Chinese Spy Balloon Reminds Every Politician To Talk A Lot More About Banning TikTok
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The alleged Chinese spy balloon may have been shot down over the coast of South Carolina by American fighter jets this weekend, but it continues making fresh headlines this week. Only this time, it’s all about ByteDance and its iconic social media app, TikTok.
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah compared the “big Chinese balloon in the sky” to the “millions of Chinese TikTok balloons on our phones,” while Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart called the app “a Chinese Communist Party balloon in everybody’s home.” On Fox News, Republican Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton labeled both the spy balloon and TikTok as part of a new “Cold War” being waged against the US by Beijing.
Chinese ownership of ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, has led to outspoken concerns from American officials for a number of years. Data from the app could theoretically be used to spy on Americans, many have argued, and content could also be purposefully selected and promoted for propaganda purposes.
The Case for Banning TikTok
These fears aren’t entirely unfounded. A June 2022 report from BuzzFeed indicated that data on US TikTok users has been repeatedly accessed by ByteDance’s Chinese engineers. In December of last year, TikTok released the results of an internal investigation confirming that ByteDance employees had “inappropriately” accessed data from US users, including journalists. The report confirms that these employees were terminated, but notably doesn’t indicate what was done with this data after it was accessed. There’s also mounting evidence that ByteDance executives take an active role in managing and policing TikTok’s content. Other ByteDance apps have been used in the past to spread pro-Chinese government content as well.
The Ongoing Effort To Ban the App
Most recently, in December of 2022, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio introduced new legislation banning TikTok in the US, accusing the app of “collecting data on tens of millions of American children and adults every day” but also “manipulatin[ing] feeds and influenc[ing] elections” on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. The “Averting the National Threat of Internet Surveillance, Oppressive Censorship and Influence, and Algorithmic Learning by the Chinese Communist Party Act” (or ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act… for short…ish…) would block all transactions for any social media company headquartered in China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, or Venezuela, or that’s significantly influenced by the governments of those countries. The bill also calls for the President to personally determine if any foreign social media company is “hostile to American interests.” Representatives Mike Gallagher (R-WI) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) have introduced companion legislation in the House.
In a Washington Post editorial, Rubio and Gallagher laid out their case against TikTok, noting that the app is used by two-thirds of American teenagers while cautioning that 23 of ByteDance’s directors previously worked for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). They argue that TikTok has the ability to collect personal information on US government employees, track smartphone users’ locations and internet browsing data, and potentially blackmail millions of Americans. TikTok has attempted to offset these concerns by moving all of its data on US users to a Virginia-based data center, but this has largely failed to sway critics.
Many Democrats have agreed that the potential for TikTok to serve as a tool for Chinese espionage is real. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a member of the Intelligence Committee, is an outspoken critic of ByteDance and TikTok, and has called on Apple and Google to remove it from their app stores.
Not Everyone Is Onboard with an Outright Ban
Still, there remains some disagreement among Dems about the best course of action. During an appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation” over the weekend, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker suggested that collaboration between ByteDance employees and US government officials remains a viable alternative to outright banning the app.
This could be a result of genuine disagreement about the best ways to navigate a potentially sensitive question about commerce and diplomacy, but it’s undeniable there are political angles here as well. For one, TikTok remains wildly popular in the US, and banning it altogether would likely anger many voters, particularly the younger voters upon whom Democrats increasingly rely upon to win elections.
The app had 111 million average monthly active users in the US between January and November 2022, a 22% increase over the same period in 2021. American kids on average already spend more time on TikTok than YouTube, Netflix, Disney+, Snapchat, Instagram, or Facebook, around 107 minutes each day. Rep. Gallagher, who’s seeking to ban it altogether from American phones, compares the app to “digital fentanyl that’s addicting Americans.” Even if it’s intended as a form of “tough love,” a ban is virtually guaranteed to make millions of Americans angry.
Democrats may also be more hesitant to ban TikTok altogether due to its central significance as as a gathering and organizational space for progressive activism and its utility for getting out the all-important youth vote around elections.
It’s also perhaps worth pointing out that, throughout the actual spy balloon incident, US TikTok users were successfully sharing videos making fun of China and the Chinese government with few visible concerns about censorship. So if the Chinese Communist Party is exercising a good deal of influence over what gets shared, they’re purposeuflly allowing some amount of nuance and dissent. At least to keep up appearances.
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