Popular Social Media App TikTok Caught in Public Policy Crossfire

If you ask most college students, high school students or other young people, chances are they know about TikTok, the popular short video app that has taken social media by storm. TikTok first gained popularity back in 2017 after it was rebranded from a similar app called Musical.ly. ByteDance, a Chinese-owned company, acquired the app and “absorbed” Musical.ly into its own app.

On August 6, President Trump signed a pair of executive orders that prohibit U.S. residents from doing business with TikTok’s parent company effective 45 days from the date of signing. According to Bloomberg News, “the bans mark a significant escalation by Trump in his confrontation with Beijing as the U.S. seeks to curb China’s power in global technology.” 

Owned by the Chinese tech company ByteDance, TikTok has become a flashpoint in the midst of deteriorating relations between China and the current administration, and Trump’s executive orders have increased speculation about his foreign policy as it relates to China. Most recently, President Trump called off last week’s trade talks with China. When questioned by reporters, the president said, “ I don’t want to deal with them now.”

[Read more: China Controls Media to Shape International Narrative]

According to Kirk Baird of the Toledo Blade, TikTok has become caught in a “political squeeze.” Baird recently interviewed a 13-year-old TikTok user and her family on her experience using the app. The teen’s mother said, “mostly everything [her daughters] were posting [was] just for fun and entertainment purposes.”

During an interview with Fox News on August 2, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned of the national security risks of using apps like TikTok and WeChat (a widely used text messaging app developed by Tencent in China) while also insinuating ties between the parent companies and China’s ruling communist party.

“President Trump has said enough and we’re going to fix it and so he will take action in the coming days with respect to a broad array of national security risks that are presented by software connected to the Chinese Communist Party,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo also said in the interview with Fox News that apps like TikTok and WeChat pose “significant threats to the personal data of American citizens,” referring to the platforms as “untrusted Chinese apps.” 

This is not the first time the Trump administration has found an issue with TikTok. In June, hundreds of teenagers active on the app claimed partial responsibility for the disappointing turnout at a highly-touted Trump campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla. The TikTok users said they circulated the registration link among their followers in the days leading up to the event, encouraging them to RSVP for the rallythereby inflating attendance expectationsand then not show up.

This situation was not taken lightly by the Trump administration and his supporters, who rejected the claim that the teenagers were responsible for the inflated number of registrations. 

Both Democrats and Republicans openly expressed their thoughts on the matter. Republican strategist Steve Schmidt said the teenage TikTok users had “struck a savage blow against” Trump. 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) took to the teenagers’ defense, saying the Trump campaign “got ROCKED by teens on TikTok who flooded [it] w/fake ticket reservations & tricked you into believing a million people wanted your white supremacist open mic enough to pack an arena during COVID.”

“One of the tactics used by Russia to meddle was the use of social media to manipulate public perception,” wrote independent journalist Tim Pool on Twitter. “This is a Chinese app facilitating the largest most impactful election meddling we have seen yet, assuming it’s true. How much of Trump’s campaign was flooded with bunk data?”

So what happens next? Vanessa Pappas, the general manager for TikTok in the U.S., assured users of the app that they are “not planning on going anywhere.”

In the meantime, Facebook has started rolling out a new video-sharing app that looks remarkably similar to TikTok. The app, Instagram Reels, has been panned by tech journalists, but may still prove to be popular with the public.

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