Lord, give our leaders wisdom and courage in facing questions about TikTok and the authoritarian regime in China. And may we be mindful of the access social media has into our lives.
Analysis. TikTok has had a rough week — at least in the public square. Three Republican governors took steps to ban the popular app from state-owned mobile phones and other devices. A state attorney general has brought lawsuits questioning the company’s commitment to data privacy and the appropriateness of content for minors. And the Biden administration’s top intelligence official signaled concern about the company in an interview.
TikTok, known for funny dance and other short-form videos that appeal to Generation Z people, was launched in 2017 as an international version of a similar app called Douyin, in China. It is still owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, and this Chinese connection has many wary about how the Chinese government may be using the app for intelligence purposes.
In a statement announcing a ban of the app on Texas state devices, Gov. Greg Abbott said: “TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices — including when, where, and how they conduct internet activity — and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government.” The ban in Texas came within days of actions from South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan seeking similar precautions on government devices, and a week after South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem instituted a state-level prohibition there.
“South Dakota will have no part in the intelligence-gathering operations of nations who hate us,” said Noem. “The Chinese Communist Party uses information that it gathers on TikTok to manipulate the American people, and they gather data off the devices that access the platform.” TikTok is a wildly popular among roughly 1 billion monthly users worldwide. About 80 million of those users are in the U.S., and Gen Z is a major user base. In fact, more American Gen Z members use TikTok than Instagram, and roughly half these American users are younger than 30.
Recent data suggests that more and more adults in that group (those older than 18) are getting not just entertainment, but also “news” from TikTok. In fact, Pew Research Center surveys show that 26 percent of those between 18 and 29 years of age are regularly finding their news on the platform. That’s a huge jump from the 9 percent in that age group who said so just two years ago, and it has contributed to 10 percent of all U.S. adults now saying they regularly consume news there.
But the concern is not just for adults. Young teens are also heavy consumers of TikTok’s content. And some observers worry they may be particularly vulnerable as they scroll through videos on the app.
“You’re constantly exposed to misinformation and sensationalist headlines, and it’s very overwhelming,” Sofia Williamson, 16, who leads a teen news literacy group, told an education journal. “It feels like teens are already overwhelmed, and they don’t realize how much social media affects how they consume information or how they think about certain topics.”
Manipulation is a broad concern for social-media platforms, but of particular concern is how much access Chinese communist authorities may have to its inner workings for gathering information and conducting influence campaigns on unsuspecting U.S. users.
“At its core, TikTok functions as a sophisticated surveillance tool that harvests extensive amounts of personal and sensitive data,”
“TikTok is not what it appears to be on the surface,” Brendan Carr, a Republican commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission, warned Apple and Google leaders, whose major app stores offer TikTok. “It is not just an app for sharing funny videos or memes. That’s the sheep’s clothing.”
Carr said the app — and, potentially, Chinese authorities — can not only access such stored data as draft messages, images, and videos, but also location information, search histories, keystroke patterns, and even biometrics like voice and faceprints.
“At its core, TikTok functions as a sophisticated surveillance tool that harvests extensive amounts of personal and sensitive data,” Carr wrote. More recently, he has called for an outright ban of the app by the U.S. government. The Biden administration has been exploring whether or not an agreement can be made with TikTok that would assuage security concerns. But news reports this week suggest that negotiation is running into headwinds.
Certainly, it is notable that both both FBI Director Chris Wray and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines have expressed significant wariness in recent days. In fact, in an interview with NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell, Haines called the level of China’s data collecting and targeted information campaigns “extraordinary,” and specifically said that parents should be concerned about their children’s privacy on the app.
Concerns like this are the catalyst for the recent wave of state-level bans, as well as a set of lawsuits filed by Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita. Calling TikTok “a malicious and menacing threat,” Rokita is suing over the alleged access Chinese agents may have to user data and the company’s failure to protect minors from sex, profanity, and other inappropriate content on the app.
Please pray for wisdom for leaders in Washington and state capitals as they navigate these questions about TikTok and China? And may we be mindful about the access that social media has into our daily lives.