How TikTok became public enemy no. 1 in the United States
In typical TikTok fashion, a young person holding a lavalier microphone in one hand walks up to a couple of strangers in a video. Titled “Trivia questions about the U,” it’s one of the University of Utah’s top TikTok videos with over 115 thousand views.
While this video didn’t reach the casual millions TikTok regularly generates for accounts big and small—numbers news outlets have referred to as “unfathomable”—it exemplifies that brands on the app can have a natural relationship with their audience by using the visual language of the app.
For U.S. politicians, though, this all comes at a price—one they refer to as a threat to national security.
On December 12, 2022, Gov. Spencer Cox released an executive order that banned TikTok from government phones, citing Chinese laws that compel private companies to provide information to the government as the foundation for potential security risks.
The move had followed several other bans across the country based on the concern that not only was TikTok tracking user data (like all major social media companies do) but that it actively provides that data to the government in Beijing.
In early February, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also unveiled a plan to ban TikTok on government devices. Ohio, Maryland and South Dakota have also joined the trend in the past few months. In the federal government, the Senate voted unanimously to support a TikTok ban on government devices.
Republican members of Congress have even introduced legislation that would ban TikTok outright for all users in the U.S.
In declaring the ban, Abbott echoed similar concerns to Cox but spelled out more clearly his aversion to Chinese tech: “Owned by a Chinese company that employs Chinese Communist Party members, TikTok harvests significant amounts of data from a user’s device, including details about a user’s internet activity,” he said in his announcement.
TikTok’s privacy concerns have been heavily publicized. In December, it was revealed that the platform was spying on Forbes journalists. Gizmodo reporter Thomas Germain found that the app was pulling huge amounts of data, including personal contacts. Meanwhile, FBI Director Christopher Wray acknowledged his agency has concerns about security, suggesting the app “doesn’t share our values.”
Wray said the FBI believes Chinese officials are able to “manipulate content, and if they want to, to use it for influence operations.” Months earlier, Buzzfeed had released a 2022 report finding that government officials in China had accessed user data for months at a time without U.S. staffers’ ability to control the privacy of that information.
In a summary of the investigations into TikTok’s privacy concerns from The Guardian, James Lewis, a senior VP at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the bigger concern among politicians was that the Chinese Communist Party had a reputation for spying and people don’t trust them with this data.
“It’s less about TikTok and more about the Chinese Communist party,” he told reporter Dan Milmo.
The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, however, found that the app was not “overtly malicious” in its approach to data gathering. Altogether, various findings have cast a shadow of doubt around how exactly problematic TikTok’s algorithm is for users.
Experts are in agreement about something else, though—the power of TikTok’s algorithm to reach viewers is basically unmatched across social media platforms.
Virality on TikTok is so routine that regional news reporters across the globe have all covered a similar story: a local person goes viral on the app and wants to use their newfound fame for good. In Utah, a Park City hat maker racked up huge views for showing its manufacturing process. A Heber teacher raised money to pay for school lunches. “Dirty sodas” were trending last year, giving global exposure to Utah’s unique spin on caffeinating.
There are also controversial examples: A young Utah mom sparked a debate about whether it’s appropriate to record a dance video next to her sick newborn. She was forced to delete her video and followed up with a tearful apology and an appeal not to judge people.
TikTok has appeared resilient where other platforms lose steam. The power of its algorithm helps ensure that while virality is common, its impact is real. Musicians have gone viral and risen to fame while they lingered in obscurity before. Chefs have quit their cooking jobs in favor of building audiences online and making content. Dancers have exploded in popularity on the app, then headlined their own tours. Influencers star in commercials for major tech companies like Adobe to show off their TikTok editing tricks.
But the core viewing audience of the app helps videos go viral just by casually scrolling—and they are unwittingly providing data to ByteDance, the company that owns TikTok.
The concern about this invasion of privacy follows the deep, ongoing villainization of Chinese capital by U.S. politicians in recent years. Competition from China has often been labeled either unfair to businesses or a national security risk, and the U.S. government has sought to heavily restrict China’s footprint within the U.S.
Former attorney general Jeff Sessions launched the China Initiative in 2018 within the DOJ to surveil, charge and deport Chinese officials seen as a threat to different industries. Areas like agriculture, shipping, science and technology have all been areas of Chinese influence that U.S. officials target, escalating long-held diplomatic and economic tensions. While the Biden administration quietly shut down this program among concerns from Asian American groups that it unfairly singled out one group for extra scrutiny, the DOJ has continued to bring large cases against Chinese officials, often alleging conspiracies.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military routinely opposes Chinese investment in real estate abroad, arguing it poses a threat to security. For example, the U.S. Navy unsuccessfully tried to push back on Shanghai’s port company taking over operations of the major port in Haifa, Israel, citing concerns that the company would spy on both U.S. and Israeli militaries.
The trade war between China and the U.S. that escalated during the Trump administration through increased tariffs and heavier restrictions on Chinese operations didn’t help relations, either. The Biden administration is walking a finer line, publicly referring to smooth diplomatic relations while maintaining several hard-line positions in military and economic issues.
Concerns about data privacy aren’t by any means unique to Chinese companies, though the apparent requirement for ByteDance to share data with the government is a problem for TikTok users. Researchers have noted a wave of privacy concerns among Chinese tech in general for this reason.
Cox’s spokesperson declined repeated questions about how concerns about China factor into his decision, instead referring to his prepared statement on the topic.
Notably exempted from the government devices ban in Utah, however, were universities.
Academics and educators who interact with students every day see a more nuanced environment. The app has incredible opportunities as well as challenges separate from Chinese data harvesting. Hollis Robbins, dean of the University of Utah College of Humanities, likened it to ChatGPT, the OpenAI program that has been making headlines for its apparent abilities to upend creative work.
“I think this is a missed opportunity. My main problem with this is they want to leave it off government devices, by all means—but we’re missing out on a wonderful way to promote our state and state organizations to a younger audience.”
Both algorithms are prediction models that have major impacts in the classroom, she says.
“It feeds you what it thinks you want to know, and as others have said, it knows you better than you know you,” Robbins says. “And I find that limiting … because of the statistical recapitulation.”
For her, the concern was less with apps harvesting data and more with the closed loop that algorithms can provide, which appears to serve limitless information but actually curates only what is already appealing to you as a viewer.
“At the same time,” she says, “we have a communications department that studies old media and new media. Clearly, using TikTok is crucial to training and educating journalism students. So, as an educator, I don’t like seeing any of these technologies banned.”
Meanwhile, for Chris Snider, a professor of mass communications at Iowa’s Drake University, the biggest concern with losing TikTok will be losing access to major audiences. In Iowa, for example, the ban extends to university officials.
“I think this is a missed opportunity,” he says, lamenting the possibility of promoting athletics and academics. “My main problem with this is they want to leave it off government devices, by all means—but we’re missing out on a wonderful way to promote our state and state organizations to a younger audience.”
Snider surveys his classes to get a feel for what platforms students are using. He finds that TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram are growing in popularity.
“For several years now, my students have dreamed of being influencers. With TikTok, that’s a reality,” he says. A kid in Iowa can quit their job, and “that’s completely within reason on TikTok.”
At the same time, he thinks TikTok is working behind the scenes to satisfy major privacy concerns while allowing politicians to have their soundbites. That doesn’t stop him from having conspiratorial concerns, though.
“What I think is frustrating is that we’ve got TikTok being banned on government devices, and we’re still using it as regular people,” he says. “What does the government know that they’re not telling us?”
He says if TikTok ends up being banned outright, it will likely be replaced by something similar. Many other platforms have learned from ByteDance’s success and integrated similar products into their apps, like YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels.
Snider finds that students have mixed feelings about the virality of these apps.
“I think there are some students who see TikTok as taking away a lot of their time and almost would welcome a ban to take that distraction away from their lives,” he says.
Robbins says students are aware of the app’s integration into daily life but that they are oriented to embrace it. She had dinner with a group of humanities students in January, for example, and asked them about their TikTok use.
“They were a little bit sheepish about it, but everybody uses it and gets their news via it,” she says. “It’s what they’re used to, and I don’t want to criticize it because it’s what they use.”
For learning, though, she feels it poses problems. It’s nearly impossible to include hyperlinks and external sources to back up claims on the app.
“Who were their influences and who were their influences before that?” she asks about the videos students are watching. “This is what we do in the classroom. We can teach influence; we can teach how information came from the past … it’s not what TikTok does. TikTok is very presentist.”
Robbins has also asked students whether they feel they can better participate in conversations through the app. One student told her he feels he has a voice by commenting on anything. She says this inherently positions him downstream, reacting to the content rather than participating in a conversation directly, but that the immediacy of these acts is notable.
Most importantly to Robbins, the looming threat of TikTok ending means closing the door to a chance to learn more.
“The conversations that we’re having about TikTok are vital, and banning [it] doesn’t allow us to have these conversations,” she says.
On top of that, she says, closing off access to Chinese programs goes against the educational spirit.
“Does stopping it here start it someplace else? Is the policy better to have a cultural exchange?” she asks. “We think it is vitally important to teach Mandarin, to teach Chinese history and culture … That kind of cultural exchange, if you look at the history of the world, is usually beneficial.”
Ryan Bartlett, the director of strategic communications for the Utah State Board of Education, says that even though they were also exempted from Cox’s December ban, they took their own action to block the app on their networks.
“USBE deals with sensitive information,” he says. “We, of course, don’t want to put that information at any elevated risk of being exposed, gathered or utilized by an unauthorized party.”
This action only applies to the USBE network, not school buildings across the state.
“School districts have their own boards and governing bodies that would make these types of decisions at a local level,” Bartlett says.
For Snider, the biggest concern about an app like TikTok is the power of its algorithm, something that the government is not mentioning. Audiences are vulnerable to influence from these apps for any reason, and even if TikTok is gone, plenty of U.S. companies are trying to capture the power of that algorithm.
“A simple little tweak in that algorithm,” he says, “and suddenly we’re a little more angry.”