Congressional lawmakers introduced bipartisan legislation Tuesday aimed at banning the social media app TikTok nationwide.
“TikTok is digital fentanyl that’s addicting Americans, collecting troves of their data, and censoring their news,” Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., said in a press release. “It’s also an increasingly powerful media company that’s owned by ByteDance, which ultimately reports to the Chinese Communist Party—America’s foremost adversary.”
Gallagher introduced the legislation with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill.
The language of the bill says its goal is to “protect Americans from the threat posed by certain foreign adversaries using current or potential future social media companies that those foreign adversaries control to surveil Americans, learn sensitive data about Americans, or spread influence campaigns, propaganda, and censorship.”
Jake Denton, a research associate in The Heritage Foundation’s Tech Policy Center, weighs in on the legislation and its goal in this episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast.” (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s multimedia news organization.)
“This bill is essentially building off the momentum that these state governors have had in the last few weeks we’ve seen. I believe we’re close to almost 10 governors now who have banned [TikTok] from government devices,” Denton says.
“And I think the question for all these Americans is, well, if it’s unsafe for these government employees, right, we don’t want it on their phones. [So] why is it OK to be on our phones? And more specifically, why is it OK to be on our kids’ phones?” Denton asks.
On the podcast, Denton discusses the legislation to ban TikTok, whether he believes it’s likely to become law, and the app’s impact on users.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Samantha Aschieris: Jake Denton is joining the podcast today. He is a research associate in the Tech Policy Center here at The Heritage Foundation. Jake, thanks so much for joining us.
Jake Denton: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
Aschieris: Now, I want to talk about a bipartisan legislation that was introduced on Tuesday, and it’s aimed at banning TikTok nationwide. Congressmen Mike Gallagher and Raja Krishnamoorthi and Sen. Marco Rubio introduced the legislation. So, first and foremost, can you tell us a little bit more about this legislation and its goal?
Denton: Yeah. So, this bill is essentially building off of the momentum that these state governors have had in the last few weeks we’ve seen. I believe we’re close to almost 10 governors now who have banned it from government devices. And I think the question for all these Americans is, well, if it’s unsafe for these government employees, we don’t want it on their phones, why is it OK to be on our phones? And more specifically, why is it OK to be on our kids’ phones?
And so, Congressman Gallagher and Sen. Rubio are really stepping up to the plate here and making sure that everyone’s protected. This is, I think, a hard one to really grasp in terms of the cost of having your data compromised. But, it could go all sorts of different directions, whether, like, identity theft, your biometric data being compromised. So I think they’re really kind of acknowledging this growing threat and looking to give us some relief here.
Aschieris: Yeah. I was really interested in getting your thoughts on this. We’ve heard Congressman Mike Gallagher labeling TikTok as digital fentanyl. He has said that a few times now. What are your thoughts on Congressman Gallagher’s labeling of TikTok?
Denton: Honestly, I think it’s a perfect way to describe what we’re witnessing here, and you can really view it from multiple directions. The content side of things, it’s addicting, right? You’re swiping through. A lot of the content is depraved, right? It’s kind of compromising the brain. It’s kind of rewiring your dopamine receptors, it’s making you crave things that you otherwise wouldn’t. So you know this Chinese application is essentially rewiring you, so you have it on that angle.
And then you really look at the data side of things and its ability to potentially ruin your life. I don’t think people understand the level of concern here with identity theft, what really they all have on you. If you end up actually having your identity compromised, then it’s, basically, the rest of your life is spent trying to recover—whether that be legal fees, freezing your Social Security number, maybe your credit cards are all compromised. Those are irreversible.
And frankly, we haven’t really even seen what biometric data being compromised could result in. And every single one of our children now is uploading themselves dancing and they’re uploading their face. And so, China’s taking that all in. And we don’t really know their plan, but it’s pretty concerning to think that all of that data is just stored in Beijing, waiting to see what happens.
Aschieris: Yeah. I know a few people who are on TikTok, and it’s obviously a very popular app among younger generations specifically. How do we explain or get this message across of the potential dangers of, like you said, uploading a video of themselves dancing? Seems pretty innocent. But how do we get that message across that this could potentially be used against you in the future or there are dangers associated with using the app?
Denton: Yeah. I think the kind of shared perspective amongst young folks is that kind of, “I have nothing to hide, so why do I care if I’m being surveilled?” mindset that we really saw take kind of stride during the Snowden days. People are like, “Yeah, who cares if they’re listening to my phone calls, if it’s helping national security?” And this is almost a worst version where it’s like, “Who cares if they’re surveilling me? I enjoy the app.” Right? “I like what it gives me.” But they don’t realize they’re being preyed upon.
And I think that’s really what this bill aims to protect against, is that a lot of these consumers are just enjoying the experience. And the ones and zeros on the back end, the code, the algorithm, what they’re pulling in is very opaque, we don’t know, it’s a shadowy kind of system that’s collecting all sorts of things on you. And that’s not put out in front of you.
It’s a very kind of mysterious system that the consumer’s just not aware of. The lawmakers have known since the Trump administration, [former President Donald] Trump tried to ban it because of this reason. And then we were really just not brought up to speed.
And when people come on TV and they talk about it and no one’s listening, right? You’re just so hooked to your phone, you’re not going to see that clip on TikTok of the guy going on TV and saying to get rid of it because they’re controlling the algorithm. And so, at the end of the day, we’re stuck in this infinite loop and it requires, essentially, our lawmakers to intervene and protect consumers.
Aschieris: And, if you could speak to how TikTok in the U.S. is different from, say, TikTok in China, what are the main differences that you’ve been seeing that are out there that people should be aware of?
Denton: Yeah, I think this is kind of lost on a lot of folks. It’s very interesting. Douyin is the TikTok equivalent in China, spun out of the same acquisition of Musical.ly here in the United States. And ByteDance essentially realizes that, if we were to have TikTok in China and it wasn’t siloed off, it wasn’t different, it would be outlawed in China, because of the depraved content that the West would be pumping in. It just, if it snowballed, got out of control, it’s banned, and they can’t lose that market share. And so they spun up two separate apps.
Douyin is completely different. It almost functions as like QVC here, right? With like a shopping network, right? So you can get in, it’s all integrated. We’re seeing them start to maybe pivot to that here in the states. So, heavily focused on shopping and kind of the consumer aspect.
And then on top of that, it’s very motivational. Think to your like Jordan B. Peterson videos of, “Make your bed.” It really promotes these great accomplishments, good philosophy that they believe will help empower the youth.
And then you look at American TikTok, and you swipe through anyone’s algorithm, right? You’re heading home for Christmas during the holidays, ask one of the kids to show them your algorithm, swipe through the feed. You’re going to see dancing videos, you’re going to see pranks, you’re going to see basically a bunch of chaos on the feed. Nothing is promoting, really, any sort of redeeming qualities amongst the children.
So, when we think about how important it is for kids to look up to strong figures, China’s giving that to them in a feed, in a capacity that is very easy to navigate, and it’s curated. It builds upon it. It’s almost like going to school. In America, you’re just overstimulated, you’re getting glorification of drugs, sex, alcohol, everything, and there’s no way out. You get hooked through the algorithm and then you just take it in forever.
Aschieris: Yeah. That’s really scary to think about, and especially for our younger generations that are probably more vulnerable to really understanding what is at risk. Just in terms of this legislation, I mean, is it likely to move forward? As you mentioned earlier, we’ve seen a few Republican governors who have banned TikTok for state-issued devices. South Dakota, Nebraska, Alabama just banned it earlier this week. So, is it likely to move forward, in your view?
Denton: It’s very early, and this is obviously going to roll out in the next Congress. And so I think we’ve kind of yet to see what the freshman members, specifically in the House, are going to kind of take sides with.
The Democrats, I think, are probably a little further behind in terms of their willingness to actually take this on. If we look back just to the midterm cycle, you’d see candidates like Amy Klobuchar and figureheads like Stacey Abrams and even [former President] Barack Obama doing TikTok dances to promote candidates. And it’s like, they have used this as a tool for political gain, and I think it’s going to be very hard to dislodge that from their strategy.
And so, we’d like to think that these legislators operate in two capacities, right? You have them as a candidate and you have them as a representative. Ideally as a representative, they’re looking out for your best interests. But in reality, they’re interwoven. You can’t separate those two things. And they definitely are going to think back to, “Oh, I got 15 million views on that video and our fundraising numbers went up ‘X’ amount. We can’t ban TikTok.”
And so, with all those in mind, it’s going to require a lot of coalition building, but I think it’s absolutely necessary to get something like this across the finish line.
Aschieris: I also just wanted to add on to your point with the way Democrats have been using it. This Bloomberg article, I believe it was from earlier—yes, it’s from October. So, this Bloomberg article says, “[President Joe] Biden’s popping up on TikTok, even though it’s banned in the White House.” So it’s banned in the White House. We’ll see if there’s any sort of movement on this legislation, as you talked about, next Congress. I guess my next question would be, how would the government go about implementing something like this?
Denton: Yes. So, this bill is basically trying to deem TikTok as a tool of the [Chinese Communist Party], right? So they’re trying to highlight the fact that these foreign adversaries are really taking advantage of basically our disregard for the digital space. And so they’re utilizing applications, they’re utilizing just the web in general. And so this bill is trying to basically defend against that.
And so, by essentially deeming it a national security threat, they’re going to be able to kind of use some older powers that exist in previous pieces of legislation and modernize kind of our approach.
And hopefully we see kind of an acceptance of the reality of this, while it’s focused at consumers, this is typically not something you’d see in warfare, right? But it’s focused at the average ordinary American. And we can recognize the threat to our national security through that, with this kind of new approach to kind of the web in general, I guess.
Aschieris: Do you think there would be any sort of happy medium, where it’s not completely banned, but also, we can address some of the national security threats or potential spyware allegations that we’ve been hearing?
Denton: There’s inevitably going to be a very big push for kind of a compromise of this nature. It’s referred to by the TikTok lobbyists and communications team as “Project Texas,” where everything is hosted in Texas. They, I think, scrolled through what is the most conservative, loved state—Texas. “OK, let’s put TikTok in Texas.” But it’s a fake, theatrical kind of solution here, it doesn’t solve for anything.
If it really is a tool of the CCP, we have to assume that they’re just going to continue to utilize TikTok, whether that be through a backdoor, whether that be through sending in spies like they do at Huawei. The data will always end up back in Beijing.
And I think it’s so deeply entrenched now in our society that if our solution here is Project Texas, we’re doomed. It’s not a real solution, just like banning it off of government devices isn’t a solution. We’re just going to find ourselves in the same spot, but further down the road, and we’ll just have less time to basically make up for.
Aschieris: Yeah. Jake, just one final question. What do you think the media is missing in the coverage of this, and do you have any other final thoughts?
Denton: Yeah. … It’s almost framed improperly, where they’re focused too heavily upon government, right? So, I think we lose kind of the human component. Yeah, it would be a shame if the CCP could get our national park usage rates and somehow do something, right? We don’t want any government data from the state level. But realistically, we’re not concerned about the Utah State Park system as much as we should be about the average child. …
We talk about 23andMe all the time. OK, so let’s say they have that data, now they have the biometric data, they have like every aspect of your life now in a server. And I think that is what’s lost here is, we’re losing the human element, it’s too much a debate about market principles or geopolitics. These are Americans, right? This is the kid next door, this is your classmates. These are people who have actual worth and their lives could be ruined. And we owe it to them to have a legislative solution that protects them.
Aschieris: Well, Jake, thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate it. Jake Denton of The Heritage Foundation’s Tech Policy Center. Thanks so much.
Denton: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
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