The clock is TikToking: What happens if 170 million Americans' favorite app gets banned?

The clock is TikToking: What happens if 170 million Americans' favorite app gets banned?
The clock goes: Tik, Tok, Tik, Tok…

Time is running out for TikTok.

In mere hours, the US House of Representatives will vote on the TikTok bill under “suspension of the rules”. Under suspension, floor debate is limited, all floor amendments are prohibited, points of order against the bill are waived, and final passage requires a two-thirds majority vote.

The goal is ByteDance to sell its interests in the viral short video app, or face a ban in the US. If everything goes to plan (the bill passes and Joe Biden signs it), ByteDance will have a 165-day deadline to divest from TikTok. Should it not pass the control of TikTok to an American-based company, US app stores (like Apple's, Google's and Samsung's) would be prohibited from offering TikTok in the country.

At this point, everything is possible, and I’m not writing off any scenario. Let’s explore what happens if somehow ByteDance doesn’t sell TikTok to any US-based firm and things go south.

How did it come to this?

“You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies”, as David Fincher’s Social Network (2010) slogan states.

500 million? When you’ve got 170 million users – as TikTok does solely in the US – you’re certainly too big not to draw people’s curiosity. And, when your parent company is the Chinese ByteDance, you’ve got their attention.

By “people” I mean, of course, US officials, Congress members and everyone all the way up to the POTUS – Trump was briefly obsessed with TikTok, now Biden is.

Last week, the Energy and Commerce Committee cast a unanimous 50-0 vote (highly unusual) in favor of the TikTok/ByteDance measure.

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Prior to that, members of Congress were flooded with calls and emails (some of which containing no-no words) from angry TikTok users. The reason for this virtual flash mob is that TikTok rolled out this push notification:

The above was received by US TikTok users last week, warning that “Congress is planning a total ban of TikTok”, which would “[strip] 170 million Americans of their Constitutional right to free expression”. The message went on to explain how such a move by the US officials would “damage millions of businesses, destroy the livelihoods of countless creators across the country, and deny artists an audience.” Then, the alert included a way for users to find their representative and call their office (after putting a ZIP code).

Maybe this practical joke got the House committee to vote unanimously 50-0? I’m just guessing…

TikTok, of course, has been presented repeatedly as a threat to national security. The FBI, Justice Department and Office of the director of national intelligence held a classified briefing for House members just the other day.

TikTok assured Congress in a letter that the app is “not owned or controlled by the Chinese government”. Then, they pointed out that if the company is sold to another buyer, they would not continue TikTok's $1.5 billion effort to protect US data. “Ironically, U.S. user data could be less secure under a divestment scheme”, the company said.

US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told a House of Representatives intelligence committee hearing that she “cannot rule out” that China could use TikTok to influence the 2024 US elections. That’s great, but what was that saying about the speck in your brother's eye and the plank in your own eye?

Who’s going to mourn

I’d say a huge portion out of the 170 million users will be heartbroken to see TikTok go. After all, the app algorithms are there for a reason: to get you hooked. And hooked many are, as Master Yoda would put it.

Many users manage to look on the bright side of TikTok and get a positive kick out of it. Here are some of the Pros:

  • Creativity and expression: Short videos are a revolution, and TikTok’s role can’t be denied. The short format is suitable for some scenarios and people need to get creative.
  • Viral potential: TikTok gives users a chance for content to go viral, reaching a large audience quickly.
  • Engagement: Features like duets and challenges foster high user engagement.
  • Learning and discovery: TikTok (sometimes) offers educational content and serves as a platform to learn new skills and information. Although, don’t trust too much all the DIY videos out there…
  • Community and connection: TikTok helps users find communities with similar interests.

Also, there’s the First Amendment issue. I’m not going to go into that, but I’m sure that even sworn TikTok enemies will be enraged over the freedom of speech and access to information issue.

Who’s going to celebrate

The enemies of TikTok are not just in Congress. In fact, there isn’t a shortage of regular mortals that feel TikTok belongs to the deeper circles of hell. “Disdain” just doesn’t begin to describe the feelings many have for the viral app.

While there are too many Cons to be listed all, here are some (especially dangerous for kids and young adults):

  • Excessive screen time: Apart from the posture and vision problems, and sleep disturbances, excessive screen time can lead to social isolation, reduced productivity and distraction from other activities or responsibilities. Don't roll your eyes back, it’s all true, and it's all important (even if it sounds too condescending).
  • Content quality: How do I put this mildly? TikTok videos can be superficial or misleading. The time spent on TikTok is not getting back, so be cautious with the content you’re consuming. This advice, like the rest, applies to every single social media out there, not just TikTok.
  • Mental health: Numerous studies claim that TikTok can actually contribute to anxiety, depression, and body image issues among many.
  • Security risks: Potential for exposure to inappropriate content and interaction with malicious users is not out of the question. You never know who’s on the other end…

Who’s going to be infuriated

There’s another group of people that’ll be affected by TikTok’s departure (if that happens): influencers and all those who monetize their app activity.

According to statistics and research, there are over 100,000 TikTok influencers in the United States across a number of different niches. The crème de la crème portion of them can earn as much as $500,000 per post, with an average of $100,000 to $250,000 (per post).

Businesses will also shed a tear for TikTok: with 170 million users, many of which at an impressionable age, the app is an important advertising arena. Per TikTok’s claims, there are five million small businesses that use the short video app to gain customers and operate.

That’s exactly why Shark Tank investor Kevin O'Leary said that he will buy TikTok if the platform is about to get banned.

“Not going to get banned, 'cause I’m gonna buy it”, O'Leary said on Fox News and added that “Somebody’s going to buy it, it won’t be Meta, and it won’t be Google, 'cause… regulators [will] stop that”.

Biden has just made a TikTok account: ‘lol hey guys’

If the bill gets out of the Senate, Biden will sign it, as the White House has indicated.

He just made his TikTok entrance less than a month ago. His first video, captioned ‘lol hey guys’, provoked a Democratic Senator to say that he’s “concerned about the national security implications of Chinese-owned TikTok and the Biden campaign decision to join”.

Senator Mark Warner said: “I think that we still need to find a way to follow India, which has prohibited TikTok. I'm a little worried about a mixed message”.

Biden’s TikTok appearance in an election year is not accidental – the TikTok demographic is seen as potential voters, so corners have to be cut, and mixed messages can be sent. Mr. Biden's TikTok account will not be run by the president himself, but by his campaign team, aides told US media, but that’s hardly a surprise.

Speaking of presidents that are sending mixed messages, let’s not forget that in 2020, Trump said “We’re looking at TikTok, we may be banning TikTok”. Then, nothing happened.

Now, Trump calls TikTok a threat but says some kids could “go crazy” without it.

Rooting your phone and using VPN just to watch The Dumbest Video Ever

Freaking out about apps that are used by 9-years old is good, and I’m not being ironic about it.

We should really be talking about Facebook, Instagram and all the rest of social media platforms: how they operate, what data they collect (and who’s been harvesting and analyzing it), how such apps affect kids (and grown-ups), are they rigged in a certain way… are they a threat?

If, however, TikTok is indeed banned across the US, some suggest workarounds like rooting your phone and using VPN services to get TikTok on your phone.

All of this, rooting your phone (and more), just to watch mindless, mediocre, malignant 20-second videos: seems a bit overkill. Yeah, I’m aware there’s quality content on TikTok, but the very fact that there’s a need to point that out, speaks for itself for the overall TikTok content quality.

My guess is that nothing happens for TikTok users either way, at least not in any fundamental way. If a US-based company buys it, almost all should be the same for the end user, apart from certain algorithm tweaking, or imposing some age-restriction requirements: anyway, the Congress is not that interested in the TikTok content per se. Their problem lies with user data going over to China, at least they present it that way.

If the app is banned, the TikTok crowd will just use another app or platform to share and consume the same content. And, we'll have 165 days to come up with a way to transfer the TikTok videos to the new platform and carry on without an interruption.

However, if signed, the bill gives us plenty of food for thought:

  • Forcing a foreign company to become American is… controversial;
  • Are we going to continue to be disgusted by how China and North Korea filter their internet?
  • Freedom of speech (again, I’m not going to go into that);
  • Are all privacy concerns with TikTok magically ended? Are we sure that once in US hands, TikTok private data will not be exploited by nefarious agents?

You have to decide for yourself, as there is no TikTok video out there that will serve you the right answers.

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