As the debate over whether to ban popular social media app, TikTok, continues in the United States, the gap between the app’s loyal users and lawmakers appears to be growing. With concerns about Chinese surveillance and national security dominating the conversation, many tech-savvy young people are more worried about the government taking away their favorite app, as opposed to the possibility of being monitored by the Chinese government.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew tried to dampen those worries at congressional hearings, insisting that the app has never and will never give user data to the Chinese government. However, with many politicians, including the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, repeatedly raising the alarm about the Chinese government’s ability to access data from Chinese companies, the unease among lawmakers remains high.
Many TikTok users responded to the hearing by posting videos critical of lawmakers who cut Chew off and failed to listen to his responses. Some even called the proposed TikTok ban the “biggest scam” of the year, while others blamed Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who they believe is behind the surge of scrutiny on the platform.
According to a recent Pew Research Centre survey, some two-thirds of American teenagers aged between 13 and 17 use TikTok, with many spending hours each day on the platform. As such, many lawmakers are calling for the app to be sold to an American company, ensuring that it is not subject to Chinese propaganda or the compromise of users’ privacy. Yet, TikTok is unwilling to divest, and this increases the likelihood of a possible nationwide ban.
The Biden administration appears keen to avoid such a scenario, and is reportedly pursuing every option short of a ban. One proposal is for TikTok’s Chinese owners to divest, which is a step that the administration has demanded from the company if it wants to retain access to its millions of users.
The app itself has been attempting to leverage its popularity, sending dozens of influencers to Congress to lobby against a ban. It has also ramped up its public relations campaign, running ads across Washington that promote TikTok’s commitment to secure user data and privacy.
Popular TikTokers who are speaking out against a potential ban are fearful about their future prospects. Many earn their income from their videos, with brand partnerships helping them to market products to their large followings. A ban would wipe out a significant chunk of their revenue, and they would also lose the social capital that comes with having a large following on the influential app.
Demetrius Fields, a standup comedian who has amassed 2.8 million followers on TikTok from posting comedy sketches, is one such user. He is concerned about the financial implications and would find it challenging to build an audience on another platform due to the competition for user attention. “The financial implications for me would be pretty terrible,” Fields said. “I would probably have to go back to working a desk job.”
While users such as Fields are understandably concerned, many of their peers are less worried about the possible ban. Sarah Pikhit, an 18-year-old student at Penn State University, said she used to use TikTok a lot, but started cutting back when she realized how much time she spent scrolling through videos on the app. She still uses it, but mostly to post her own content, which she says she can do on other platforms. She said she wouldn’t care if TikTok is banned – but her friends would.
As the debate continues, it seems that the gap between those calling for a ban and those fighting against it grows ever wider. While the users may be passionate about the platform, lawmakers are keen to ensure that the interests of national security and privacy remain at the forefront of the discussions.
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