Good luck explaining a TikTok ban to young people

Among the many hidden elements in the $1.7 trillion spending bill Congress is working to pass to fund the government next year is a small victory for TikTok’s enemies: phone and device users owned by the government will not be able to install the video app and must remove it if installed.

The move, backed by Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, is mostly symbolic, fellow Sara Morrison reported it, as the app is already banned in some agencies and departments and would only apply to employees in the executive branch of government. “It does not ban the app on the phones of other branch employees, such as members of Congress or their staff,” she wrote. That means the handful of Congressmen, staffers, and interns who use the app to communicate with constituents or to share a behind-the-scenes look at how the federal legislature works may still be free to do so.

The executive branch ban would be the latest victory for the bipartisan wing of congressmen who have been critical of the social media platform for its Chinese ownership and potential cooperation with the Communist Party of China (should it ask for user data ). Reporting from The Rod and the New York Times this year it confirmed the concerns, finding cases of ByteDance employees having improper access to user data, including journalists. A BuzzFeed survey it also found that China-based ByteDance employees had access to “non-public data on US TikTok users.”

At the same time, it foreshadows the challenge America’s (older) political class will face as they try to explain themselves to younger Americans — and future voters — if the momentum to crack down on TikTok builds.

Both Republicans and Democrats, especially in the Senate, have expressed skepticism that TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, is, or could remain, independent of the Chinese government, especially if the CCP tries to force the company to share data about its American users or to spread propaganda and disinformation particularly to the American public. Legislators such as Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia (a Democrat) and Marco Rubio of Florida (a Republican) see that threat as a national security risk: Rubio has been vocal in pushing for bans of the app on government networks and Warner has recommended to parents not to allow your children to use the app.

Much of the concern lies with TikTok’s unique audience: more than two thirds of adolescents in the US, young people under 30 use the app constitute a plurality of its user base, a larger share than Instagram, Twitter, YouTube or Reddit. Coincidentally, these people will form part of the majority of America’s new electorate over the next decade.

That trick also poses a test for US lawmakers and their eventual campaigns: How do you explain to dozens of young people who use this app every day why you want to ban their favorite app? Already, TikTok’s videos and comment sections are filled with debates about how concerned users should be with a foreign government that has information about them. Many conversations end with an agreement that privacy is worth the trade-off for app access, and offer suggestions on how to avoid a potential ban.

“They don’t like other countries collecting our data, they just want American companies to collect data for the government,” one commentary read. a reporter’s TikTok video explaining efforts to ban TikTok.

“You should [be concerned] if you look at what china is doing with tiktok” start another conversation on a video about a ban. “Please tell us what… are doing that Google, [YouTube] and Facebook are not doing,” replies another user.

In addition to persuading younger users, how do we reach a generation of people who already distrust government, don’t feel connected to elected officials, and are deeply misunderstood by the political classeffectively eliminating one of the biggest avenues to reach these people where are they at?

While a blanket ban on TikTok in the US isn’t immediately on the horizon, efforts to look into ByteDance have accelerated this year, especially at the state level, where more than a dozen states have banned the app on government or public networks. . What started as a solitary effort by Rubio to have a federal agency investigate ByteDance’s purchase of TikTok’s predecessor Musical.ly has now grown into a concern with bipartisan consensus, with the backing of lawmakers on both sides. both houses of Congress and both the last and last current presidential administrations.

But there is an obvious problem here. TikTok is hugely popular with young people and the last time Donald Trump launched a broader ban in 2020, it didn’t go well with young people, although evidence and skepticism have since grown. Overall, data privacy only affects older politicians doesn’t seem to care young, accustomed to being followed and supervised. Teens, in particular, are particularly loyal to the app: Nearly 60% of teens report using the app everydayand about one in six uses it consistently in a day. A large number of teenagers also say that it would be difficult for them to give up social media in general.

After a year in between, many candidates, political organizations, and youth voter outreach groups at the federal and local levels have relied on TikTok to reach the millions of young people who use the app. “As long as this is the game at play, you have to be in the arena,” Colton Hess, the creator of one of those outreach groups (called Tok the Vote) told the Associated Press in September. TikTok has helped his voter registration efforts reach tens of millions, he said.

TikTok should also be the next frontier for candidates and campaigns to expand their reach with young people, Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, vice president and co-founder of progressive group Way to Win, told me when I spoke with her about the lessons from the election mid-term 2022 offers to reach young voters.

“Young people get their information in very different ways, so it’s important that we actually reach those people in the places where they actually get information,” she said. A handful of politicians are already doing this, but young voter experts believe more of this engagement needs to happen. “By investing in new media platforms, in social influencers on TikTok, who have an audience and want to be able to tell their audience things, we need to invest in those people and support their work,” said Ancona.

Already in 2020 and 2022, Democrats like Ohio’s Senate candidate Tim RyanSen. Ed Markey in Massachusetts, Sen. Bernie Sanders in Vermont and candidate for governor of Texas Beto O’Rourke used the app to increase his name recognition, talk about Congressional politics, and participate in popular trends among young people. Many of them have benefited from that recognition at the polls, winning large majorities of voters under 30, the electoral group least likely to turn out, be loyal to political parties and trust politicians. It remains to be seen how future campaigns, advocacy groups and government leaders intend to reach these people without a tool like TikTok.

Entering a year of divided government, tougher regulations and restrictions on TikTok could be one of the few policies moving forward with bipartisan support. Politicians would do well to present themselves early in front of a young audience to explain it.


TikTok’s logo is displayed outside a TikTok office in Culver City, California. Mario Tama/Getty Images