An oft discussed topic within the American halls of power is the growing influence and power of China. After a week of non-stop balloon discussion, US politicians and legislators have circled back to a favorite past-time, discussing whether TikTok should be banned.

The motivations for this kind of action are legion, especially on the right. I think everyone can remember the chaotic few months when Donald Trump tried to force the sale of TikTok to an American company after teens who used the platform apparently inflated attendance expectations for a Trump rally.

But Republicans worried about being mocked by Gen-Z aren’t the only people who have been vocal with concern about TikTok, Mark Zuckerberg has voiced his own concern about non-American social media and tech companies. And while he may not have liked where Trump’s instinct took him, it is obvious that if something removed TikTok as a competitor to Facebook, Zuckerberg would benefit.

But now we are getting to a place where lawmakers large and small are thinking hard about how to ban the platform and what restrictions to put on it. And for most of them, the biggest problem is the way that the Chinese government works with companies. Because it is absolutely clear that ByteDance, TikTok’s owner, has a very close relationship with the Chinese Communist Party, and that TikTok is more data hungry than even Facebook.

Some of the more basic accusations are around censorship, especially with the ongoing human rights violations in Xinjiang. It is unclear how much is being censored. Algorithmic recommendations are always a black box, and there are some videos about the Uhygur incarcerations that get traction on the platform, although it is not common.

But because TikTok is such a popular app and the creator tools are relatively easy to use inside of the app, the platform is being used for education. Teachers are making TikToks to explain the substitution method in algebra, to tell the story of the richest king ever. Mansa Musa, or to teach music theory. But possibly more importantly, they are having students make TikToks as projects, to argue a point of view, or to teach and summarize a lesson. And at this moment, students can’t get ChatGPT to do this kind of homework for them.

Recently EdSurge published an opinion piece about why banning TikTok impinges on academic freedom and doesn’t solve any of the security concerns. It is unique for being one of the only voices that have spoken up on TikTok’s behalf. The nature of the company is that precious few politicians have been willing to go to bat for them, and the teenagers who would likely feel the ban most acutely are not heavily involved in public discourse.

While there are some American competitors to TikTok, they are only features added to already major tech products. For example, Google/Alphabet owns Youtube Shorts and Facebook/Meta owns Instagram Reels. Both of them exist and are quickly growing both their audiences and their creators. But TikTok has been one of the few companies outside the “Big 4” which has managed to really gain market share, unlike other American companies which have floundered. Its unclear why, but something about the algorithmic way that TikTok serves video is compelling in a way that is hard to describe. It has certainly brought a lot of new creators into the spotlight.

It is not clear that it is a good idea to ban TikTok. But it is clear that it is a politically popular idea to talk about banning TikTok. Whether that leads to real legislation, we will have to see. 

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