Mar 12, 2024

A "TikTok ban" is moving forward.

A "TikTok ban" is moving forward.
Photo by visuals / Unsplash

Plus, can we trust the polls?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

Today, we're covering a potential ban on TikTok. Plus, can we trust the polls?

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Quick hits.

  1. Robert Hur, the special counsel who raised questions about President Biden’s memory in his report, left the Justice Department and will testify before Congress as a private citizen today. A transcript of Hur’s interviews with Biden was also released to the public. (The testimony)
  2. President Biden proposed a $7.3 trillion budget for fiscal year 2025, seeking to cut housing and health care costs while raising taxes on high-income earners. Budget proposals are nonbinding and rarely enacted as they are written. (The budget)
  3. Core consumer prices rose 0.4% in February and are up 3.2% from a year ago, according to a new report. The numbers are roughly in line with expectations. (The numbers)
  4. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge announced she will resign. (The resignation)
  5. Students and teachers will be allowed to speak freely about sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida classrooms, provided their discussion is not a part of classroom instruction, after a settlement between Florida education officials and civil rights attorneys. (The settlement)

Today's topic.

The TikTok ban. On Thursday, a bill that could make TikTok unavailable in the United States advanced in Congress, with a committee voting unanimously to bring it up for a full vote. The bill, called Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, could force the company to be sold or face prohibitions in the U.S.

TikTok, the popular video sharing app, is owned by the China-based company ByteDance. It is one of the most widely used apps in the U.S., with an estimated 150 million monthly users. However, national security officials and lawmakers have warned that China's government can access user data through the app and use it to spy on Americans, further warning that the Chinese government is influencing the content that gets promoted on the app. Some members of Congress have been pushing for a nationwide ban since last year, and the White House forced government employees to delete the app from federal devices last year.

The latest piece of legislation on TikTok is a 12-page bill that just got voted out of committee unanimously, with a 50-0 bipartisan vote. The bill has a two-pronged approach, first prohibiting TikTok and other apps ByteDance controls from being made available to users in the United States unless the company divests from them. Then, it creates a process to let the executive branch prohibit access to an app owned by a foreign adversary if the government believes it poses a threat to national security.

In effect, the bill would force ByteDance to either sell TikTok before a six-month deadline or be banned from U.S. app stores and web hosting services. Any such bill would likely face legal challenges, and TikTok has already sued the Trump administration over its attempt to ban the app in 2020.

However, odds of the bill passing are looking increasingly strong. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) said he supports the bill, and the White House reportedly provided technical support in the drafting of the legislation. President Joe Biden endorsed it on Monday. Former President Donald Trump, who had previously endorsed a TikTok ban, criticized the bill over the weekend. His criticism came after a meeting with a major TikTok shareholder, whom some speculated he was courting for campaign donations.

TikTok forcefully denounced the bill, saying it would "strip 170 million Americans of their Constitutional right to free expression" and "damage millions of businesses, deny artists an audience, and destroy the livelihoods of countless creators across the country." The company also set up a push notification for users, urging them to contact lawmakers and tell them to vote against the bill.

You can find our previous coverage of attempts to ban TikTok here.

Today, we're going to share some arguments from the right and left about the legislation, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • The right is mixed on the bill, but most condemn the tactics TikTok has employed to lobby against it. 
  • Some say banning the app would be a clear First Amendment violation. 
  • Others call on Congress to seize the opportunity to take meaningful action against TikTok. 

In National Review, Noah Rothman wrote “TikTok holds America hostage.”

“There’s nothing remarkable about a commercial interest resisting the prospect of congressional regulation by using its influence to lean on legislators. For all the populist hostility toward the practice, lobbying is a constitutionally protected activity for good reason,” Rothman said. “But the way in which the Chinese-owned social-media app TikTok went about trying to convince lawmakers to leave it alone was unique. It sicced its youthful users on Washington in a campaign of intimidation and emotional blackmail, confirming that the air of menace the app has cultivated for itself is no accident.”

“It would seem that TikTok only has one mode, and it is not nimble enough to deviate from the disastrous course on which it has set itself,” Rothman wrote. “The panic induced by bipartisan legislation that threatens China’s control over the application has exposed the commercial incentives at the root of this campaign. There is a lot of money at stake in this venture — an incentive to which Democrats and Republicans alike are duly sensitive. The starkness of the choice before them has, however, never been clearer.”

In Reason, Elizabeth Nolan Brown said “Dear government: stop trying to make TikTok bans happen.”

“We went here with Trump, who tried to ban TikTok via executive order in 2020. (The courts said no, and the Biden administration rescinded the order.) We went here with Montana, which passed a TikTok-banning law last year. (The court said no, at least preliminarily, though Montana is appealing.) We went here with multiple bills, including one in 2022 from Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and one in 2023 from Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner,” Brown wrote. “Now, here we are again.”

The proposed ban “would choke off Americans' access to a popular media platform based on vague allegations of wrongdoing, in a move that offends both the First Amendment and due process,” Brown added. “The measure would obviously be ripe for abuse. For example: say another app like TikTok comes along, and it's proving a really useful campaigning tool for third-party and independent candidates. A Republican or Democratic president could then block access to it… That's the kind of stuff Russia and China do. It has no place in the United States.”

In The Federalist, Nathan Leamer argued “Congress must hold firm against TikTok’s legion of lobbyists.”

“Unlike previous efforts to rein in TikTok, this has a real chance of success. The proposal has the right balance of mitigating real harm without setting off tripwires that stalled previous attempts. Instead of banning the app, it sets a 180-day deadline for TikTok to be divested from control by the foreign adversary,” Leamer said. “It’s narrowly written to address the specific concerns about TikTok and similar entities that are controlled by foreign adversaries.”

“It will be tempting for many politicians to give in to the mounting pressure and change their tune on this bill. The next few weeks will be critical for the proposal’s future,” Leamer wrote. “As the lobbying game intensifies, pressure falls on members in both chambers to stay focused and move this legislation toward passage. Now is the time for Congress to stand firm against these mounting external pressures, prioritizing the security and sovereignty of Americans in the digital age.”

What the left is saying.

  • The left is also mixed on the bill, with some saying TikTok is a clear national security threat. 
  • Others argue that TikTok’s influence is no worse than other U.S.-based social media platforms.
  • Another contingent says an outright ban would amount to censorship. 

In Noahpinion, Noah Smith said “TikTok is really bad, and should be forced to sell.”

“A lot of people call this a ‘TikTok ban’, but in fact it’s not. The bill in Congress would simply force TikTok’s corporate ownership to change; the video service itself, with all its silly dance videos and bad news analysis, would remain. But it’s notable that to TikTok’s current leadership, a change of ownership might as well be the same as a ban,” Smith wrote. “Why are both TikTok’s current management and CCP mouthpieces so desperate to prevent a sale?... There’s only one answer that makes sense: Chinese authorities believe that TikTok is an important tool for influencing public opinion in the United States.”

“The problem here isn’t that the news young Americans get on TikTok is bad — much of it certainly is bad, but that’s more of a problem with news consumers than with the app. The problem is that the news is subtly and invisibly controlled by a foreign adversary government,” Smith said. “TikTok’s desperate pressure campaign against the divestiture bill backfired precisely because it seemed to provide a clear demonstration of the app’s power. If TikTok could instantly convert its users into lobbyists against that bill, why couldn’t it do the exact same thing in the case of a war between China and the U.S.?”

In Bloomberg, Karishma Vaswani suggested “America’s TikTok addiction isn’t just China’s fault.”

“There are few things that can get both the American left and right as exercised as the idea that a foreign nation is perverting the minds of their young. When that country is China, the full force of the US political system weighs in,” Vaswani wrote. “While there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about the impact of a foreign-owned social-media platform beloved by so many young Americans, it’s time for a little honesty and self-reflection. The US TikTok addiction isn’t just a Chinese problem. Homegrown tech has failed to keep up with the kind of innovation that Chinese firms have developed.”

“The reality is that all of these platforms collect data on us and hold huge sway over our hearts and minds; we give our power over to them the minute we switch on our phones and click on the icons. We live in their world, whether it’s TikTok or YouTube or Instagram, and they take over our ability to see the world in a clear-eyed, rational fashion. This is not exclusively a TikTok issue, but because it is so ubiquitous and more importantly Chinese-owned, it has become a target.”

In The Boston Globe, Marcela García wrote “in stark defense” of TikTok. 

“At first glance, the legislation… may seem sensible. But it also looks like censorship,” García said. “Already millions of American TikTok creators and consumers have joined legal experts and civil liberties advocates to explain all the reasons why a TikTok ban would be detrimental. An outright prohibition raises First Amendment concerns and is unconstitutional… while doing little to address the vast data and privacy vulnerabilities found in other corners of the internet.”

“TikTok and other social media apps need regulation. But… there are better ways — such as passing the American Data Privacy and Protection Act that would restrict how companies collect user data and a proposal by the company itself that would allow its data operations to be overseen by a federal committee, among other things. Never mind that lawmakers who favor a TikTok ban haven’t offered solid evidence that the Chinese government uses TikTok to spy on Americans."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • The risks TikTok poses are very real, and it's worth considering how to address them.
  • I don’t think forcing a sale or banning TikTok is something that meets American values, and this legislation could create a whole slew of other issues.
  • Unfortunately I don’t have a great solution, but I don’t think this bill is it.

Let’s start with something I think is simple: There are real risks posed by TikTok. I don't think the allegations or dangers here are somehow "vague," as Elizabeth Nolan Brown contends (under "What the right is saying"). 

We know that TikTok has monitored and tracked journalists who criticize the app. We know there are laws in China that could compel ByteDance to hand over user data to the Chinese government upon request (and we know the system they have now for protecting U.S. data is porous). We know the app's filters have been used to promote China's political positions. We have a lot of circumstantial evidence, like this study, showing that TikTok can (and does) manipulate its algorithm to steer Americans away from topics sensitive to the CCP. And we have leaked documents showing that TikTok instructs its moderators to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong.

So: The threat of 150 million U.S. users, including a huge chunk of young Americans, getting influenced by this app is not imaginary. There are any number of ways that this could pose a long-term threat to Americans — either through sheer Chinese propaganda on the app or through more insidious and direct manipulation (like decades of a future lawmaker's data being accessible to a foreign government).

All this is to say, I don't think "the threat isn't real" or that "every social media app has risks" are strong arguments against forcing a TikTok sale. I think the threat is real, I think it is fairly unique to TikTok, and I think it's more dangerous than the kind of stuff we see on X/Twitter or Instagram.

But I still don't support a "TikTok ban."

The biggest reason I think legislating a TikTok sale like this opens up a whole new can of worms is that it sets a dangerous precedent about the power of the federal government. One of the reasons our government officials worry about a government like China's having so much sway and influence with American voters is that it can act in repressive, censorious ways. But if our federal government starts forcing the sale of apps like TikTok that it deems a threat, or bans them from app stores when they don't sell, it'd be acting in the very same censorious and repressive ways.

It isn't hard to imagine the numerous conflicts of interest and dangerous situations that could arise from this precedent. Former President Donald Trump, for instance, has his own social media platform. What if he were re-elected and decided he didn't want Truth Social's competitor, X, to operate freely in the U.S. anymore? How hard would it be for him to convince a large swathe of Republicans that X "spreads disinformation" and "Americans’ data isn't secure”? X isn't currently owned by a foreign adversary, but that can of worms would be open.

As I wrote last year, part of what makes the U.S. different from China is that we don’t bifurcate the information that is accessible inside our country from what’s accessible outside of it. TikTok, for instance, doesn’t even exist in China — a much more heavily censored version of it does. Allowing big tech companies, even ones with foreign ownership, to operate without heavy government oversight creates risks for the U.S., but it’s also a system that allows private companies to thrive and the free exchange of good (and bad) ideas to flourish. I prefer that system to the one this bill could lead to.

People using TikTok should understand the risks this app poses. The federal government isn't banning employees from downloading the app on government devices for show, nor is there bipartisan consensus on this bill because Democrats and Republicans are suddenly anti-capitalism. This is not Sinophobia or drumming up support for military funding. Lawmakers simply understand there are unique and legitimately dangerous aspects of TikTok.

Now, would a sale to a U.S. company be a good outcome here? Yes. It would. But the moment that sale is forced with the heavy-handedness of direct federal government legislation, we’ll get a whole new cascade of issues dropped at our feet. Those issues are exactly why such legislation is not likely to survive legal challenges, and is to say nothing of the reality that any ban of the app would do legitimate damage to thousands of creators and businesses who are doing perfectly innocent things on it.

In short: I don't have a great solution, except raising more awareness about the risks TikTok poses. But I can spot a bad solution — one that creates more problems than it fixes — when I see it. And I think a forced sale via legislation is a bad solution.

What do you think of the proposed bill that could ban TikTok in the United States? Let us know!

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Your questions, answered.

Q: Can we believe the polls? After 2016, 2020, and 2022, I’m doubtful that opinion polls can be trusted within their margin of error. Maybe that’s just [a coping device], but I think they leave a lot of questions unanswered while pretending to be authoritative. 

— Eric from Orlando, Florida

Tangle: Good question, Eric. It’s kind of a cyclical question, too, as it seems that every time we approach a major election, it comes up again. After 2016, we were wondering how and why polls seemed biased to under-represent Trump’s support. In 2020, the polls were much more of a mixed bag, but accuracy problems persisted. Then in 2022, it seemed that the polls were biased the other way, because of everything from poorly worded questions to inaccurate assumptions about voter turnout.

However, it’s important not to over-analyze trends. There were some people who were more right than wrong in 2022, such as the “Guru of Nevada politics” Jon Ralston and the Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg (who was right the whole time). It’s also important not to misremember trends; even though midterm polls did overstate Republican support, the story coming out of the 2022 midterms was that the polls right before the midterms were actually pretty good. In fact, according to polling legend Nate Silver of 538, the polls were historically accurate.

So I actually feel pretty safe trusting opinion polls within their margin of error, with three big caveats — you’ve got to stay within those margins (races that are “too close to call” are often, well, too close to call), you can’t judge springtime polls for elections decided in the fall, and you can’t translate national polling to the swing states that will decide the election. Now’s the time to make observations about voter enthusiasm, the importance of different issues, and the relative strengths of every candidate. The time to draw some conclusions and make confident predictions based on polling is in October, and maybe even early November.

So I’d advise anyone trying to understand the political landscape to keep the number of polls you read broad, but to keep what you’re willing to learn narrow. As we said Monday, new polls show Biden pulling ahead of Trump nationally, but that can only tell you where people are leaning now that it’s a two-candidate race. Once we see those two candidates get pitted directly against each other, the polls will change — and if those polls show us something significant, and in specific states, then I think it’s fair to trust that what they’re showing us is meaningful.

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Under the radar.

Progressive groups are launching a "Reject AIPAC" effort as divides within the Democratic party over Israel grow. A coalition of two dozen progressive groups launched a seven-figure ad spend to defend progressive Democrats who have criticized Israel's military offensive in Gaza and are now facing negative ads funded by AIPAC, or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The progressive coalition opposing AIPAC is also organizing demonstrations that call for a ceasefire in Gaza, and is demanding new conditions on U.S. military support for Israel. ABC News has the story.


  • 16. The number of countries with a full or partial ban on TikTok as of April 2023. 
  • 60%. The percentage of Republicans who said they would support the U.S. government banning TikTok in a March 2023 survey by Pew Research. 
  • 50%. The percentage of Republicans who said they would support the U.S. government banning TikTok in a follow up survey in September-October 2023.
  • 43%. The percentage of Democrats who said they would support the U.S. government banning TikTok in March 2023.
  • 29%. The percentage of Democrats who said they would support the U.S. government banning TikTok in September-October 2023.
  • 21%. The percentage increase in social media users who say they regularly get news from TikTok between 2020 and 2023. 
  • 11%. The percentage decrease in social media users who say they regularly get news from Facebook between 2020 and 2023.

The extras.

Yesterday’s poll: 847 readers took our poll on President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address with 33% finding it mostly positive. “In a vacuum, it will be mostly forgotten by election day. However, if this trend continues, then it may be remembered as the starting point of Biden's rise, although I'm not entirely sure that anything that Biden does will convince independents and swing voters,” one respondent said.

What do you think of the proposed bill that could ban TikTok in the United States? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

A new 400-page report from the World Health Organization (WHO) describes the 2020’s as “the platinum decade” for Southeast Asia because of the current trend of improvements in poor and developing countries in the region. Among the report’s main findings were the decreases in mortality from communicable diseases like polio and measles. Every country in the region except India has now eliminated trachoma, an eye infection that causes blindness, although the WHO believes India may have done so by the end of 2023. Since 2010, maternal mortality rates have decreased by 41 percent and deaths from malaria have decreased from 2.5 per 100,000 to 0.5. The WHO projects deaths from malaria in Southeast Asia could reach 0.1 per 100,000 by the end of the decade. The Progress Network has the story.

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