The Unintended Consequences of a TikTok Ban

If you live in DC, you may have noticed a new breed of lobbyists in town: the TikTok influencer. Politico reported that these folks planned to “flood” the city this week with its presence in an effort to stave off the U.S. government’s attempt to ban the app, unless ByteDance sells the division that houses American data.

The phenomenon of the TikTok influencer took off during lockdowns, and as a cohort, they’re really good at building and monetizing their audiences. They are major contributors to the $104 billion creator economy.

Many TikTok influencers make a decent living, earning $50,000 to $150,000 yearly for a successful brand partnership. It’s no wonder they’ve hopped on planes and buses to pay DC a visit. They’re not likely to forgo their livelihoods without a fight.

They’re not the only ones invested in the platform. Worldwide, TikTok has 1.7 billion users, 66% of whom are under age 30 and they spend, on average, 89 minutes a day on the app. Within the US, TikTok has 150 million users, a fact that brands are well aware of. Brands follow the consumer, and they’re on TikTok.

And earlier this year, Digiday reported that publishers are “flocking” to TikTok in search of audiences, with big-name publications like The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, and others ramping up production teams to create content for the platform.

Importantly, publishers don’t see social media platforms as a way to drive traffic to their sites anymore; they see them as outposts for their brands. “We’re not trying to refer [audiences] back somewhere,” Katie Drummond, Senior VP of Global News and Global Editor-in-Chief at Vice, told Digiday. “We’re trying to deliver coverage to them that is bespoke for that platform that will reach them on that platform. We’re not assuming that they will go from TikTok to the website. We’re assuming that they’ll go from our TikTok to the next TikTok.” 

Against this backdrop, the Biden Administration has picked up where the Trump Administration left off in threatening TikTok with a ban. Senator Mark Warner introduced the RESTRICT Act, providing the Biden Administration the ammo it needed given some federal court rulings during the Trump years that the president doesn’t have the authority to impose a ban.

Why This Matters

TikTok CEO Shou Chew got a dressing down from House Committee on Energy and Commerce members  when he testified yesterday.

It was hard not to cringe at moments, such as when Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA) implied that the Chinese Communist Party is using the platform to engage in “physiological warfare” to “deliberately influence U.S. children.” 

At times the questions were frustrating as numerous panelists singled out TikTok as a uniquely toxic and dangerous platform (one wonders if any of them have been following Google v. Gonzalez). Members on both sides demanded yes or no answers to highly nuanced questions about safety on social media. They jumped on Mr. Chew’s reluctance to oversimplify matters as made-for-the-district gotcha moments. 

As one person who works for a company that offers an AI-driven technology platform to promote trust and safety on Internet platforms told AdMonsters, the questions asked were “multiple levels of silly,” which are “pretty much a dominant theme of tech hearings.”

For many, it was reminiscent of the 2018 Senate hearings when Senator Orin Hatch asked Mark Zuckerberg how he could offer a service for free, and he responded, “Senator, we run ads.” 

It’s unreasonable to expect politicians to understand the intricacies of technology, but we can expect them to appreciate that their decisions can have far reaching consequences. It’s worth noting that the Supreme Court appeared hesitant to side with Gonzalez and overturn Section 230 for that very reason.  If they opt for a ban, they will end the livelihood of thousands of TikTok influencers and upend the customer acquisition strategies of brands and publishers alike. 

For Julia Crager, age 21, a ban on TikTok would be sad. She follows a lot of TikTok influencers and has been excited to watch people her age earn a living through sponsorships. She graduates from college in a few months and hoped to become an influencer. She likes to travel and imagined that any money she earned on the platform could help her pay for her trips. She isn’t quite sure why TikTok is being singled out. “All social media platforms have our data. TikTok isn’t any different,” she told AdMonsters. 

Which is precisely Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s contention. At a press conference with TikTok influencers in DC, he asked, “Why the hysteria,  panic, and targeting of TikTok? Let’s do the right thing here – comprehensive social media reform as it relates to privacy and security.” He, Mark Pocan (who called the ban a xenophobic witch hunt), and Robert Garcia want to see more broad-based privacy legislation that will apply to all social media companies.

No one denies the risk of a foreign government gaining access to U.S. citizen data. Indeed, the Department of Justice and the FBI are investigating ByteDance’s use of TikTok to spy on U.S. journalists, which is intolerable. This is why Bowman’s holistic approach to securing user privacy across all platforms seems more appropriate and can prevent us from throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Going through with a ban will be a politically fraught move for any U.S. politician. U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told Bloomberg News, ​​“The politician in me thinks you’re going to literally lose every voter under 35, forever.”

In any case, whether a ban on TikTok will stop U.S. citizens from using the app is up for debate. The app has been downloaded over 210 million times within the US, and legislation won’t force its removal from end-user devices. “It’s on my phone. The government can ban it, but I’m still going to use it,” Ryan Yorke, age 23, told AdMonsters.

Ditto for Crager. “I regularly delete the app just to stop myself from using it too much, especially when I need to study. But I won’t delete it anymore because I want to stay on TikTok,” she said.

A ban, therefore, won’t stop young Americans from sharing videos and spending time on TikTok, but it will limit the brand’s ability to reach and engage them there and the publisher from establishing outposts. 

“For many millennials and Gen Zers, TikTok is the equivalent of Google. Take Yakira Young, an editor at AdMonsters. She relies on TikTok for countless reasons. “I learn so much there, hair care tips, dating advice, spiritual guidance, and I can’t forget nearly every recipe I find, so cooking advice too.”