also said, “This vague and overbroad legislation would violate the First Amendment rights of millions of Americans who use TikTok to communicate, gather information, and express themselves daily.”
Similarly, Jennifer Huddleston, a technology policy research fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, expressed hesitation about a ban on TikTok, saying, “When looking at these bans, I think we need to take a step back and look at the potential First Amendment concerns that arise from a complete TikTok ban — as well as, have we seen sufficient evidence to support the national security allegations?”
“When something is very harmful to children, you do what you have to do to protect them,” Backholm concluded. While many motivations and agendas are at play in the bipartisan support for banning TikTok, it remains to be seen what action, if any, the federal government will take to address concerns. In the meantime, the message from policy experts and legislators alike is clear: getting your kids off TikTok isn’t paranoid — it’s good, patriotic parenting.
Joy Stockbauer is a correspondent for The Washington Stand.