Mar 23, 2023

A TikTok ban.

A TikTok ban.
Photo by Solen Feyissa / Unsplash

Members of Congress want to ban one of the most popular apps in America.

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: 10 minutes.

Members of Congress are proposing a TikTok ban. What are the best arguments for and against it? Plus, a reader question about what is happening in Israel. 

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Quick hits.

  1. A New York grand jury postponed a scheduled meeting on Wednesday that some expected to include a vote on indicting former President Donald Trump for allegedly using campaign funds as hush money. Grand jurors were told to stay on call for Thursday. (The postponement)
  2. The Fed raised interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point, continuing to battle inflation despite concerns over the banking sector. (The hike)
  3. President Biden announced a major revamp of the nation's organ transplant system. (The system)
  4. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Bakhmut, an eastern city that is at the center of some of the heaviest fighting in the war. (The visit)
  5. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) proposed expanding the Parental Rights in Education Act, which currently restricts classroom instruction of gender and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, to cover all grades. (The expansion)

Today's topic.

Banning TikTok. Today, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is testifying for the first time before a House committee on how the Chinese-owned platform can address security concerns from Congress. Chew, who is Singaporean, has already shared prepared remarks and passed out a fact sheet on TikTok.

Background: TikTok is one of the most popular social media apps in the world. Users can easily upload short edited videos of themselves complete with music, graphics, and text. Due to the app's algorithm, it is easy for people with small or no followings to "go viral" and have their content viewed by millions of people. As a result, many of its users have gone from obscurity to ubiquity as "TikTok influencers," with thousands or millions of fans who follow them. This has also allowed users to create businesses and make money, and it has facilitated the organization of political protests and grassroots movements across the world.

In the United States, the app is hugely popular, with 150 million active monthly users. It is especially popular among users in their teens and early 20s, and has become popular with businesses, who use the app to advertise their products and find new, younger customers.

But Congress is wary of the app. Lawmakers say it is a unique threat to U.S. security because of the Chinese government's close ties to its owner, and others have argued that the app is harmful to children. TikTok is owned by ByteDance, which also owns a domestic Chinese version of TikTok called Douyin (TikTok is not available in China). There are laws in China that could compel ByteDance to hand over user data to the Chinese government upon request.

TikTok has maintained that it is observing U.S. laws and regulations on data security, but many lawmakers don't think that would stop them from obeying an order from the Chinese government. In December, Forbes published an exclusive piece on how TikTok had monitored and tracked its journalists who were reporting critically on the app. TikTok later fired the employees identified in the piece.

Earlier this year, the White House gave government agencies 30 days to delete TikTok from federal devices, citing security concerns. More than a dozen countries have banned or limited the app in various ways, and the Biden administration has told TikTok to either sell the app to someone else or face the prospect of a national ban that would forcibly remove it from app stores, effectively barring new users and limiting access for people who already have the app.

Such a ban was first proposed by former President Donald Trump in August of 2020. Now, a bipartisan bill from Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) and John Thune (R-SD) is gaining momentum in Congress. Meanwhile, TikTok influencers descended on the Capitol this week to make their voices heard and oppose a potential ban. TikTok has also responded by promising to create more walls between U.S. user data and its Chinese ownership, but Chew is expected to face bipartisan criticism at today's hearing.

With Chew set to testify, we're going to explore some arguments about TikTok. Since this story doesn't fall neatly down party lines, we’re going to share arguments for and against banning TikTok in the United States. Then my take.

Opposing a ban...

  • Those who oppose a ban say there are better options, like making it safer for users or forcing its sale.
  • Some argue that TikTok is no more dangerous than any other social media apps, and most of the data is already for sale anyway.
  • Others say a ban would harm creators, new businesses, and marginalized people.

The Washington Post editorial board said don't ban TikTok, just make it safer.

President Biden has to weigh "how to protect the nation against the real threats that some foreign-based companies pose — without indulging in national security creep that unnecessarily cuts off foreign investment in the United States," the board said. There is some justification for concerns, like the recent Forbes article "on a plan for targeted surveillance of journalists who had reported critically on the company’s links to the Chinese regime... The possibility that TikTok staff might target users working in roles that grant them special power, special knowledge or both is worrisome, which is why Congress was right to ban installation of the app on federally issued devices."

Still, this data is "hardly secret," and anyone can buy it on the open market. TikTok is also "hardly the only or the most extreme online privacy risk Americans face," and the real issue is "information manipulation." TikTok's algorithm promotes or filters out certain content, and if Chinese President Xi Jinping wanted "to give a gentle nudge to videos favoring a certain presidential candidate" he could "theoretically pass the dictate to ByteDance." The right way to approach TikTok is to assess its susceptibility to this kind of influence and "determine whether the government can reduce" it without an all-out ban.

In Newsweek, Abbie Richards said "hands off my TikTok."

Calls for a ban are increasing "across both political parties," and "I built my career criticizing TikTok," Richards said. "But Washington has this wrong." While Richards has spent "countless hours" frustrated with TikTok over allowing "disinformation and extremism," she says banning the app "is a reckless decision that would ultimately harm the most marginalized in society." TikTok is more like "user-generated television" than social media, she said, and it "has made it easier to be a content creator than ever before."

Because of this, you're "more likely to encounter firsthand accounts of news stories than a fact-checked and polished video from a legacy news company," which "allows for voices previously excluded to reach unprecedented audiences." From bomb shelters in Ukraine to Black Lives Matter protests to protests in Iran, TikTok offers "firsthand accounts from people affected by political issues" and a ban is like "applying a dirty, used Band-Aid to the gaping wound that is our broken digital privacy status quo."

In USA Today, Jennifer Huddleston said blocking it "isn't a good idea."

Banning an app "could raise significant questions about the First Amendment rights of TikTok’s American users and affect far more than the ability to take part in the latest dance craze," she wrote. A ban would "dramatically expand the government's ability" to control apps and technologies Americans access, and "create consequences not just for the companies themselves," but the users who violate the bans.

"Increased scrutiny and the potential of a ban also could raise a tit for tat that leads other countries to ban U.S.-based apps and businesses," and it "might also deter foreign companies from expanding in America if they also do business in China." One study found "TikTok does not censor U.S. content" and does not collect data in a way that is "more of a threat" than other social media platforms. She argues these allegations need evidence, "not just vibes."

Supporting a ban...

  • Many who support a ban say the security threats are real, and TikTok has already done a few of the things we fear most.
  • Some say a ban should just be the beginning of the fight to better secure Americans' digital privacy.
  • Others say TikTok is an effective propaganda tool that is already having an impact.

In The New York Times, Peter Harrell and Tim Wu said "being an open and democratic country does not mean being a sucker," and banning TikTok should just be the start.

"The security concern is not that we'll be corrupted by goofy videos but rather that the Chinese government could use the TikTok apps installed on millions of American phones as a form of spyware — collecting sensitive data and personal information, including where we go and what we do," they wrote. Banning it or forcing a sale isn't a bad idea, but focusing only on TikTok would be a "showy, inadequate response" that does far too little to protect Americans' data.

"Instead, Congress should pass a law to comprehensively protect American data and security," they said. "China can (and probably does)" buy data from commercial companies who spy on Americans through our phones, and the "Chinese government has also repeatedly hacked its way into the servers of American companies and the U.S. government." The best way to protect Americans' data is legislation to "reduce the collection of data" and "force companies to increase their cybersecurity protections."

In The Washington Examiner, Ian Haworth said "it's time to ban TikTok."

"TikTok presents an obvious national security threat," Haworth wrote. TikTok has claimed Chinese government officials don't have access to data, but "later admitted that some staff in China can access the data of international users." Since no corporation can exist in China "without the express permission of the Chinese Communist Party, only the most naive observer would believe that the CCP could not have access to the personal data of hundreds of millions of TikTok users." That data could be used for blackmail.

Plus, TikTok "is an addictive and effective propaganda tool." Last year, TikTok announced "new 'Community Guidelines' which would label any mistrust of the government as 'misinformation.' In 2021, TikTok also announced a change to its U.S. privacy policy, which can include the collection of 'biometric identifiers and biometric information,' including 'faceprints and voiceprints,'" Haworth wrote. It's hard to imagine families giving the CCP a video camera in their child's room, so "why, with 63% of Americans between the ages of 12 and 17 using TikTok in 2021, are we giving the CCP a window into the lives of our children?"

In his newsletter Noahpinion, Noah Smith said "of course" we should ban TikTok.

"TikTok sends data about its American users to the Chinese Communist Party," he explained, and "TikTok is probably subject to Chinese-directed censorship that tries to nudge U.S. users into supporting CCP goals." Spying is "the easiest to prove" because TikTok "has admitted tracking journalists’ physical movements and sending the data to its Chinese parent company." TikTok can collect faceprints, voiceprints, browsing history, text messages, and "pretty much anything you do on your phone," and that information "basically" becomes property of the Chinese Communist Party.

As for propaganda, ByteDance employees "have admitted being told to highlight pro-China messaging" in the English TikTok app, and "were instructed to ban videos" that references the Tiananmen Square Massacre and other topics China's government would "prefer people not discuss." A study also found TikTok "steers users toward Kremlin disinformation" about the Ukraine war. TikTok could become "really important, really fast," and we "shouldn't let things get to that point."

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. You can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • After much reading and much thought, I oppose a ban on TikTok.
  • The concerns are based on reality, and everyone should be wary of the app.
  • But banning popular social media apps is not something that should happen in the United States.

When Trump proposed this ban back in 2020, and when a reader asked me about it a few weeks ago, I took pretty squishy positions. I initially supported Trump on the call for a ban in 2020, but criticized the sloppiness of the proposal and the mixed signals from the administration. Then, a few weeks ago, I said the language around TikTok was increasingly hyperbolic, but it was admittedly alarming that many governments, including ours, were asking employees to remove it — which made me wonder what they know that we don't.

Today, after a few years of reading through these arguments and the last week of exploring the issue more earnestly, my position is more firm: I oppose a ban on TikTok.

Let me be clear on a few things, though. TikTok has absolutely been used to spy on journalists, China-based ByteDance has accessed U.S. data, and the app's filters have been used to promote China's political positions. Chew's opening statement, which emphasized his Western credentials, that TikTok has U.S. based offices, that ByteDance's board has three American members, and that TikTok isn't even available in China (it has a domestic version owned by ByteDance called Douyin) was all a bit slippery.

Chew's Singaporean background or the ethnicity of ByteDance's board members are irrelevant to me. What I care about are the actions of TikTok and ByteDance. I am not into the "red scare" nonsense, and we shouldn't demonize China or Chinese people to make our point. China is a "threat" because it is illiberal, it has global ambitions that counter ours, and it competes with us economically. That doesn't make it evil — though its government is doing evil things — it just means we need to compete too, and win on the merits of our products and system.

Part of that system is not banning apps we don't like. A strong argument against banning TikTok is that foreign countries may retaliate and start their own bans on U.S. companies. That's a fine point, but it's not quite right. China already bans Google and Facebook and plenty of other U.S. apps and platforms. The real issue isn't that they might do it, it's that they already do it, and what distinguishes us from them is that we don't.

When Russia shuts down a social media platform because the government doesn't like what's being posted there about the war in Ukraine, it sets our hair on fire — and it should! But when our government does it in the name of "national security," it is really, truly, not all that different.

Everyone using TikTok should understand they are making their privacy vulnerable. Everyone using their smart phones should understand this, too. I don't have TikTok and won't download it — despite the fact it could really help my business — precisely because the app’s owners have done enough shady stuff to make me jittery. Their denials about the relationship between TikTok, ByteDance and the Chinese government are just not true. And teenagers now, who will one day be CEOs, politicians, professional athletes and who knows what else, could become susceptible to blackmail and surveillance. That is my biggest concern.

Given that, a great outcome here would be a sale to an American company. I'd hate the heavy handedness of the U.S. government forcing such a sale, but in practical terms it would be good for our security, good for TikTok users, and good for our purported values. Short of that, though, banning the app will only create a cascade of new problems, and derail the careers of some entrepreneurial youth, while sacrificing our own values along the way.

We can get tough on TikTok and we should — including by making as many people aware of the dangers as possible. But banning it is a few steps too far.

Your questions, answered.

Q: In today's newsletter in the "Have a nice day" section, you listed Israel as being in the Top 10 happiest countries. I would like to know how you feel about the current administration there, and the political unrest that I've been reading about. Could you possibly write about that as a newsletter subject?

— Michael from Sebring, Florida

Tangle: I am not sure it'll end up being a full newsletter topic, but happy to briefly share my thoughts on what is happening right now. I think this iteration of Israel's government is one of the most frightening I've ever seen. Israeli politics are very complicated, and even as a political reporter who follows them closely I sometimes get lost in the morass.

The political unrest there is organic and widespread because many Israelis truly believe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is threatening Israel's democracy with his proposed judicial reforms. The government is also now approving bills that will better shield him from being removed from office as he still faces corruption charges.

Anecdotally, I have never heard the kinds of things I am hearing from my friends in Israel right now, some of whom are longtime supporters of Netanyahu but are vehemently opposed to his recent actions, and others who are vehemently opposed to the protests. To me, he appears to have returned to office angry, spiteful, and on a mission to impose his will. I don't like any of it.

Obviously, I don’t live in Israel, and while I’ve spent a good amount of time there, I don’t want to speak authoritatively about it. There are plenty of conservatives I know who believe the Israeli Supreme Court has been totally captured by the left and needs reform. I think the journalist Matti Friedman recently captured the sentiment there in the most moving way I've seen, with his essay titled "I Took Up Arms To Defend Israel. Now I March Against Its Government." The piece includes some links to opposing voices at the end, and I highly recommend it.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appears to be backpedaling on his comments about Ukraine, now calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a "war criminal" who should be "held accountable." DeSantis, in response to a series of questions about the war posed by Fox News, had previously described it as a "territorial dispute" and appeared to take the stance that the U.S. should reconsider some of its support for Ukraine going forward. We covered his comments in Tangle. Some Republicans were outraged by the written remarks, which were considered significant given his interest in running for president. Now, in an interview with Piers Morgan, DeSantis claimed his answer had been "mischaracterized" and "obviously, Russia invaded... they invaded Crimea and took that in 2014." The New York Times has the story.


  • 2.9 billion. The number of monthly active users on Facebook.
  • 2.2 billion. The number of monthly active users on YouTube.
  • 1.4 billion. The number of monthly active users on Instagram.
  • 1 billion. The number of monthly active users on TikTok.
  • 60 minutes. The "watch time" limit for users under the age of 16 on TikTok.
  • 7,000. The number of TikTok employees based in the U.S.

The extras.

  • One year ago today, we were covering the Ketanji Brown Jackson hearings.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter: The BBC story on China's peace plan for Ukraine.
  • Wrong: 66.7% of Tangle readers said invading Iraq was the wrong decision. Just 5.7% said it was right, and 18.1% said they weren't sure.
  • Nothing to do with politics: For the world's 1.9 billion Muslims — about 25% of the global population — today marks the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. Ramadan Mubarak to those observing. You can read more about the observance here.
  • Take the poll: Should the U.S. ban TikTok? Let us know.

Have a nice day.

One third of patients with untreatable leukemia recently saw their cancer vanish during a clinical study on a new experimental drug called revumenib. About half responded to some degree, and 18 of 60 saw a complete remission. The patients all had acute myeloid leukemia, where mutated bone marrow cells create cancerous white blood cells. The new drug targets a common mutation that causes this kind of leukemia. While it is a small study, and some patients actually saw their conditions worsen, the extraordinary results are causing new hope for those fighting this cancer. El País has the story.

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