Censorship or Security? Unpacking the Nuances of the TikTok Ban

Anna R.
May 18, 2024

As you might have seen, TikTok has been going through a lot recently. From potential bans to lawsuits, the app's future feels tremendously uncertain—at least it does for many people. My hot take: it’s not going anywhere, and some of the fear-mongering I’ve seen from people who know absolutely nothing about tech or social media companies has gotten out of hand. I’ve seen a number of people place the sole reasoning for legislation around a TikTok “ban” on government censorship, further claiming that the government fears us “waking up.” But the reality is there’s a lot more nuance to the story, and diluting the legislation around a potential ban to just an issue of censorship is reductive. While I do think censorship plays into the state of current legislation, it isn’t the whole story—not even close.

I’ve been working in social media for years, first through ad agencies and, in more recent years, for tech companies and startups. Throughout that time, I’ve been lucky enough to navigate many different tech spaces and meet really smart and passionate people. In doing so, it opened my eyes to the complexity of social media. It also made me see the business side of things, and in doing so, I was able to think a lot more objectively about things. Understanding capitalism in the abstract is one thing, but understanding it in practice is a whole other thing.

In case you might not be familiar, in April of 2024, Biden signed a bill into effect that many have dubbed a TikTok Ban. The law is not a direct ban, but rather a law that, if it were to go into effect, would make it impossible for TikTok to function in its current capacity. The law requires that ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company that is Chinese-owned, sell all stakes in TikTok within 12 months. The conditions were tucked into a bill providing foreign aid for Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan.

Lawmakers and the Biden administration argue that as long as TikTok is owned by a foreign entity, it is beholden to China's authoritarian regime. They also made some strong accusations of surveillance on U.S. citizens, arguing that the app was a threat to national security. And while, in theory, that could be true, the reality is there was no substantial evidence provided to support those claims. Furthermore, national intelligence laws in China would require ByteDance to hand over data on Americans if authorities there sought it.

What I find particularly interesting about this argument is that everything supporters accuse TikTok of doing is something American social media companies have done or are doing. Just look at the impact Meta has on presidential elections, most noticeably during the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Not familiar? TLDR; Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm headed by Trump advisor Steve Bannon, used personal information taken without authorization to build a system that could profile individual US voters in order to target them with personalized political ads. There has been a lot of back and forth on Meta’s personal responsibility in this issue, but personally, I do think it’s something a company with that magnitude of resources should have been better equipped to prevent and protect its users from and should have known about much sooner. Also, Facebook never should have given any data to Cambridge Analytica. 

For what it’s worth, I think the word "ban" was thrown into the equation as an attempt to gain attention because it’s clickbaity. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—it got people paying attention—but it does open the door for a lot of people not fully educated on the subject to make bold claims and conspiracy theories. I often feel like I see more and more people falling into conspiracy theories that aren’t based on any proof or even coming from sources that have done any research beyond a basic Google search or reading an Instagram graphic. But that’s me being cynical.

I know a lot of people may feel like the timing of this bill has everything to do with censorship because people are “waking up.” And while I do think people are becoming more socially aware, I wouldn’t consider it waking up. Actually, if I’m honest, I really hate that language. In my opinion, it mirrors a lot of QAnon just a little too closely—it sounds far too much like the "great awakening." While it may seem like everyone in some corners of the internet is waking up, that isn’t always the case. The algorithm is really good at making you think everyone is living the same reality as you, but people aren’t. Case in point: I’ve worked with men who actually don’t think I should be working as a woman. Which is wild because I’m good at my job.

I also often feel like a lot of people incorrectly label natural change in society as part of some bigger "waking up," but the reality is that society progresses over time. It’s not a massive conspiracy. These things happen as access to education and representation improves.

So yes, part of me thinks that Biden and other proponents of this bill are worried about what is being spread on TikTok, but I think it’s more than that. I do think that last year’s virality of Osama Bin Laden’s “Letter to America” really made them pay attention to an app that they likely deemed as something silly for children.

But if I’m being really honest, I think a lot of this has to do with Meta. They’re threatened by TikTok, and who wouldn’t be? From a tech standpoint, its algorithms are better at delivering engaging content and keeping people on the platform. Ultimately, that leads to a much more engaged and arguably loyal user base. I think for a lot of people, TikTok also still feels like “anything could happen,” allowing it to grow infinitely quicker than Meta. I think there’s a world in which Meta thinks they can buy TikTok. I mean, they bought Instagram, so why wouldn’t they be able to buy TikTok? I can see their delusional reasoning. I also don’t think it’s just Meta who wants to buy TikTok; there are plenty of other companies ready to buy and potentially ruin the app with terrible features.

At any rate, TikTok has decided to sue the US government. The lawsuit claims that the law violates the First Amendment. “If Congress can do this, it can circumvent the First Amendment by invoking national security and ordering the publisher of any individual newspaper or website to sell to avoid being shut down,” the lawsuit said. “And for TikTok, any such divestiture would disconnect Americans from the rest of the global community on a platform devoted to shared content—an outcome fundamentally at odds with the Constitution’s commitment to both free speech and individual liberty.” In all honesty, TikTok has a strong case—a really strong case. And while I do believe in the validity of this lawsuit, I also think it is in part being done to buy some time before this law would potentially go into effect.

Ultimately, I do believe if elected again, Biden will overturn this law. I feel like it was a misguided and quite frankly bad attempt at trying to capture support while seeming tough on tech. I think the Biden administration has seen the way the general public, and their target voting demographic, has positively responded to KOSA, and they decided they wanted to seem like they were doing something. Now whether anything will come of this, I don’t know, but if I had to guess, I’m going to assume that this time next year we’ll still be watching "Last Holiday" starring Queen Latifah in 47 parts on TikTok. Well, assuming the devil himself wasn’t elected and hasn’t burned our whole country down.

Oh, and in something that has nothing to do (but everything to do) with this writing: go register to vote.

References & Readings:

AI-Generated Propaganda Is Just as Persuasive as the Real Thing, Worrying Study Finds
Global Social Media Statistics 

Newly released messages reveal when Facebook first knew about Cambridge Analytica breach

Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach

TikTok doubles ad buy to fight potential U.S. ban as Congress moves to fast-track legislation