TikTok is widely popular among the younger generation around the world, and the large majority of TikTok users are between the ages of 18 and 34. There is also little denying that older folks likely simply don’t get it. For those reasons, TikTok could be seen as just the latest youth/pop culture fad that is being targeted unfairly.
In 1921, legislators in 37 states introduced almost one hundred film censorship bills aimed to address the threat from motion pictures, which lawmakers and various religious and civic groups warned was introducing morally questionable content on the masses. In the 1950s, German-American psychiatrist and author Fredric Wertham published his book Seduction of the Innocent, which asserted that comic books caused youth to become delinquents.
Tipper Gore, the wife of then-Senator Al Gore (D-Tenn.), co-founded the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in the 1980s with the stated goal of increasing parental control over the access of children to music deemed to have violent, drug-related, or sexual themes. It wasn’t the first – and likely won’t be the last time – that music has been called harmful to the youth.
Likewise, video games have been the subject of Congressional hearings, while former attorney Jack Thompson mounted a campaign against violent games, as well as obscenity in modern culture.
In other words, TikTok seems to be the punching bag of the day, even as lawmakers have put the heads of other social media platforms in the hot seat in recent years. While there have been calls to address the way companies such as Meta conduct business, a flat-out ban is being called for TikTok.
A Popular Youth Platform Being Targeted?
Is this simply a case of older folks not getting what the kids like today?
“Yes and no is the short answer,” said Dr. Aram Sinnreich, professor and chair of the Communication Studies division at American University.
Sinnreich, whose work focuses on the intersection of culture, law, and technology, explained in an interview that there are really three issues all at once with TikTok – and the calls to ban it. Part of it is very much no different than the perceived danger of Dungeons & Dragons or heavy metal music back in the 1980s.
“There is very much an over-the-top panic by our self-appointed guardians of children and the youth,” he noted. “Before it was music, movies, comics – so it’s the same crap, different decade.”
TikTok: A Touch Point For Data Privacy Concerns
TikTok may be very different. In fact, we could take a cue from author Joseph Heller who wrote in his novel Catch-22, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” In this case, the paranoia over TikTok may be justified – at least to a point.
“The second issue is that industrial society has a data privacy problem,” added Sinnreich. “TikTok is simply a touchpoint for these concerns, but it isn’t unique to the Chinese-owned app. It also is true of Meta, Google, and a plethora of other American companies.”
That fact ties into the third issue, namely that the United States is engaged in a digital Cold War with China. It is well-established that Beijing is using social media to spread inflammatory speech to Americans, which can include interfering in our elections; is gathering data through various apps; and stealing U.S. technology through cyber espionage campaigns.
“When it comes to China, there are multiple things going on,” said social media analyst Greg Sterling, co-founder of Near Media. “The national security concerns over TikTok are valid as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has actively tried to manipulate public opinion. So this isn’t really like comic books or music, as it isn’t a content issue.”
TikTok Isn’t Alone In How It Operates
Critics of any proposed ban on TikTok also are quick to note that there is a fair share of hypocrisy as many U.S. companies operate in a similar fashion – the difference of course is who may end up using the data collected from the users and for what purposes.
“The biggest threat also is actually in the background from data brokers,” said Sinnreich. “This isn’t just from TikTok, but almost any app. You install it and give it permissions, where data is collected and data brokers then sell it. We know that intelligence agencies from governments around the world – not just China – are buying this data.”
As a result, it makes perfect sense that TikTok should be banned on government devices. China’s autocratic government requires that Chinese companies must share data collected, and that can speed up the process so that this information finds its way to Chinese intelligence agencies. But it would be unwise to think that simply banning that app, because it is owned by a Chinese firm, will solve the problem.
“For every TikTok, there are dozens of other Chinese apps that are also sending data to Beijing,” warned Sinnreich. “Just look at the top apps on the Apple or Android app stores, and three or four times out of ten, the app is connected in some way to a Chinese company.”
Who Is To Gain From TikTok Ban — Take A Guess?
It is also worth noting who is to gain from a ban on TikTok in the United States – especially given its large user base of younger Americans.
“It is no secret that Facebook has been aggressively lobbying lawmakers to ban TikTok, as Meta would be the great beneficiary,” said Sterling. “We need only look at what happened in India. After TikTok was banned, Meta-owned Instagram became the beneficiary.”
Data privacy and security concerns are really systemic problems that exist across all of the social media platforms today. This is certainly true if those channels are used to shape American opinion in the run-up to the 2024 election.
“Banning TikTok doesn’t solve the data security problem,” Sterling continued. “We also know that Facebook has done a lot of business with Chinese companies, and data collected could make it is way to Beijing from those partnerships.”
Instead, the case could be made that U.S. lawmakers should be looking at the issue of data collection in general.
“The answer is enforceable regulation that restricts the collection of data on all apps,” added Sinnreich. “This doesn’t have to be about TikTok, but it could make it harder for the way that TikTok conducts its business in the U.S.”
Such efforts to restrict the data collection could actually address the core concern over TikTok and social media in general – and do so in a way that largely failed with past efforts to confront the hot new thing of the day.
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