Illustration by Abby Raymundo

The TikTok ban

A baseless overreach that threatens free speech

President Joe Biden’s move to ban TikTok is an overreach driven by unfounded fears. Banning TikTok paves the way for government control over online content, threatening free speech. This decision is not just about security—it’s a step towards censorship and an attack on personal freedoms.


In April, Biden signed TikTok’s death warrant. TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, now has a nine-month deadline to divest from China. 


Congress calls TikTok a Chinese weapon. In their view, Chinese authorities supposedly spy on the United States through their smartphones. Despite that, they have no hard evidence to verify these claims. 


The faux concern over TikTok feels disconnected. If anything, this motion takes away a beloved app millions enjoy—all for a gut feeling that it could be spying on us. Never in its nine-year history did they uncover a leak. Ousting ByteDance from the picture gives them control. Approved content on an U.S. app, monitored by a firm authority—that’s the ideal it strives for. An ideal that blatantly and unashamedly works to control free speech.  


TikTok does more good than bad. Banning an app because it could pose a threat sets up a dystopian pitfall. We lose our freedom if we go by this what-if mentality. Realistically, any online platform can be weaponized and some already are. TikTok offers way more than entertainment. Its content provides cultural, commercial and educational value. Scaremongering detracts from the real problem at hand—censorship. 


Youth across the U.S. find a voice on TikTok. TikTok’s short video format allows free discourse about ongoing issues. Other news outlets might ignore them. A network chooses what it airs, dramatizing certain events. Those supposedly unworthy stories thrive on TikTok because they resonate with that audience. 


Infotainment—aka broadcast material which both entertains and informs—has changed the news industry. GilPress at What’s the Big Data reported that Americans ages 18–34 watch their news on TikTok—more than a third of America tunes in—and 33% trust TikTok as their primary news source.


TikTok provides a reliable perspective on current topics. Young adults unite under a common banner. Activism is always trending in some capacity on TikTok. ByteDance’s unique position removes it from the U.S. influence. On TikTok, you see a side which usually goes unnoticed. Youth are talking about mental health, climate change and political injustice, envisioning the nation’s future. 


Young adults come from different identities. TikTok lets them express these diverse opinions, goals and values, potentially reaching international audiences. Other platforms like Instagram infamously limit free speech through content filters. Meta takes liberties with the First Amendment. Private companies decide what content stays online, but TikTok stands out. Often, TikTok helps raise awareness about social movements. 


A recent study published by the Journal of Community Health on climate activism reinforces TikTok’s social leverage. Researcher Corey Basch sampled content across 100 accounts. Some videos covering natural disasters—like droughts, wildfires and hurricanes—gathered millions of views. Users on TikTok portray climate change as a legitimate anxiety. An average reel had over two million likes. Social media has an advantage over most publications. Worldly happenings can be updated within minutes. TikTok happens to be the proponent that attracts the most attention. 


The ban might seem like no big deal to some. Some members of Congress understand Tiktok’s importance as a sociopolitical entity. The imposed sale tries to make it theirs, because TikTok risks our domestic security, they tell us. They’re just intervening on your behalf, good Americans. Let’s imagine ByteDance does sell its shares. TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew hemorrhages millions in fees. The legal battle cost them a fortune, so they sold it to a U.S. company, stated Meta. Would TikTok retain its intellectual integrity? Would it represent the interests of the people or the interests of the corporations and politicians?


TikTok’s opponents propose an illusive freedom. Any application can be blocked if it threatens U.S. sovereignty over tech. The national ban disarms free speech. A private company presiding over the app owns the playground. Any policy it makes could diminish the creative presence TikTok prides itself for. 


The uproar over data-theft slanders TikTok. Some leaders forget the recent past. Facebook has mishandled sensitive information before. In 2018, Meta—aka Facebook—became entangled in a scandal with Cambridge Analytica. Mark Zuckerberg compiled metadata from over 50 million different profiles. He developed a new application programming interface (API), measuring what content users liked and shared. For example, the API connected supporters with other like-minded people during the Barack Obama presidential campaign. 


Games like Farmville would have tracked your friends. Zuckerberg colluded with Cambridge Analytica, the now-defunct political consulting firm. Cambridge claimed that data could be used to microtarget political messages. Then, the truth came out—a whistleblower exposed Facebook’s wrongdoing. Canada, India and the European Union investigated the case and enacted the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act. Cambridge Analytica shut down, and Facebook paid $5 billion in damages


Tech companies mine our data. Every video or post we like gives them insight. Many companies monetize data by partnering with brands, advertisers and market researchers. The items you click on generate personalized ads. This year, Google and Meta made $140 billion in ad revenue.


Big Tech’s monopoly over data presents an issue. Facebook has over two billion users on its platform. Meta collects input from 510,000 comments, 293,000 statuses and 136,000 uploaded photos every second. A user base this big could change minds. The Cambridge Analytica debacle exposed a lawless industry. Very few governments regulate internet privacy. The U.S. abides by a state and federal patchwork. U.S. companies have to provide a notice, letting you choose if it sells your data. 


Not all corporations want your blood. Data mining can also improve the app’s experience. TikTok’s algorithm adjusts your feed based on your preferences. Your likes and how long you watch determines your For You page. TikTok’s privacy policy openly states that it customizes the content you see on the platform. Users find belonging this way. Every person, at some point, comes across their niche. TikTok’s vast user base lets you discover others with the same interests. Even students have an outlet. 


Students are losing an app that facilitates learning. TikTok gives us more than news, vapid dances and absurdist memes. TikTok’s developers have leaned into its academic appeal. Many college students—51% of them—use it for homework, according to Intelligent. Many young adults encounter the same problems, so they go to TikTok. TikTok gives them advice about most subjects—music, math, writing, science, language and business. Almost every major can fit into the conversation on TikTok.


Recently, TikTok added the STEM section. STEM includes topics in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Study-intensive disciplines can learn outside the classroom with this tool. English and creative writing majors have BookTok. Creators talk about various genres, mostly young adult genre fiction with fantasy and romance being the most popular. Often, these places have even smaller subcommunities. TikTok’s success comes from this dynamism. 


Entire careers and businesses rise on TikTok. The app promotes by connecting them with specific demographics. TikTok then lets them sell their goods. Many small businesses would suffer if this ban went through. Sanctioning TikTok undermines any free enterprise this country talks so much about. Some companies realize the advertising power it yields, rushing after gold in the hills. Others would rather stamp out the competition. 


Meta has notoriously lobbied against TikTok before. A recent record discloses that Meta Platforms spent $7.6 million on internet privacy and security. Meta’s sudden worry over U.S. welfare aligns with the government’s efforts to overtake TikTok. TikTok’s competitors know it dominates the market. 


Even with the high threat purported by Congress, many of our leaders still engage their constituencies on TikTok. Some public servants ignore their complicity, trying to exploit TikTok’s potential. Last year, North Carolina’s Rep. Jeff Jackson earned a sizable following. His followers believed he spoke from the heart. He stayed honest when no one else would. Then he turned around, voting against TikTok. 


Jackson faced the heat after his decision. Critics across the internet pelted him. The Biden campaignalso joined TikTok under the username BidenHQ despite banning it in the first place. Biden clearly needs the youth vote, yet his administration undoes itself by redoubling on legislation which silences young adults. 


TikTok would be no safer in U.S. hands. Seizing it would censor students and creators and squash independent businesses. We, as a people, would feel a heavy loss. Young adults move the country forward on TikTok. Turning out that voice not only reduces free thought, but nulls the rights our government guarantees us. Congress misreads the room when they forbid an app so integral to our lives. Our leaders should shift away from this witch hunt. Instead, we should preserve the free market.