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TikTok on the Clock: Trump’s Deadline Approaches

BY: Emanuel Louis

A clock, a Kesha song, and a mobile application all walk into a bar. What do they all say? TikTok. While this seemingly random amalgamation of letters has become the object of many references over the years, the social media platform TikTok is what often comes to mind for many nowadays. It is hardly surprising considering that TikTok has earned itself quite a reputation, to the extent that Donald Trump is threatening to get it banned. What could push the president of the land of freedom this far for him to resort to censoring?

Before diving into the issue, it is important to know how TikTok functions as a social media outlet. Users can upload video clips that last up to a minute using a library of “sounds” that serve as background audio. Often times, each sound is associated with a specific viral trend that varies from dance to comedy. Creators can also upload their own sound and make videos of whatever they desire. What makes the app so special is the main platform on which users watch videos – the For You Page (FYP). The app contains an algorithm that tracks each user’s preferences in terms of content, which is then used to present the videos that users are more likely to enjoy and interact with. In short, each individual’s FYP is tailored to their own liking thanks to the algorithm, which motivates users to keep scrolling and spend more time on the app.

The creator of this addictive app is ByteDance, a Chinese-based tech company. The app was first launched in China under the name Douyin in 2016. The TikTok app as we know it was then released to the rest of the world 2 years later when ByteDance acquired social media enterprise Musical.ly in August 2018. Needless to say, the app rapidly gained an incredible amount of attention within the international market; the app already obtained 2 billion downloads worldwide, managed to become the 7th most downloaded app of the 2010 decade, and is now reported to be used more than Twitter and Snapchat.

So, where does this tie in with American politics? Naturally, no matter which social media you choose to navigate through, you will inevitably run into posts discussing politics. However, many American users have taken specially to TikTok to voice their displeasure of Trump and denounce the incidents that are taking place in the country. The movement against him on TikTok has gotten so powerful that it managed to inflict damage on his campaign.

The first blow that TikTokers have delivered against Trump took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma where Trump held a rally on July 20, 2020. Creators on the app encouraged viewers to mass reserve tickets for the rally then never show up. The movement was a huge success; Trump wasn’t exactly pleased to speak to an empty 19 000-seat auditorium after the chairman of his campaign flouted that more than a million tickets were requested and that the crowd was going to be “huge”. Many newspapers seized the opportunity to highlight the absolute embarrassment that was the rally and showcase the power that the younger generation holds.

Another creator on TikTok who undermined Trump’s agenda is Claudia Conway, the daughter of none other than former Trump aide Kellyanne Conway. Under the username @datjerseygirl, Claudia gained 772.6 thousand followers on the app where she establishes herself as a “radical agnostic liberal/leftist”. She made many posts promoting the BLM movement as well as supporting the LGBTQ+ community. She also openly expressed her profound dislike for Trump and explained how her mother’s job as one of his most important advisors strained the relationship within their family. Her content on TikTok has proven to be impactful when Kellyanne suddenly announced on August 23, 2020 that she was resigning from her role to focus on her family and to have “less drama, more mama”.

Not only does TikTok present a challenge politically, it also raises an economic hurdle for Trump. All the revenues from this rapidly developing app go to China, the USA’s main economic rival. With a single app causing so many problems, it is no surprise that Trump would eventually pull out his trump card.

On July 31, 2020, Trump announced that he would be signing an executive order that would ban TikTok effective August 1st. He cited major security concerns and accused Beijing of utilizing the app to spy on Americans and steal their data. Many criticized his argument and demonstrated how the Terms and Conditions of companies such as Facebook and Google allow them to steal more sensitive data than TikTok could in the first place. There was also much ambiguity as to the legality of such an executive order. But behind this “typical Trump outburst” lies an ingenious business strategy. With the possibility of the app being shut down, many popular creators and their followers scrambled to create accounts on American-based social media platforms, namely Instagram and YouTube, that are banned in China. As such, Trump managed to divert much of the TikTok traffic to American social media, ensuring that the USA can benefit financially from TikTok’s wide outreach despite the app finding a way to bypass his ban.

The next part of the president’s offensive against TikTok was an executive order signed on August 6, 2020. The document stipulated that the American branch of TikTok had 45 days, in other words until September 15, to be purchased by an American-based company. Otherwise, the all transactions to TikTok and its parent company ByteDance will be frozen. With this ultimatum put in place, Trump will be able to get a grip on TikTok’s management of data as well as shares of the app’s profits that have been continuously on the rise. Many big-name companies such as Microsoft and Oracle are already eyeing TikTok and have entered in discussions and bidding for a potential deal.

China has not been quiet however on its end. On August 28, Beijing announced that it would be tightening regulations on tech export. Among their updated laws, personalized content recommendation algorithms were added to a list of tightly controlled exported items. In order for such technology to be sold outside of China, Beijing needs to first give the green light. Of course, this directly affects the TikTok deal since the algorithm behind the For You Page is the app’s main appeal, and, naturally, it is doubtful that China will allow TikTok to be sold without a fight.

What does this mean for TikTok’s future? One of the options would be for the app to be sold without its algorithm. However, that is extremely unlikely since the loss of the algorithm would result in the loss of interest for many users. As such, programmers and lawyers alike from potential buyers will have to partner up to bypass the new obstacle that China has set before them. This leads us to another question: is it possible that a deal cannot be made in time and that TikTok leaves the USA? That is also rather unlikely. With the American elections right around the corner, Trump will need to tread carefully after having aggravated many of the TikTok creators who were already displeased with him. Furthermore, TikTok General Manager Vanessa Pappas has said it herself: “We are here for the long run”. As such, no matter all the legal and financial obstacles that stand in their way, it is clear that TikTok and its American users will fight till’ they see the sunlight.


*All arguments made and viewpoints expressed within Youth In Politics and its nominal entities do not necessarily reflect the views of the writers or the organization as a whole.


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