TikTok, it’s Trump O’Clock: Discussing the Motivations Behind Banning Popular Platform

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On: September 28, 2020
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Abstract: Following the banning of TikTok on US-based online mobile app stores, I argue that, rather than privacy, TikTok is being banned because the platform threatens the Trump administration. It poses a threat since the app is not owned by US companies, thus not capable for collecting user metadata for the government, the TikTok demographic and decentralized platform does not fit with Donald Trump’s agenda, and disenfranchised TikTok teens actively disrupted the Trump political campaign. For these reasons, unless the app is purchased by a US based company, and thus under its control, the platform threatens to destabilize the administration currently in place, and thus needs to go.

If you told me in 2016 that musical.ly would take Vine’s place as the incredibly popular short form looped video platform in 2020, I probably would have laughed. If you followed that up with “oh yeah, and the US government banned it,” honestly? I don’t know what emotion I would even begin to feel. Even now, I rationally understand it but really? 2020 really didn’t pull any punches.

While I’m sure most people have heard this news to some extent—given that the platform’s popularity really solidified during coronavirus quarantines with nothing better to do—yes, as of September 20th, 2020, TikTok (and WeChat) are banned from US-based online mobile app stores in order to “safeguard the national security of the United States … and protect Americans from the threats of the Chinese Communist Party”… or at least ByteDance has until November 12th to sell their application to a US company, with the US government receiving a portion of the transaction, to keep their application in the United States.
Pretty loaded statement for an application where kids do fun dances and people put their pets through hoarded toilet paper obstacle courses.

However, the app isn’t just kids anymore. Gordon Ramsay and other major celebrities are taking part in popular trends, Burger King partnered with TikTok to make a 1$ Whopper Dance Challenge, Discovery Channel made a parody of a popular audio to teach people about the ocean sunfish. TikTok has become a social media giant, and for the first time, is suffering consequences for being… a social media giant? What exactly makes TikTok a threat to national security that other giants—such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter—seemingly lack?
Rather than being a privacy concern as the executive order states, I believe TikTok is getting the boot because, unlike other platforms, it poses a threat to the Trump administration in several ways.

Power and Control

First and foremost, the administration is concerned about China owned TikTok not because of privacy violations and data collection; rather, it’s likely that they want to collect that data themselves. According to Diab (2) surveillance measures disguised as action against counterterrorism in the post-9/11 United States has become the norm. Snowden’s whistleblowing over the NSA’s cybersurveillance over phone call metadata and the NSA’s PRISM having “direct access to the customer data from nine internet firms, including Google, Microsoft and Yahoo”, US residents have long been under the assumption that the government surveilles and collects their information (Watt, 773). If the US were truly worried over data collection and surveillance over its people, there would be far more privacy protection policies across the nation, rather than the meager few that exist today. Even Facebook—and Instagram, by extension—is repeatedly under fire for unwarranted data-collection and has yet to be expelled from the nation.

Notorious advertisement to encourage US denizens to surveille one another.

No Teens for Trump

Another major threat posed by TikTok is the fact that the majority of platform’s demographic does not fit Trump’s primary supporters and thus is not a viable source to aggregate support. Twitter and Facebook were core aspects of Trump’s 2016 campaigns the most notable example being Cambridge Analytica helping via targeted political advertisements based on user personal data (Ward, 133). Additionally, TikTok is likely not viable for Donald Trump’s political campaign due to the decentralized nature of the application, where, while hashtags are used, most content is found via being recommended on users for you pages or sent to them by friends, making it difficult to form a community for non-technologically savvy generations. While TikTok certainly has its own form of what Kaplan and Haenlein (qtd. in Tasente 68) coined “push-push-pull communication” where videos liked or commented on by people you follow are more likely to appear on your own for you page furthering one’s political polarization, the structure of the app denies the user from knowing why that video was put there, reducing the community aspect that Twitter and Facebook excel at.
The fact that the application doesn’t support his core demographic, however, makes it easier for the government to destabilize the community under the guise of anti-Chinese rhetoric that “the Chinese Communist Party is corrupting our children’s minds”, thus removing the gathering place for disenfranchised teens who are frustrated with the government.

Politically Destructive

Not only is this younger generation not viable as a primary demographic, but this generation has actively threatened the Trump campaign by disrupting voter turnout to the controversial Tulsa Rally. Initially, the rally was supposed to be held on June 19th, which, in the height of Black Lives Matter protests, sparked outrage in black communities because not only is Juneteenth is a cultural holiday celebrating the official emancipation of enslaved black people, but Tulsa is known for its 1921 race riot where many white supremacists murdered 300 black Americans and destroyed one of the “most wealthiest African-American neighborhoods in the state … [that] was rapidly expanding and flourishing economically” (Messer et al., 789). To have Trump’s infamous white supremacist following appear in Tulsa on Juneteenth was an act of violence—which is why teens came up with a non-violent counter-protest as a solution: purchase a bunch of tickets to the rally and then not attend, ruining his turnout and public image. This also unintentionally disrupted crucial data collection, where, according to Mary Jo Laupp (qtd. by Lorenz et al), who worked on several campaigns for Pete Buttegieg previously, “the Trump campaign feeds on data, they are constantly mining these rallies for data … [f]eeding them false data was a bonus. The data they think they have, the data they are collecting from this rally, isn’t accurate.”  It disrupted the campaign from having information about key mega supporters, who are prime candidates to ask for donations.

Combining these three threats together, TikTok challenges the Trump administration’s political standing and thus, should ByteDance keep the company, it should either be removed entirely, or, under US control, it will be heavily surveilled to ensure that these uprisings cannot happen again. The US government can adjust US owned companies to their whims, such as Trump being able to keep his twitter account despite being suspended for violating twitter TOS of hate-speech, but a wildcard like TikTok is out of their control, and thus the power must return to their favor.
However, I do have to say, it won’t stop being funny that a platform that is majorly known for this kind of content was dangerous enough to pose a threat to national security.

References:

Burger King. “🔥hype this up🔥 learn the #WhopperDance from @avani & get a $1 Whopper 🍔. bk.com/whopperdance.” TikTok, 18 June 2020,  https://www.tiktok.com/@burgerking/video/6839677513610824966. Accessed 28 Sept. 2020.

“Commerce Department Prohibits WeChat and TikTok Transactions to Protect the National Security of the United States.” U.S. Department of Commerce, https://www.commerce.gov/news/press-releases/2020/09/commerce-department-prohibits-wechat-and-tiktok-transactions-protect. Accessed 28 Sept. 2020.

Diab, Robert. The Harbinger Theory: How the Post-9/11 Emergency Became Permanent and the Case for Reform. Oxford University Press, 2015.

discovery. “No hate to the ocean sunfish on this one 👀 #tiktokpartner #learnontiktok #didyouknow.” TikTok, 17 Sept. 2020, https://www.tiktok.com/@discovery/video/6873445087418928390. Accessed 28 Sept. 2020.

“Facebook Accused of Watching Instagram Users Through Cameras.” Bloomberg.Com, 18 Sept. 2020. www.bloomberg.com, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-09-18/facebook-accused-of-watching-instagram-users-through-cameras.

fanfan520gh. “Don’t blink, the whole journey is wonderful!#kungfu #cooking #girls.” TikTok,  https://www.tiktok.com/@fanfan520gh/video/6876710984506002690. Accessed 28 Sept. 2020.

Lorenz, Taylor, et al. “TikTok Teens and K-Pop Stans Say They Sank Trump Rally.” The New York Times, 14 Sept. 2020. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/21/style/tiktok-trump-rally-tulsa.html.

Messer, Chris M., et al. “The Destruction of Black Wall Street: Tulsa’s 1921 Riot and the Eradication of Accumulated Wealth: The Destruction of Black Wall Street.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology, vol. 77, no. 3–4, May 2018, pp. 789–819. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1111/ajes.12225.

Noah, Trevor. Trump’s Tulsa Rally Flop | The Daily Social Distancing Show. 2020. YouTube, https://youtu.be/copfNPbpLR8.

Patterson, Dan. “Facebook Data Privacy Scandal: A Cheat Sheet.” TechRepublic, 30 July 2020, https://www.techrepublic.com/article/facebook-data-privacy-scandal-a-cheat-sheet/. Accessed 28 Sept. 2020.

Ramsay, Gordon. “Not sure this is a recipe I can get behind @tillyramsay …..#happyathome #lifeathome #fyp #recipes” TikTok, 21 Mar. 2020, https://www.tiktok.com/@gordonramsayofficial/video/6806742309716135174. Accessed 28 Sept. 2020.

Smith, Will. “Also, fries.” TikTok, 15 Jan. 2020 https://www.tiktok.com/@willsmith/video/6782268640881331461. Accessed 28 Sept. 2020.

Tasente, Tanase. “Twitter Discourse Analysis of US President Donald Trump.” Technium Social Sciences Journal, vol. 2, Jan. 2020, pp. 67–75. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.47577/tssj.v2i1.49.

Toilet Paper Wall Dog Challenge Compilation  | Tik Tok Level Up Challenge Dog. 2020. YouTube, https://youtu.be/vXQNd288Sxk.

Turner, Gabe. “47 States Have Weak or Nonexistent Consumer Data Privacy Laws.” Security.Org, https://www.security.org/resources/digital-privacy-legislation-by-state/. Accessed 28 Sept. 2020.

Ultimate TikTok Dance Compilation of March 2020 – Part 4. 2020. YouTube, https://youtu.be/xi2bDgyP214.

US-Considering-Banning-TikTok.Jpg (1000×500). https://i0.wp.com/9to5mac.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2020/07/US-considering-banning-TikTok.jpg?w=1500&quality=82&strip=all&ssl=1. Accessed 28 Sept. 2020.

Ward, Ken. “Social Networks, the 2016 US Presidential Election, and Kantian Ethics: Applying the Categorical Imperative to Cambridge Analytica’s Behavioral Microtargeting.” Journal of Media Ethics, vol. 33, no. 3, July 2018, pp. 133–48. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1080/23736992.2018.1477047.

Watt, Eliza. “‘The Right to Privacy and the Future of Mass Surveillance.’” The International Journal of Human Rights, vol. 21, no. 7, Sept. 2017, pp. 773–99. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1080/13642987.2017.1298091.

Wilson, Laurie. See Something, Say Something. United States Airforce Academy, https://media.defense.gov/2018/May/03/2001912109/-1/-1/0/180503-F-OR751-0001.JPG. Accessed 28 Sept. 2020.

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