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Friday, May 24, 2024

How a potential TikTok ban could impact Wisconsin creators

The U.S. Senate is considering a bill that could lead to a nationwide ban against TikTok after it was met with overwhelming bipartisan support by the House of Representatives on March 13.

The legislation focuses on national security concerns posed by Beijing’s control of ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company. Although senators have attended a classified intelligence briefing on the threat, it is still uncertain what their votes will look like. If approved by the Senate and signed into law, the bill will give TikTok less than six months to sell to a U.S.-based company or face a nationwide ban. 

Meanwhile, users have raised concerns against the legislation, and TikTok has launched a widespread lobbying campaign urging people to call their senators to voice their opposition to the ban. 

Wisconsin TikTokers, too, are preparing for the worst. Nikki Johnson, also known as The Tacky Tourist, is a content creator on TikTok who encourages her followers to explore new places in Wisconsin. 

“I'm taking things day-by-day and hoping the app isn't banned,” Johnson said. “I do want to encourage folks to check out my other socials so I don't completely lose everyone if the app is closed.”

Expert details risks involved in TikTok ban

Dave Schroeder, a national security research strategist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said ByteDance is unlikely to sell TikTok if the bill becomes law.

“ByteDance has already signaled that it does not want to sell TikTok, and it may be hard to find a buyer even if a sale was mandated because TikTok is still not a commercially profitable platform,” Schroeder said.

Although ByteDance recorded a $28 billion net profit in 2023, TikTok remains unprofitable because of its heavy investment in global expansion, according to the Financial Times. Most of the group’s revenue comes from Douyin, a platform exclusively available in China, where TikTok is banned. This leads to questions about ByteDance's underlying interests in the app's global expansion.

“Think about this. TikTok is not profitable, and it's banned in China,” Schroeder said. “Ask yourself what the Chinese government’s interest is in maintaining access to hundreds of millions of users in the U.S., Europe and the rest of the world. It is a powerful tool for shaping the views of an entire generation in ways that benefit Beijing.”

Schroeder said the Chinese government can leverage the app as a window into the lives of over 170 million monthly American users and attempt to shape their thinking.

“One risk is data privacy, which gets into detailed information on your behavior both when using TikTok,” Schroeder said. “But also information about your search and web browsing habits, location information, contacts and volumes of other personal information shared with TikTok. This detailed personal information is ultimately available to be mined and analyzed by the Chinese government.”

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TikTok may also promote and demote specific topics on TikTok based on Beijing’s preferences, according to a 2023 report from the Network Contagion Research Institute, an independent group of researchers at Rutgers University.

“The larger risk is what you see on the platform and why — what content you are shown versus what is suppressed or demoted,” Schroeder said. “What comes back first when you search on the platform versus what you don't see, what content goes viral versus what doesn't. This is the real power of TikTok.”

If the legislation were to pass, ByteDance would likely challenge the decision in U.S. courts before it considers selling its operations, CBS News reported. “The courts may have a dimmer view of blocking a platform, regardless of risks or foreign ownership,” Schroeder said.

The security risks associated with the platform do not diminish the complexity of the decision senators must make. TikTok’s American audience represents almost half the country’s population, making it difficult to untangle the platform from the fabric of American society without triggering dire blowback from public opinion, both CNN and NBC News reported. 

“During a general election year, anything perceived as an effort to ban a platform many younger Americans love is going to be unpopular, and you will see politicians react to that reality,” Schroeder said. “We have already seen Trump shift his position on TikTok away from a ban, though he was the one who initially proposed it during his presidency.”

TikTok is especially popular among young people 

TikTok appeals considerably to Gen Z, given 62% of 18- to 29-year-old Americans used the social platform in 2023, according to Pew Research Center

Ava McNarney, a junior at UW-Madison, said she uses the app for travel and book recommendations, to keep up with trends and to explore new local places.

“I am worried about this legislation because TikTok is so popular as a source of entertainment in the U.S.,” McNarney said.

Like McNarney, Johnson, the “Tacky Tourist” creator, said she finds the app to be a powerful tool for giving and receiving advice within a community.

“Instead of Google, I've actually used TikTok as a way to find new places,” Johnson said. “If I'm in a new area and looking for a place to eat, I use TikTok. The videos give me so much more than a Google search. I get a vibe of the atmosphere, I see the food and hear from both the creator and the comments what people like and the best thing to get on the menu.”

Since February 2020, Johnson has shared her adventures across Wisconsin, using TikTok as a bridge between the digital world and her followers' reality. 

“My goals are to inspire people to go out and see things they may not know exist and to especially encourage them to see things in their own backyard,” Johnson said. “People tend to take these places for granted and not visit them.”

‘A creative outlet to express myself’

Shelby Lenae, a lifestyle TikTok creator since 2019 and UW-Madison alumna, explained how content creation has helped her grow in different areas of her life.

“Although I haven't made a substantial amount of money through content creation, it has greatly assisted in the improvement of my life satisfaction by consistently providing me with a creative outlet to express myself,” Lenae said.

For these creators and other users, TikTok is a place to come together, share passions and interests, and build something meaningful. It has kept some engaged in politics, helped others feel more positively about their bodies, helped small businesses grow and informed many about mental health or queer identity.

Johnson said she finds it challenging to face a possible platform shutdown and remains uncertain about what the future holds.

However, Johnson and Lenae said they have faith in users’ resilience and believe in the power of social media to bring people together no matter what. 

“The ban will certainly cause a major ripple in the social media community if passed, but those with true determination and desire to find other ways to connect with their already-built audiences will persevere,” Lenae said.

Lenae said the continuation of short-form video content after the demise of the now-defunct social media platform Vine points to creators’ ability to navigate a rapidly changing social media landscape. Many creators who first gained traction on Vine were able to harness their popularity on other platforms and continue to grow their audience.

At a time when algorithms and geopolitics seem to control social media platforms more than their users, Lenae said creators must garner a record of their audience and take charge of their careers as content creators. 

“Although shutting down the platform would have severe implications on the marketing industry and the way a lot of current creators make their income and connect online, the most successful creators over the years find ways to consistently pivot as the social space continues to evolve,” Lenae said.

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