National security concerns collide with communities finding a voice and income on TikTok

National security concerns collide with communities finding a voice and income on TikTok
National security concerns collide with communities finding a voice and income on TikTok

TikTok, one of the most popular social networks in America, could be a thing of the past by this time next year.

In April, President Joe Biden signed a law banning the app in the country unless it completely splits off from its China-based parent company ByteDance.

Dave Schroeder, director of the Wisconsin Security Research Consortium, told WPR that while TikTok is mostly full of “harmless content” – such as dance trends, silly animals and book recommendations – the app’s algorithm can also highlight messages that cast American foreign policy in a bad light.

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“There is no such thing as private companies in China,” Schroeder said on WPR’s “Wisconsin Today.” “What comes up at the top of the search results when you search for a sensitive issue like Gaza or Taiwan, or anything that might have a geopolitical context or a national security issue? … That’s what really is the national issue.”

For Wisconsin residents, however, losing TikTok would mean losing one of their most popular social media sites, and local content creators who use the app could miss out on what has become a steady source of income for them.

Wisconsin-based TikTok star Mercury Stardust, also known as “Trans Handy Ma’am,” told WPR she does not accept concerns about Chinese ownership and influence as sufficient grounds to ban the app.

“No matter what name they give it, no matter how many times they say it’s about national security, these are basically hypothetical arguments,” she said. “What we do know is that this app has helped the pro-Palestinian movements and the Black Lives Matter movements and helped the trans community get the word out about anti-trans laws across the country.”

Stardust also said that the app has become incredibly helpful for small businesses to gain a foothold in the “attention economy” and that the music industry has become heavily reliant on the platform for streaming revenue.

TikTok said it will challenge the law in court, filing a lawsuit arguing it is a violation of First Amendment freedom of speech. Schroeder said it is unclear how the lawsuit will play out in the coming months, but judges have previously been “receptive” to similar arguments.

In 2020, former President Donald Trump attempted to ban TikTok by executive order. The courts blocked the measure at the time and sided with the social media company, which relies on free speech.

According to Pew Research, by 2023, about 33 percent of all American adults used TikTok regularly. And nearly two-thirds of teenagers use the app.

The bill’s author, former U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Republican from Green Bay, said the fact that the app is heavily geared toward younger users is precisely why separation from possible Chinese influence is necessary.

“(The bill) takes no position on the content of speech, only on the control by foreign adversaries,” Gallagher said in the House of Representatives in April. “Control by foreign adversaries on what has become the dominant news platform for Americans under 30.”

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