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Opinion: TikTok ban limits young people’s ability to share information, political discourse

A hand holding a phone with the TikTok app is pictured. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Sofia Martins

May 24, 2024 12:06 a.m.

This post was updated May 29 at 8:15 p.m.

Get ready to say goodbye to TikTok.

If the beloved social media app is not sold within the next year, the United States government will ban the platform nationwide.

With over 1 billion monthly active users across the globe, TikTok changed the game for online media consumption and user interaction because of its ability to integrate short-form videos with popular music and sounds. Beyond the lighthearted content, the platform has also become a staple for political discourse, allowing people from diverse backgrounds to share their views.

On April 24, President Joe Biden signed a bill that forces TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, to sell its share of the social media app within nine months, with the possibility of a three-month extension. The bill was quickly passed through U.S. Congress with bipartisan support.

Considering the difficulty of selling such a big business in such a short time span, ByteDance would most likely have to cease TikTok’s operations in the U.S. in about a year.

It goes without question that banning TikTok would hinder people’s ability to politically engage and converse online. The ban would violate free speech since it directly excludes a critical platform for political interaction, especially for young people. As a result, new generations would lose an established communication channel and have to start over on less engaging platforms.

The official justification of the bill is in the name of national security. Since ByteDance is based in Beijing, the U.S. government is concerned that the Chinese government would use its authority over TikTok’s parent company to manipulate the American public’s opinion, share users’ data and influence elections. However, the White House has yet to publicly provide evidence that the Chinese government has interfered in ByteDance’s business to advance its own political interests.

Considering America’s tumultuous political and economic relationship with China, one could question whether the issue of national security and data privacy is the sole motivator for the TikTok ban. After all, if the U.S. government were worried about data breaches in general, it would have looked for an intermediate alternative that allowed TikTok to remain in the nation while protecting Americans’ digital information.

In fact, ByteDance proposed an initiative called Project Texas, which would give the U.S. government considerable access to TikTok’s U.S. operations and transfer all American user information to servers owned by Oracle – an American tech corporation based in Austin, Texas – and other auditing firms. However, the Biden administration rejected the proposal.

Shazeda Ahmed, a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the UCLA Center on Race & Digital Justice, said it is contradictory that the U.S. is trying to ban TikTok out of fear of election interference. There is evidence that major American-owned tools, such as Google and YouTube, have shaped elections and people’s behaviors worldwide without many consequences, she said.

Even in the U.S., Facebook – an American-owned company – has been utilized by Russia to shape public opinion and potentially influence the results of the 2016 presidential election.

Ahmed added that this bill solidifies China as a foreign adversary when there is still the option to regulate all tech companies and apps in a less targeted but effective approach to data security.

“It’s (a) very Cold War mentality, and it’s a hard thing to walk back from because once you do that to TikTok, how many other examples are going to arise?” Ahmed said.

If TikTok gets banned, young people will inevitably lose a valuable space for sharing content. The platform has become increasingly popular, especially among Millennials and Generation Z. In fact, around 62% of U.S. adults under the age of 30 and 63% of teens ages 13 to 17 reported they use TikTok, according to the Pew Research Center. From comedy and dancing to political content, TikTok comprises a plethora of communities, allowing for the fast sharing of experiences and opinions.

“Politicians and activists can use it as a space to quickly disseminate information on their causes and let people know about things faster,” said Madeline Abellera, a first-year pre-political science student.

TikTok also distinguishes itself from other short-form audiovisual platforms such as Instagram by promoting content creators of all sizes. This allows people who may not be represented in the mainstream media or have a large following to share their perspectives with a wider audience, making it less hierarchal.

“One of the things that was really innovative about TikTok is that its algorithm was designed to show you small influencers,” said Alden Young, an associate professor in the African American studies department. “That, I think, makes it easier for a wider range of views about things like politics to rise to the surface.”

TikTok provides a medium where communities can hear about a plethora of viewpoints on issues directly related to them and broader social and political conflicts, such as climate change, racial inequality, and crucially, the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. Banning TikTok would deprive our society of an imperative sharing space for political discourse.

“TikTok becomes a place where there can be a horizontal transmission of knowledge,” Young said.

Without the app, young people’s ability to interact with each other in a quick and engaging way would be considerably jeopardized, especially with the upcoming 2024 presidential election.

While it is valuable to consume news through multiple outlets to measure credibility, it is essential to acknowledge that 32% of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 get their news on TikTok in the U.S. Therefore, barring this platform would significantly affect political discourse among youth and the exchange of nonfiltered information.

“It would be sad if TikTok is banned prior to the presidential election because I think it would narrow the number of channels that young voters have to get information and to become informed about political debate,” Young said.

When advocating for the anti-TikTok bill, Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi said the legislation was an attempt to improve the platform. However, this law is simply a petty political move to undermine Chinese business in the U.S. and maintain American technological hegemony by forcing ByteDance to give up ownership of arguably the most popular social media app at the moment.

If TikTok gets banned, the U.S. government will have sacrificed freedom of speech and association for the sake of achieving political and economic dominance – and American youth will suffer for it.

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