TikTok users in the US breathed a sigh of relief following the latest twist in the ongoing struggle between the social media giant, TikTok, and the US administration. The Trump administration’s efforts to affirmatively ban the Chinese app from the US App Store by the 20th of September 2020 were blocked by a federal judge’s preliminary injunction on the ban. While this judgment does not prohibit any future restrictions from being placed on the app’s distribution, its case does put forward some questions about the current state of democracy and media censorship in the US and further demonstrates the creeping authoritarianism present under the current administration.
The power of media
Social media role has played an influential role in drawing attention to social movements and current affairs, including elections. Most notably, we observed this influence in the Cambridge Analytica scandal and its role in the 2016 US Presidential elections. The scandal was referred to as the largest known leak in Facebook’s history, resulting in millions of American user profiles being sold to political campaigns and hindering the election’s validity.
One cannot help but notice the irony that a social media platform—a mode of communication which arguably helped current US President Trump win the presidency—is now being threatened to be silenced. There is undoubtedly evidence of security breaches associated with TikTok, including but not limited to the mishandling of user information by third parties and the sharing of explicit content. However, such security concerns are present on different social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. So, what makes TikTok the target?
For starters, the timing of the proposed ban is significant. With the US elections in November only weeks away, news outlets, including social media platforms like TikTok, have been in overdrive, posting political content about candidates and encouraging voters to exercise their right to vote. Over 50% of US TikTok users are between 18 and 34 years; this includes a large population of first-time voters. As a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic’s quarantine requirements, numerous users took to the platform to share their political views and spread awareness about the importance of voting. The condensed and theatrical nature of TikTok enabled users to rapidly spread content about the elections, ranging from comedic satire that makes fun of President Trump to guides on how to vote in an entertaining way. Realizing its potential influence, TikTok itself launched a US election guide, providing resources for voters, linking them to videos containing content on the elections. They have also worked to prevent the spread of misinformation.
Given that voters need to register 30 days before the election, proliferating such information now has been crucially important for ensuring that young people will vote come election time. This targets explicitly younger voters that may use TikTok as a source of political information. One might, then, view President Trump’s attempt to ban the app as an attempt to silence younger voters and restrict their freedom of expression.
Moreover, one might note the Trump election rally in Tulsa earlier this year, during which several teenaged TikTok users claimed responsibility for the rally’s sparse attendance. By using the platform’s algorithms to reach as many people as possible, several K-pop fan pages encouraged users to register for the rally and not show up. Such ‘anti-Trump’ content adds fuel to the argument that the ban was a political strategy to weaken the opposition’s voice as well as an effort to bolster US security.
Such an act of censorship is a violation of American’s First Amendment and the right to freedom of speech. This is largely the reasoning behind the latest federal preliminary injunction that allowed the app to remain in the App Store for download.
While TikTok owner, Zhang Yiming, has claimed that the app’s content is primarily catered towards providing a creative platform for users to express themselves and was not meant to be politicized, in reality, this is not the case. While there is no shortage of pro-democrat content, Republicans, too, have racked up millions of views on videos using hashtags such as “trump2020,” which has an impressive 11.9 billion views. Ironically, the very presidency that critiques China’s authoritarian leadership is the same one attempting to violate their fundamental right to self-expression.
In addition, TikTok’s characteristic feature is its ForYou page that uses algorithms to produce content personally catered for you based on your activity and location on and off the app. Activists such as @kei.honey have used these algorithms to get over a million views on her educational posts related to the Black Lives Matter protests. Why is this relevant? TikTok’s platform is unique. It enables people to voice concerns and create content that would otherwise not be “postable” on other mainstream platforms, making it a political target. Also important are the shift US demographics, as, in 2019, the plurality of electoral voters moving from “baby boomers”(aged 55-73) to “millennials” (aged 23-38). According to the Pew Research Centre, the millennial cohort are more “Democratic-leaning than older generations,” with 54% identifying with or leaning towards the Democratic Party, and 38% identifying with or leaning towards the Republican Party. Over 50% of US TikTok users are“millennials”. This makes the app a political target for the Republican leader.
While there is no doubt that governments must be wary of the security concerns associated with popular platforms, the attempted TikTok ban brings forth questions about the legitimacy of banning a social media platform and the implications it might carry for democracy. In this case, TikTok serves as an important platform for young people, enabling youth to educate other young voters and exercise their right to free speech. President Trump’s attempt to ban the platform serves as an example of the anti-democratic characteristics embodied by the current US presidency, the likes of which are continuing to face much criticism on TikTok. Social media apps like TikTok have been instrumental in giving voice to many youth during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Attempting to ban the app threatens to deprive people of their rights to free speech. Done in the middle of an election campaign, such a move presents yet another facet of the creeping authoritarianism present under the Trump administration.
Edited by Kai Scott.