TikTok ban is repackaged censorship

By Sophie Foster

Opinion Editor

According to CNN, TikTok is on track to be banned in the United States.

This is a devastating decision if you, like me, already feel plagued by rapid fire Instagram Reels attacks when your only reason for opening Instagram is to click through someone’s passive aggressive “close friends” story rant and then petulantly scroll four years back on an ex-friend’s feed. Unfortunately, Reels might be the short-term videos of the future.

More urgently, this decision flies in the face of more than one constitutional right. In doing so, the proposed law calls into question the constitutional and legal justifications of the U.S.’s political systems for neither the first nor the last time in recent memory.

While Americans have not yet felt ramifications and still have access to the platform at present, the timer is set. According to The New York Times, “the law would allow TikTok to continue to operate in the United States if [parent company] ByteDance sold it within 270 days, or about nine months, a time frame that the president could extend to a year.”

This sale is an absurd timeline suggestion that hinges on pulling the wool over Americans’ eyes to instill false hope. According to Democratic Senator Ed Markey, it “would be one of the most complicated and expensive transactions in history, requiring months if not years of due diligence.”

The reason lawmakers broadly cite for this decision is a concern that China, where ByteDance is headquartered, might use the app to surveil Americans or access their data, according to Reuters. This is just the latest step in a years-long battle waged over technology and economic advancement between the two nations’ governments. In fact, Beijing recently ordered Meta Platforms to remove WhatsApp and Threads from their app store, citing similar concerns.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. government voting to ban the app sets “an alarming global precedent for excessive government control over social media platforms” and if “the United States now bans a foreign-owned platform, that will invite copycat measures by other countries.”

This perspective is particularly pressing because of U.S. officials’ persistent implication that part of the reasoning behind this ban is the belief that TikTok is responsible for growing waves of support for Palestine, including the college students engaging in protest nationwide.

According to Republican Senator Pete Ricketts, roughly a third of adults between 18 and 29 get their news “exclusively from TikTok,” where he claims “pro-Palestinian and…pro-Hamas hashtags are generating 50 times the views…despite the fact that pollings show Americans overwhelmingly support Israel over Hamas.”

This belief is factually unfounded. According to NBC News, “claims about TikTok’s promotion of pro-Palestinian content are anecdotal” and “the perceived performance of pro-Palestinian content on the platform depends on how you parse TikTok’s data.”

In other words, the tendency for videos sympathizing with Palestinians is personal and algorithmic, not universal. Someone who engages with pro-Palestine content will receive more pro-Palestine content, and someone who engages with pro-Israel content will receive more pro-Israel content. The reason for the higher view counts of the former as opposed to the latter stems from something much less insidious than foreign government intervention: the trend of young people trending politically left.

Unless lawmakers are poised to argue that college students were misinformed by TikTok during the Vietnam War in the 1960s, they should not be surprised that the U.S.’s current political activity overseas is met with protest and scrutiny. An endeavor to silence those students by citing baseless claims about Chinese intervention is a dual violation of the First Amendment, impeding both on the right to free speech and on the right to assembly and protest.

            Though the vote passed, this is not the end of the years-long tumult over the subject. According to Reuters, both TikTok and a collective of its users are expected to challenge the bill and take legal action. They have some precedence on their side; in November of 2023, a judge blocked a TikTok ban in Montana on the grounds of free speech.

Not every senator is in favor of this bill becoming law. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden said it “provides broad authority that could be abused by a future administration to violate Americans’ First Amendment rights” and Sen. Markey said “censorship is not who we are as a people.”

What these senators are getting wrong, though, is that this is not just a precedent set for the future — it is a reality we face today. We do not need to wait for a future administration to abuse the law and violate the First Amendment; the current administration is doing that. We do not need to discuss censorship to come. This law is censorship by definition.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo caption: TikTok Shou Chew promised to fight the proposed ban on TikTok to keep the app available to American audiences.

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