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The Battle Over TikTok

June 6, 2024

Tiktok Ban May 2024

In March, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill giving the Chinese company that owns TikTok, ByteDance, six months to sell it to a non-Chinese owner or face a ban of the social media platform. President Biden has said he would sign the bill, although at the time of this writing it was unclear if the U.S. Senate would also pass it. Former President Donald Trump, Biden’s opponent in the upcoming election, now says he would not sign the bill, although while president he supported forcing ByteDance to divest from TikTok.

TikTok now has  more than 100 million users in the U.S., so a ban of TikTok in the U.S. would obviously affect a lot of people. The reason for proposing the ban is the fear that TikTok is providing sensitive information garnered from its platform users to the Chinese government, thus threatening U.S. national security.

Does TikTok Report Information to the Chinese Government?

 In an informative piece in  The Conversation, Shaomin Li, a professor of international business at Old Dominion University, wrote that “China’s National Intelligence Law granted broad power to the country’s spy agencies and obligates companies to assist with intelligence efforts…Regardless of whether ByteDance has formal ties with the [Chinese Communist] party, there will be the tacit understanding that the management is working for two bosses: the investors of the company and – more importantly – their political overseers that represent the party.”

According to an article in the  Washington Post, TikTok has admitted to spying on American journalists and to handing over nonpublic data gleaned from its platform to employees based in China. From this analysis, then, it seems clear that there is a real potential for personal information posted on TikTok to be handed over to the Chinese government. In our work, we have noted a great deal of health and science misinformation prevailing on TikTok, so in some senses it would be advantageous to see some control exerted over the platform. Does that mean, however, that a total ban on it is necessary?

Scientists Use TikTok to Spread Their Work

 In an article in  Science Insider, published by the journal Science, one group of TikTok users clearly think a ban would be problematic: science communicators. The article quotes Emily Zawacki of the EarthScope Consortium as noting that,  “More than any other platform [TikTok] has this unmatched potential to amplify the reach and growth of science communication content.” It turns out that many scientists use TikTok to spread the word about their work to the public, something we have long advocated is an important step in bringing the progress of scientific investigation to people’s attention. “One of TikTok’s advantages,” the Science Insider article explains, “is its algorithm, which excels at exposing users to new topics, rather than content related to topics they’re already interested in, Zawacki says.”  Scientists also like TikTok’s editing tools, which make it easy to post images of their work in user friendly, accessible formats.

 Using TikTok, scientists in what might seem like esoteric fields such as limnology (the study of lakes) and marine science have reached millions of viewers, explaining their work and hopefully making their areas of scientific research interesting and exciting to lots of people.

Social media platforms, like TikTok, can also transmit important, useful, and above all, accurate health information that people might otherwise not get. For example, some great OB/GYNs are sharing sexual health info that teens just don’t get at school because of prevailing abstinence only education policies,  despite the evidence that comprehensive sex education is more effective  at things like reducing teen pregnancy. 

And it is unclear that TikTok has information about individual users that is any more sensitive than other social media platforms, such as Facebook and X (formerly Twitter).  Washington Post tech columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler looked under the hood of TikTok and concluded, “My takeaway: Despite being branded a national-security threat, there’s still little evidence that TikTok poses an extra personal threat to you versus other social media apps.

According to a March 2024  Pew Research Institute Survey, 50% of U.S. Americans favor a ban on TikTok, with only 22% opposing it. That sentiment will fuel further calls for a national TikTok ban if ByteDance refuses to sell it to a non-Chinese owner. But it is entirely unclear just how much of a security risk TikTok poses, and it is certainly clear that many people look to it for information about health and science, receiving some that is accurate and high-quality and some that is misinformation.

We doubt that TikTok is a threat to most people’s  personal security. It is naïve for anyone who uses social media these days to think their information is being kept a secret. But it is possible that on a grander scale that is harder for civilians to evaluate there is a national security threat. So, it would be nice if somehow TikTok is disengaged from the Chinese Communist Party. Short of that, Congress will have to continue to grapple with how to regulate social media platforms that promote misinformation about health and science that are consequential to individual and public health and safety. This cuts across all social media platforms. Some contend that restricting what can be put on social media represents a violation of First Amendment freedom of speech rules. Others believe that posting misleading or false statements about health topics is not protected speech and can be legally regulated. Invoking national security is one way of circumventing this conundrum, but it only applies to TikTok and doesn’t address the core issue of whether it is appropriate for states and countries to limit what can be posted on social media. We encourage a productive, open, and evidence-based conversation on this topic in which we better understand what is at stake if we agree to legislate social media content.

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