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Congress debates the banning of controversial Chinese-owned social media app TikTok

(Photo courtesy of People) “TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifying before Congress on TikTok safety concerns.”

Nicholas Ewing
Connector Staff

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before Congress after accusations from US lawmakers and intelligence agencies that the app TikTok is a threat to US national security. TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese social media company, in which the Chinese Communist Party owns financial shares in the company and allows CCP officials to sit on its board. It is feared that the CCP could force ByteDance to allow the Chinese officials to gain access to private, sensitive data about American users. Chew denies that the CCP has access to American data, and that all American data is stored in the United States and can only be accessed by American TikTok data officials.

The Committee Chair of the House on Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, emphasized the objective of the hearing: to air concerns about the app to TikTok and give them a chance to defend themselves if a ban were to happen. Congress held concerns that TikTok is a CCP propaganda and spying tool that weaponized against American citizens. Rodgers said in her opening statement that, “TikTok collects nearly every data point imaginable, from people’s location to what they type and copy, biometric data and more…And the Chinese Communist Party can use this as a tool to manipulate America as a whole. We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values.”

UMass Lowell Professor Morgan Marietta of Political Science agrees with Rodgers’s evaluation of TikTok’s harm to US national security. “It is a blatant case of a software being manipulated by an adversary government to collect data, spy on Americans and influence public opinion toward their propaganda. The idea that we need to use an app controlled by an adversary, when one created in Silicon Valley will easily replace it, is ridiculous.”

Marietta highlighted that the CCP has a history of using its organizations and technology to further their own political aims. He compared the present TikTok issue to the Confucius Institutes inherent problems that led to them being closed in universities across America. “[Confucius Institutes are] funded and organized by the Chinese Communist Party to establish a presence on campuses under the pretense of teaching Chinese culture and language, but then also pressuring the administration and faculty in many blatant and subtle ways to mute criticism of China, while they keep tabs on the behavior and speech of visiting Chinese students.” It is in Marietta’s opinion to ban TikTok too like how Confucius Institutes were banned in the past.

In addition to national security concerns, the TikTok hearing focused on child safety concerns too. Though the industry at large is guilty, TikTok has found itself under the spotlight about youth mental health and tragic deaths of children dying from “challenges.” According to an article by NBC news, “Mother sues TikTok after daughter dies following ‘Blackout

Challenge’” a 10-year-old girl died after attempting the “blackout challenge” after she discovered the idea on the app. Regarding mental health, CNN published an article, “Why experts worry TikTok could add to mental health crisis among US teens,” that reported young users are more prone to be exposed to harmful content that can lead to depression and eating disorders. Congress members pressed Chew on how his app failed to protect children, and he responded that the app is working on improving the safety of its youngest users and collaborating with parents on educating children about social media harms.

Since there is so much concern about national security and child safety, can the US government ban TikTok if the first amendment protects free speech and self-expression? Marietta explains how banning TikTok would not prohibit Americans’ freedom to speech and expression because only the app is banned and not the content. “The First Amendment and censorship argument is a red herring. No content would be censored by a ban, only the current platform, which will be replaced soon enough, so dance videos can flourish unhindered in a free society.” Marietta further elaborates on his point about free speech by drawing the line between what speech is allowed and prohibited in a free society:

“We can tell the difference between the free expression of individuals and the intrusions of technology, money and espionage by a foreign power intent on discrediting democracy and influencing American beliefs and elections. The protection of free speech so vital under our Constitution, it does not command us to allow software controlled by totalitarians any more than it commands us to allow speech that incites violence or is slanderous.” Marietta said, “It is important to remember that the enemies of constitutional democracy often employ the liberties of a free society to attack it.”

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