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Threat of ban from Congress overshadows TikTok's popularity in U.S.

TikTok on iPhone
Jerry Clayton
TikTok on iPhone

TikTok has become one of the fastest growing social media platforms in the United States. Some estimates number the U.S. audience at 15 million users. Despite its popularity, some members of Congress are discussing how to completely ban the app because of national security concerns and other issues.

TPR's Jerry Clayton recently spoke with Josephine Lukito, assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin, about the potential ban.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Clayton: Is there evidence that you've seen or heard about that the algorithm of TikTok promotes conspiracies or particular political views?

Lukito: The ability for algorithms to spread misinformation, conspiracy theories — I think a lot of platforms have this problem, especially because a lot of conspiracy theories and pieces of misinformation and disinformation often are emotionally laden and encourage the spread ability of content. However, unlike other platforms, because TikTok emphasizes audiovisual content and video content, it is much harder to detect this misinformation and disinformation.

Clayton: Have you seen any effort by TikTok to tamp this sort of misinformation and disinformation down?

Lukito: No, and in fact, there are actually concerns that TikTok, particularly because of its relationship with the Chinese government, might be spreading a lot of disinformation, although the evidence is a little fuzzy there.

Clayton: You touched on it briefly, but how does TikTok differ from other social media platforms?

Lukito: The other thing worth noting about TikTok is organizationally, of course, unlike Twitter or Meta, which are owned by private companies in the U.S., are publicly owned. TikTok is affiliated with the Chinese government. And so there are a lot of security concerns that government officials, both nationally and within Texas, have raised issues with.

Clayton: Why do you think some politicians want to outright ban TikTok in the United States? And is it warranted?

Lukito: It's difficult to know exactly what politicians are hoping to do with this sort of policy or this sort of ban. One thing I've noticed is because of the seemingly bipartisan consensus, there could be multiple justifications — perhaps some that are related to national security; some that are perhaps more performative as part of a "culture war." And perhaps there are other reasons related to user privacy.

I've seen two kinds of policies being proposed — one that is much more focused on state owned devices, and that's the kind of policy we see here in Texas in terms of banning specifically TikTok from state owned devices. I think that sort of policy is a little bit more feasible, especially as one of the major concerns are national security or data related concerns.

The other, more broad ranging policy seems to be related to banning TikTok wholesale from a state or from the country. And I think those sorts of approaches are nigh impossible, right? It's going to be quite difficult to get an American citizen to stop using TikTok if they really, really want to use that.

Clayton: Now, obviously, TikTok doesn't want to be banned in the United States. Have you seen anything the company has done to allay fears that TikTok is a national security threat?

Lukito: One thing that's interesting about TikTok is they're obviously very aware of these policies and these discussions, and so they've attempted to propose some mechanism to circumvent this ban.

One of the things that they're proposing is this project called Project Texas. And one of the claims that they're making is that they will house their data within Project Texas in the United States to kind of mitigate these national security concerns.

But it's really unclear whether this will be effective, whether we would actually be able to have control over our data as American citizens. And one thing that I will be watching for in the future is whether TikTok is operating in good faith about this project.

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Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.