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The US is poised to ban TikTok…

What is at stake? Freedom of speech, Foreign advisory influence?

Image Credit: TikTok

With a recent bill passed by the House of Representatives, the US is one step closer to banning TikTok. Wednesday’s ruling called for ByteDance, the app’s Chinese developer, to divest from the company or face removal from US app stores. Passing with strong bipartisan support, the bill, the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, received 352 votes in favor and just 65 against. Although the White House backs the bill, it still has to pass the US Senate, which may present new challenges, including introducing different versions of the bill.  

Supporters of the bill have argued that the Chinese government's access and influence through the popular social media platform is a security risk. In a company statement previously shared across media outlets, a TikTok spokesperson said, “We believe the concerns driving these decisions are largely fueled by misinformation about our company. We are happy to continue having constructive meetings with state policymakers to discuss our privacy and security practices.”

Those opposed to the bill have cited civil liberties and claimed the ban would infringe on the First Amendment, freedom of speech. In a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union (as well as other leading technology and civil rights groups) to Congress, the group(s) cautioned that the law would “trample on the constitutional right to freedom of speech of millions of people in the United States." The letter went on to say, "The app enables its users to discuss their opinions, share their hobbies, make art, and access news from down the street and around the world. Jeopardizing access to the platform jeopardizes access to free expression.

According to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin in a recent briefing, “The bill passed by the US House of Representatives puts the US on the opposite side of the principle of fair competition and international economic and trade rules.”  Interestingly, China currently blocks a number of US-owned social media platforms, including Google, YouTube, X, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook, as they do not comply with the Chinese government’s rules on data collection and content sharing. 

The bill opens the door for similar provisions to other apps considered "foreign adversary controlled" or “the operation of a content recommendation algorithm or an agreement with respect to data sharing.”

TikTok, alongside numerous other social media platforms, is largely known for its addictive algorithms and ability to propagate widespread conspiracy theories with rampant fake news, deepfakes, and usage of the conspiracy group QAnon. These forms of misinformation are extensive, to say the least, impacting elections globally. One such example was during the 2022 US Midterm elections.  

SumOfUs, an advocacy group focused on corporate accountability, conducted research on TikTok's algorithm. They created an account and actively sought out and viewed 20 widely circulated videos that propagated skepticism about the election system. According to the researchers' findings, the algorithm shifted from delivering neutral content to promoting election disinformation, far-right extremism, QAnon conspiracy theories, and inaccurate narratives surrounding Covid-19. This occurred in just the span of an hour.  

In a 2023 report by the Pew Research Center, a growing number of US adults are getting their news from TikTok, citing the number has quadrupled from 3% in 2020 to 14% in 2023. 

So, is this an issue of freedom of speech? Perhaps, yes. Is this an issue of foreign influence? Perhaps, yes.  The glaring (and overly simplified) question remains: Does possible foreign influence warrant the potential restriction of free speech?