Should TikTok Be Banned in the U.S.?

Is TikTok a dangerous data-mining propaganda arm of the Communist Party of China or is the outrage rooted in xenophobia?

Is the popular video-sharing social network actually dangerous? India seems to think so. The Indian government said a few weeks ago that it will ban TikTok, along with other well-known Chinese apps, such as WeChat and UC Browser, because they pose a “threat to sovereignty and integrity.” TikTok was downloaded over 190 million times in India last year alone, so being banned from the country is a major blow.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently announced the U.S. would look into banning Chinese social media apps, including TikTok, and said Americans should only download the app “if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.” In response, TikTok said they “have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.” The United States and China aren’t exactly on the friendliest of terms; a trade war began shortly after Donald Trump took office, and recently U.S. officials, including Trump, have made racist remarks blaming China for the coronavirus pandemic. TikTok may become another casualty of heightened U.S.-China tensions.

It’s not just governments that are on edge about the Chinese-owned video app. Amazon asked employees a week ago to delete TikTok from their phones, but just five hours later reversed course and said the email to employees was sent in error. In the original email, Amazon told employees they must delete the app from any device that had access to Amazon email due to security risks. It’s unclear why Amazon initially moved to ban the app among their employees, outside of the vague “security risks” explanation, and it’s even more puzzling why they decided to reverse course so quickly.

Is TikTok actually dangerous?

There are reasons to be concerned about TikTok’s security. Last month, a researcher uncovered that TikTok could read and copy anything on a user’s clipboard, and was capturing data about phone hardware and other apps installed on the device. This is not unusual, and many apps are guilty of similar violations of privacy, but the researcher said that TikTok went out of their way to prevent anyone from analyzing the app, which was said to be “very concerning and very rare.”

While it is certainly unsettling that TikTok appears to not want security researchers to closely analyze their app, there is no hard evidence that TikTok poses a threat to anyone or any country. Claims that the app is “Chinese spyware” or sends data back to China are not proven or backed up by evidence. It is plausible that China would create an app to manipulate and harvest data from foreign users, while spreading disinformation, but it’s just as plausible that any other powerful country, including the U.S., would do the exact same. 

Using any social network is dangerous to a certain degree, and it doesn’t appear that TikTok is any more or less dangerous than other popular networks. Platforms like Facebook and TikTok don’t care if their users are being manipulated or radicalized as long as the platform is profitable. This doesn’t mean you should avoid social media entirely, but you should be aware of the risks and limit your usage. You’ll probably find you’re happier when not on social media, anyway.

In addition to the toll excessive social media use can take on your mental health, there are very real privacy risks with using social media platforms. Anonymized user data isn’t really that anonymous; specific location data, for example, might as well have your name on it. It’s extremely easy to identify anonymous pins on a map. If you know exactly where someone is at night, where they are during the day, and which other dots they spend time with, it’s not difficult to identify that dot. This could be harmful in many different ways; employers could track what employees do outside of work, an ex-spouse may be able to locate their former partner and cause them harm, or conservative parents might discover their daughter has visited Planned Parenthood.

Why is TikTok being singled out?

There haven’t been any calls to ban Facebook or Instagram, which also collect an obscene amount of user data, have questionable user privacy practices, and are used to spread disinformation. TikTok isn’t being singled out because it’s worse than these platforms, but because it is the only globally popular social media platform that is based in China.

For better or for worse, social media platforms tend to reflect the values of their country of origin to a certain degree. Facebook has long amplified voices of hate in the name of free speech, a reflection of traditional American principles. Similarly, TikTok has a history of adopting some of China’s principles. Last year, leaked documents showed that TikTok instructed moderators to censor videos that mentioned topics China doesn’t like its citizens to discuss, such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre and Tibetan independence. In India, TikTok said they would not prominently feature any content containing criticism of the Indian Prime Minister. More recently, TikTok was accused of censoring hashtags related to Black Lives Matter and George Floyd in the U.S., although the company said the issue was just a glitch and not censorship. 

The U.S. isn’t really worried about TikTok sending user data back to China. There’s no evidence the app has ever done that. The real concern is the exportation of Chinese values and culture. For many decades, the U.S. has been the dominant world powerhouse, spreading our culture, values, and beliefs around the globe, whether other countries wanted them or not. American officials and politicians are afraid China will do the same. 

China is quickly becoming a wealthier nation. In 2000, only 4% of China’s urban population was considered middle class. In 2018, over 30% of the urban population was considered middle class, and by 2022, that number is projected to grow to 76%. The U.S. has been the world’s largest economy since 1871, but the gap between the U.S. and China is closing, and in the coming decades China may surpass the United States. Global power is shifting, and we are likely going to see the power struggle between the U.S. and China intensify in the coming years. Sometimes something relatively benign, like a popular social media app, will get caught up in the conflict.

TikTok reflects some Chinese values, but there is no evidence it poses a threat to America or any other country, and is far from “Chinese spyware.” In fact, I would feel safer giving my data to TikTok than I would to Facebook or Instagram. Everyone should know the risks of using social media, as far as your mental health and personal data are concerned, but don’t let a political conflict keep you from enjoying your favorite social network.

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