Dissenting politicians join young activists to oppose TikTok bans
Rome | Politicians and activists of different persuasions have come out against efforts in the US, UK, Europe and Australia to ban or curb TikTok.
Those opposing restrictions on the viral video app range from prominent figures on the American left, such as Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to Italy’s right-wing deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini.
“The solution is not to ban an individual company, but to actually protect Americans from the kind of data harvesting that companies can do,” said Ms Ocasio-Cortez in her debut TikTok video on March 25.
“Do Congressional Republicans really want to emulate China by banning TikTok?” asked Republican senator Rand Paul.
Western moves to prohibit access to TikTok have gathered steam over concerns about its links to China through its Beijing-based parent company, ByteDance.
In the US, members of the Democrat and Republican parties have backed a bill that would give the government the power to ban the app, while last week, Montana became the first state to pass legislation to stop access to TikTok on personal devices. A total of 27 states have also prohibited the use of the app on government devices.
There are doubts, however, that a broad TikTok ban will be enacted across the US due to a divided congress and an expectation that any such move would be strongly challenged in the courts.
The European parliament, as well as the UK, Australia, Belgium, Denmark and Norway, has also restricted government employees from using the short-form video app on work devices, while France has extended the curbs to all “recreational apps”.
The unlikely unity between voices often on opposing sides of the political debate stems from a belief that a ban on TikTok endangers free speech and does not solve the root problem of social-media apps – be they Chinese or American – scooping up user data.
Australian Greens senator David Shoebridge called the government’s restrictions on work devices an “endless game of online whack-a-mole”, given the singling out of TikTok.
Such views appear to be in the minority, however. Last month, TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew received a pummelling from sceptical politicians during a hearing at the US Congress. Republican and Democratic politicians both raised doubts over Mr Chew’s pledge that the app was “free from any manipulation by any government”.
Hours before Mr Chew’s appearance, however, China said it would block any attempt to sell the app to a US company to separate it from ByteDance. Recent scandals, such as the admission that TikTok had inappropriately obtained the data of US journalists, as well as of a Financial Times reporter, have also damaged its reputation among politicians.
Still, there are politicians, some of whom use the site to engage with younger constituents, who have been vocal in arguing against TikTok bans.
Pedro Lopez, the spokesman of the largest European parliament group, the European People’s Party Group, said of the work-device ban that “nobody gave any explanation for the decision, so it looked more like a political decision than a logical one. I’ve deleted the app from my work phone, but how can I ask my daughters to delete it from their phones if I have no reason to give them?”
The leaders of Italy’s three major government parties all have TikTok followings of more than three-quarters of a million each, and use them to campaign in elections.
Among those leaders, Mr Salvini, who heads the right-wing League, said he was against “gagging TikTok” and “against censorship” in a video on his TikTok account, which has almost 860,000 followers.
Such views chime with younger users and activists. A Pew Research Centre poll in March found that under-30s were the only American age group with more opponents of a TikTok ban than supporters, with 46 per cent against the idea, compared with 22 per cent of the population at large.
The survey also found that the biggest sole determinant of whether one opposes the ban is whether one uses the app. More than half of internet users aged 18-24 used the TikTok mobile app in February, compared with 22 per cent of people over 50, according to media analytics company Comscore.
“The good thing in Europe is, the process here is based on rules and law, we have the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation],” said Theo Bertram, TikTok’s vice-president for government relations in Europe. “The challenge in the US is, in the absence of data protection or privacy legislation, that the political conversation has overtaken the technical one.”
Young activists on TikTok say that the political debate around the ban shows how out of touch ageing politicians are with the app’s Millennial and Generation Z base.
“The ban wouldn’t solve anything. It would develop a ‘them and us’ complex between young people and the rest of the world,” said Phoebe L. Hanson, a 21-year-old student from the UK, who attributed her decision to study politics to watching climate activism videos on TikTok and Instagram during the pandemic.
“All social media platforms have had their fair share of scandals,” said Michael Heffernan, a 17-year-old student with environmental education campaign Teach the Future Scotland.
Mr Heffernan questioned why TikTok was being singled out, adding that he would like to see more politicians on the app. “It’s more personal, it breaks down the barrier. It keeps them accountable.”