‘So infuriating’: TikTokers fume over possible ban
Following of TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew’s brutal five-hour hearing on Thursday, TikToker and disinformation researcher Abbie Richards summed up what so many creators were thinking: “It’s actually remarkable how Congress in knows a lot less about social media than the average person,” Richards told TechCrunch. .
On TikTok, users have mocked members of Congress for misunderstanding how the technology works. In one instance, Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC) asked Chew if TikTok connects to a user’s home Wi-Fi network. Chew replied, puzzled, “Only if the user turns on wi-fi.”
The ignorant questions were not unique to the government’s interrogation of Chew. In a high-profile hearing in 2018, the late Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) infamously asked Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg how Facebook made money if the app was free. Zuckerberg replied, “Senator, we run ads,” without stifling a smirk. At a technical hearing two years ago, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) created another notorious viral moment asking Facebook’s global chief security officer if she would “commit to ending finsta.”
As entertaining as these gaps in basic knowledge are, the creators of TikTok have serious concerns about the future of an app that has given them a community and, in some cases, a career.
TikTok creator Vitus “V” Spehar, known as Under the Desk News, has amassed 2.9 million followers by sharing global news in an accessible way. But in this week’s news cycle, they are front and center (literally – they sat right behind the CEO of TikTok as he testified).
“I think it’s really concerning that a government is considering removing American citizens from the global conversation on an app as robust as TikTok,” Spehar told TechCrunch. “It’s not just about banning the app in the United States, it means disconnecting American citizens from Canada, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Iran, Ukraine and all news reporting. line you see from those countries, it just shows up on our (For You Page).”
Spehar is part of a group of TikTok creators who traveled to Washington, DC this week to advocate for TikTok — and against the looming threat of a nationwide ban. They participated in a Wednesday afternoon press conference moderated by Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), a rare dissenting voice in Congress who raised questions about what he described as “the hysteria and panic surrounding TikTok.
“Congress has made it clear that they don’t understand TikTok, they don’t listen to their constituents who are in the TikToker community — and are using this TikTok hysteria as a way to pass legislation that gives them superpowers to ban any application they deem ‘unsafe’ in the future,” Spehar said after the hearing.
Tech ethicists and creators share this frustration. Dr. Casey Fiesler, a professor of ethics and technology policy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, believes national security concerns about the app are overblown.
“Risk seems to be entirely speculative at the moment and to me I don’t know how it’s significantly worse than all the things that are on social media right now that the government hasn’t focused on,” said fiesler. She commands an audience of over 100,000 followers on TikTok, where she explores issues such as the nuances of content moderation and other topics that might arise in her graduate courses.
“I don’t think it’s possible to frame this as a general data privacy issue without going after all the other tech companies,” Fiesler told TechCrunch. “The only thing that makes sense is that it’s literally just about the company being based in China.”
There is still no evidence that TikTok has shared data with the Chinese government. But reports have shown that employees of TikTok’s parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance, looked at US user data. An investigation last year found that engineers in China had open access to TikTok data on US users, undermining the company’s claims to the contrary. Another report, corroborated by ByteDance, revealed that a small group of engineers had improperly accessed the TikTok data of two American journalists. They planned to use the location information to determine if the reporters had come across any ByteDance employees who might have leaked information to the press.
Still, TikTokers emphasize the distinction between sharing data with a private Chinese company and the Chinese government. For its part, TikTok has tried to appease US officials with a plan called Project Texas, a $1.5 billion venture that will move US user data to Oracle servers. Project Texas would also create a subsidiary of the company called TikTok US Data Security Inc., which plans to oversee any aspect of TikTok involving national security.
Spehar said they prefer solutions like the Texas Project to U.S. government proposals like the RESTRICT Act, which would give the United States new tools to restrict and potentially ban technology exports from foreign adversaries.
“I don’t think we should be looking at things like the RESTRICT Act, or any sort of sweeping legislation that gives the government the power to say, ‘We’ve decided something is not safe,’” they said. at TechCrunch.
Several congressmen asked Chew how TikTok moderates dangerous trends like “the blackout challenge,” in which kids tried to see how long they could hold their breath. Children have died from the behavior after it aired on TikTok, but the game wasn’t born on the platform: As early as 2008, the CDC warned parents that 82 children had died from a trend called “gambling. suffocation”. A congressman even referred to “NyQuil chicken” as a dangerous TikTok trend, despite the fact that there is little evidence that anyone has actually eaten chicken dipped in cough medicine and the trend was born years ago on 4chan.
“The moral panic over the TikTok challenges is something that I’ve largely debunked, and then they’re just repeated by these politicians who don’t understand what a moral panic is,” Richards told TechCrunch. “Using the misinformation I’ve written about and tried so hard to debunk, and seeing it used against TikTok was so infuriating.”
Richards agrees that TikTok’s best feature is also its worst: anything can go viral. She thinks TikTok’s “bottom-up” information environment lends itself to misinformation, but that same dynamic also brings up good content that would never be exposed on another social network.
Richards is also a vocal critic of TikTok’s content moderation policies, which — like all other social networks — aren’t always applied consistently. During Thursday’s hearing, Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL) dramatically played a month-old TikTok video showing a gun next to text threatening the House committee leader who orchestrated Chew’s testimony. It’s a clear violation of TikTok’s content guidelines, but Richards points out there was very little engagement.
“In the context of TikTok, something having 40 likes is effective moderation,” Richards said. “That means the video isn’t reaching a lot of people.” She thinks a video like the one the Florida lawmaker pointed out shouldn’t be on the platform at all, but ultimately, if it doesn’t reach many users, the potential for harm is limited.
Other creators have expressed frustration that members of Congress have failed to consider how TikTok has helped Americans, such as LGBTQ+ people who have found a community on the app or small business owners who were able to grow beyond their wildest dreams after going viral.
Trans Latina creator Naomi Hearts, who has 1 million TikTok followers, was asked by TikTok to support the app in DC (TikTok compensated this group of creators, which included Spehar, by covering hosting costs and travel). She said she met other TikTokers on the trip who used the app to gain traction for their small businesses.
She, too, found a following on TikTok that she couldn’t build elsewhere, after struggling to grow a following on Instagram. But on TikTok, even small accounts have the potential to go viral, a phenomenon that can jump-start a career when things work out.
“The normal person’s message…for example, me, who was just a plus-size trans woman who grew up in South Central Los Angeles and had a dream – my message wasn’t there,” Naomi Hearts said, referring to Instagram.
Spehar also highlighted the role TikTok plays in helping people connect well outside the confines of their everyday environment.
“You can find communities that you can’t where you live,” Spehar said. “I think of the kids in northwest Arkansas and Tennessee – TikTok is literally one of the reasons they don’t kill themselves because they know they’re not alone.”
Although Richards primarily writes about misinformation about TikTok, she laments the positive sides of the app that could be lost if it were banned in the United States.
“Banning TikTok would ultimately hurt marginalized communities the most, which are least represented by mainstream news and organizations,” Richards said. “And if all of a sudden all that infrastructure disappears, they’ll suddenly be in the dark.”
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