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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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For You: Is your late afternoon scrolling a national security threat?

Perspectives surrounding the potential TikTok ban and how scrolling can affect the health of American democracy

We have all probably heard conversations about a potential TikTok ban in the last few years, but we continue scrolling amidst the calls from all sides to prioritize either national security and personal privacy or freedom of speech. However, there was a recent advance towards a ban in March, as the House quickly passed a bill that could potentially ban the app. There is a lot of speculation being thrown around, so let us review the background of the bill.

TikTok gathers personal information similar to how other social media apps do, but there is an added layer of concern, particularly regarding the owner of TikTok — ByteDance. Since 2020, arguably the first peak of the app’s popularity, there has been speculation that TikTok could be giving user data to the Chinese government. This issue was originally made popular in 2020 when Trump proposed a ban of TikTok as an alternative to compelling ByteDance to sell it to an American company. The federal court rejected the executive order, so it never went into effect. Now, the House has recently passed a bill that would impose a ban on “foreign adversary-controlled applications” (TikTok), unless ByteDance divests from TikTok within six months of it being passed. 

One interesting aspect of this bill is that it has received bipartisan support. Supporters of the bill cite national security concerns because of the legal power that the Chinese government has to request data from ByteDance. Proponents have also suggested that the Chinese Communist Party may have the ability to interfere with content shown to U.S. users on their For You Pages in order to sway political opinions. CEO of TikTok, Shou Chew, has defended TikTok on multiple occasions before Congress, stating that TikTok has not received a request from the Chinese government for user data, nor would TikTok give it to them if they did. Worry about national security increased after it was revealed in December 2022 that two former ByteDance employees accessed user data information about two U.S. journalists. While the Chinese government may be collecting data from TikTok, as the CSIS points out, it is most likely not searching for the data of U.S. individuals, but rather the data of government officials or other important groups for tangential purposes. 

We know that TikTok takes user data, as does almost every other app. The transaction of user information with a foreign government is what is most concerning for supporters of this bill. There has been suspicion around CCP interference with content shown to U.S. TikTok users, particularly concerning the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. TikTok refutes the claims that it has promoted content that advocates for antisemitism, but many blame the current U.S. divide on the issue on propaganda supposedly spread through TikTok to young people. However, there has been little actual evidence to show that this is true, and most of this content is gaining popularity simply from other users interacting with videos on the app.

Meanwhile, opponents of the bill do not deny that TikTok is a security risk but maintain that banning TikTok is stripping First Amendment rights and that the app is a means of financial and economic prosperity for many Americans. The divestment aspect of the bill is tricky itself due to potential challenges posed by antitrust laws and TikTok’s extremely high value. The ban of TikTok is promised to be met with multiple court challenges concerning the First Amendment. Many who are against the bill — young people in particular (TikTok’s main U.S. user base) — argue that banning TikTok would take away one of the largest platforms for political discourse. Some would say such a ban would be consistent with that of an authoritarian government rather than a democratic one. As we can see, there are important aspects of both sides of the conversation.

On the data security front, lawmakers like Senator Maria Cantwell have proposed alternative legislation that would look more like a national privacy law, restricting media companies from selling user data to third parties. This would greatly inhibit the ability to produce targeted ads to consumers on social media and would give users their data back. This legislation would take longer to pass through Congress and would be more all-encompassing than the current bill against foreign adversary-controlled apps.

While I do not have the perfect solution that prioritizes national security while also promoting freedom of speech, I will say that this case presents important considerations. When we discuss potential foreign interference with the content that U.S. users consume, we must remember to fact-check and think about what we see online before posting a reaction or immediately taking everything as truth. As simple as this seems, TikTok is a major platform for political discourse, but without substantial evidence of foreign interference, we have to understand that harmful messages and misinformation can easily be spread simply by one misinformed video going viral. While it is true that TikTok’s addictive short-form content and For You Page can have influence on how people view an issue, we have to think critically about the content we consume regardless. The app provides a space for the exchange of ideas, but as with any other large social media platform, the app cannot be our only source of information. Let the health of our democracy depend on critical thinking, not mindless consumption.

Maddie Colbert is a sophomore from Dallas, Texas, living in Howard Hall and studying Global Affairs and Theology. She currently serves as the Director of Outreach for BridgeND.

BridgeND is a multi-partisan political club committed to bridging the partisan divide through respectful and productive discourse. It meets bi-weekly on Mondays at 7 p.m. in Duncan Student Center to learn about and discuss current political issues. You can contact BridgeND at bridgend@nd.edu.


BridgeND

BridgeND is a multi-partisan political club committed to bridging the partisan divide through respectful and productive discourse. It meets bi-weekly on Mondays at 7 p.m. in Duncan Student Center to learn about and discuss current political issues and can be reached at bridgend@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.