Why TikTok Needs to be Sold or Banned Before the 2024 Election

In the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Americans woke up to the terrifying potential for social media to be harnessed by foreign powers to interfere with our domestic politics. A 2018 indictment brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller detailed the ways in which Russian interests manipulated Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram to rally support behind hashtags like #Hillary4Prison, #IWontProtectHillary and, at the other end of the spectrum, #MAGA and #Trump2016.

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We are entering the 2024 election cycle with a far more direct threat. TikTok, which has over 170 million monthly active users in the U.S.—more than half the total U.S. population of any age—is owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance. We need to take that very seriously, not only because TikTok is generally influential with young Americans, but because we’ve already seen it drive political sentiment, especially on college campuses.

Fortunately, there’s still time to act. On March 5, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), along with 18 others, introduced the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, which would prevent TikTok from being distributed in the U.S. unless it severs ties with Bytedance. This article makes the case for that legislation and why it’s so critical to the future of American democracy.

Why TikTok matters

According to Pew, 32% of Americans aged 18-29 say they regularly get news from TikTok, up from 9% in 2020. This makes it one of the top news sources for Gen Z—and we’ve already seen its potential for real-world impact.

After the October 7 attacks by Hamas against Israel, the Anti-Defamation League recorded a 10x increase in antisemitic incidents on U.S. college campuses. This coincided with a surge of pro-Palestinian content on TikTok: at peak, 98.6% of US views on TikTok of content related to the Israel-Hamas war carried a pro-Palestinian hashtag.

Social media is understood to be a mirror, reflecting back what people believe and engage with. However, TikTok’s view ratio does not map to public opinion, even among young people. A Pew poll published on December 8 showed a roughly even split among respondents aged 18-29 on the question of whether Hamas (46%) or the Israeli Government (42%) bears a lot of responsibility for the Israel-Hamas war. Clearly, the TikTok algorithm does more than reflect pre-existing sentiment.

TikTok says users decide whether to post and engage with content on #FreePalestine rather than #StandWithIsrael. But, content moderation decides what posts stay up, what gets taken down, and what accounts get banned from the platform. And it’s TikTok’s algorithm that decides what circulates and what doesn’t. 

For anyone who doubts the causal link between TikTok and the rise in antisemitic incidents we’ve seen on U.S. campuses: a November 2023 study conducted by Generation Lab, which I helped to organize, showed that people who spend 30 minutes per day on TikTok are 17% more likely to agree with anti-semitic statements like “Jewish people chase money more than other people do.”

This connection to antisemitism is far more pronounced among TikTok users than those of other major social media platforms. This is likely because TikTok shows a higher concentration of pro-Palestinian content, but could also be because TikTok amplifies more sensationalist content. Unlike Instagram and X, where content reach is influenced by an account’s established follower count accumulated over years, TikTok allows even new users to achieve widespread visibility if their posts receive above-average engagement.

Events since October 7 underscore the potential for TikTok to drive sentiment on divisive political issues and to have real-world consequences.

We have reason to believe China has its thumb on the scale

In December 2023, the National Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) published a study showing that TikTok suppresses content inconvenient to China while amplifying content consistent with its foreign policy objectives. Sensitive topics like #FreeTibet, #FreeUyghurs and #FreeHongKong are significantly underrepresented on TikTok compared with Instagram.

Conversely, topics like #StandWithKashmir, which aligns with China’s geopolitical goal of undermining stability in India, is disproportionately amplified on TikTok.

To prove its independence from China, TikTok points out that its headquarters are in Singapore and Los Angeles and that ~60% of ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, is owned by American investors. However, ByteDance’s other main asset, Douyin (China’s TikTok), operates at the pleasure of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As Didi Global and Ant Financial both discovered, the CCP is increasingly flexing its power to identify “regulatory violations” and “competition concerns” to assert its agenda. For Douyin to remain in the CCP’s good graces, TikTok may be required to do the CCP’s bidding. 

A January 30, 2024 report in the Wall Street Journal also casts some doubt over the robustness of efforts to silo US TikTok data.  

TikTok has reduced, rather than increased, transparency

After the NCRI published its December 2023 study, TikTok quietly removed access to the metrics that groups like NCRI had been using to explore trends on the platform. This limited outsiders’ ability to monitor what topics were spreading on TikTok, making it hard to scrutinize which topics TikTok might be amplifying or suppressing. 

TikTok told the NYTimes it removed access because those metrics were being used to “draw inaccurate conclusions.” It also claimed that NCRI’s method of analyzing hashtag activity “is severely flawed and misrepresentative of the activity on TikTok”. However, this is a method TikTok itself used at the outset of the Israel-Hamas war to “set the record straight with facts.”

A path forward in Congress

The data shows that TikTok has a history of suppressing content, amplifying content, and sowing division, all in ways that serve the CCP’s interests. And when this was highlighted, they removed key tools used to scrutinize activity on their platform. 

This leaves two potential paths forward: TikTok either needs to be sold off from its Chinese parent company ByteDance, or banned outright in the U.S. India has already reached this conclusion, making the decision to ban TikTok in June 2020.

The March 5 bill introduced by Reps. Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi would achieve exactly those outcomes. In the words of Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), a co-sponsor of the bill: “In this day and age, we all know about the vast benefit—and vast risks—of our most popular social media platforms. Ensuring that foreign adversaries do not have the ability to control what we see and hear online is an important piece of what should be a bipartisan effort to make social media safer for all Americans”.

2016 was the warning shot. Let’s make sure we learn the lesson. 

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