Why Is TikTok Freaking Out The U.S. Government?

Over the past year, TikTok has become the most talked about social media app around, not to mention the fastest growing. It’s also become the biggest threat to Alphabet Inc.’s Google search engine, as well as Amazon’s ecommerce business -- two global corporate institutions my millennial mind has trouble reenvisioning.

From the NBA to Duolingo to The Washington Post, it seems everyone today is on TikTok, with the growing idea that if you’re not, you’re far behind.

But as more and more brands, advertisers, influencers and publishers prepare TikTok strategies, eager to reach a younger global audience -- and, if they’re lucky, go viral -- the China-owned short-video phenom is scaring the crap out of American government officials.

Governors of Texas, Maryland, Nebraska, South Carolina, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Indiana have either banned state employees from using the app on government phones, have proposed a ban, or sued the company for promoting inappropriate content for the app’s younger users.

Brendan Carr, the commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, has also argued that TikTok should be banned from operating in the U.S., while Senators Mark Warner (D-Virginia) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) have urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate TikTok over reports that employees in China accessed data about U.S. users of the service.

The news broke in June, when leaked audio from over 80 internal TikTok meetings described 14 statements from nine different China-based TikTok employees gaining access to nonpublic data on U.S. TikTok users.

Less than a month later, TikTok confirmed that employees based in China are able to access U.S. user data through “approved protocols” overseen by the company’s U.S.-based security team, but said it plans to keep data about its American users separate from its Chinese parent company ByteDance.

Months earlier, FBI Director Chris Wray warned that the Chinese government could use the ByteDance-owned app to control data collection on millions of U.S. users or control the recommendation algorithm -- or “For You” page -- which could be used for influence operations. He was likely correct.

The “watch out, TikTok’s going to overthrow U.S. democracy” directives continued on Monday of this week, when Alabama and Utah joined the other states prohibiting the use of TikTok on state government devices and computer networks.

“Disturbingly, TikTok harvests vast amounts of data, much of which has no legitimate connection to the app's supposed purpose of video sharing,” said Alabama Governor Kay Ivey. “Use of TikTok involving state IT infrastructure thus creates an unacceptable vulnerability to Chinese infiltration operations.”

TikTok issued a statement in response showing its disappointment that nine U.S. states so far have enacted “policies based on unfounded, politically charged falsehoods” about the company.

For now, the real worry surrounding TikTok’s threat to our national security exists at the governmental level -- a bipartisan stance, I’d like to add.

But as TikTok continues to take over and transform the traditional social media landscape, search, and ecommerce (dare I say the world?), and the push to restrict the app grows, brands may have to decide where they stand on the matter.

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