The TikTok Takedown: Unpacking the U.S. Saga of Bans, Backlash, and Broader Implications

This is an exploration of the multifaceted saga of TikTok in the US, from initial bans under Trump to continued scrutiny by Biden, where legal, ethical, and national security concerns intersect with global trade, digital rights, and free speech, shaping a contentious battleground over the app's future.


Nwankama Nwankama, PhD, MBA, MSIT, MArch

5/2/20245 min read

A Summary of the TikTok US Saga

Let's explore this tale that reads like a modern thriller: the gripping TikTok saga in the United States. Over the past few years, this social media behemoth has found itself under the glaring spotlight of U.S. government scrutiny. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, even at the state levels, and yes, even some public and private companies, institutions and organizations, are crying foul. They're waving the flag of national security concerns and damage to the mental health and physical safety of young people in the US, while some outright charge that TikTok is a ‘propaganda tool’ for the Chinese Communist Party. They, thus, propose or pass legislation and directives to restrict or even ban the platform in the U.S. outright.

But while the US or any other country has the right, and, indeed, an obligation, to protect itself from undue foreign influence, one might still wonder whether there is more than meets the eye in this TikTok saga. So, with TikTok's sprawling influence on American culture, one can't help but wonder: Are these security alarms genuine, or are we chasing shadows? And what of the fallout? Could the very fabric of freedom be at stake if a ban were to go through?

Here are the critical flashpoints in this ongoing drama:

President Donald Trump's Administration's Initial Attempts to Ban TikTok (2020)

Concerns over national security led President Trump to push for a ban or forced sale of TikTok. This resulted in an executive order demanding ByteDance divest its interest in TikTok’s U.S. operations, sparking legal challenges from TikTok.

President Joseph Biden's Administration's Continued Scrutiny of TikTok (2021 onward)

While revoking Trump's orders, President Biden maintained pressure with new executive orders to evaluate risks posed by foreign apps. Subsequent legislation targeted broader prohibitions against foreign-controlled apps, culminating in the 2024 law mandating ByteDance to either sell TikTok or face a ban.

State-Level Bans and Public Reaction

Numerous states have implemented bans on TikTok on government devices, reflecting bipartisan concerns over data privacy. Public opinion remains divided, with varying levels of support for a complete ban versus restrictions.

Prejudice and Legal Considerations in the TikTok Ban

Analyzing the attempts to restrict or ban TikTok in the U.S. reveals a complex interplay of legal, economic, social, business, ethical, and other theories and principles. I have identified ten such concepts that can help explain these motivations and the ways prejudice might also be playing a role:

1. National Security vs. Economic Globalization

The U.S. government's actions against TikTok can be seen through the lens of national security, where the threat of foreign influence conflicts with principles of economic globalization and free trade. This tension highlights how protectionist measures might be used under the guise of security to disadvantage foreign competitors.

2. Data Sovereignty and Privacy Laws

Concerns about data privacy are rooted in the fear that TikTok, as a Chinese company, could share user data with the Chinese government. This issue touches on broader themes of data sovereignty and the enforcement of privacy laws, which differ significantly between countries.

3. Censorship and Freedom of Expression

The First Amendment and the principle of freedom of speech are central to the debate. Any attempt to ban TikTok could be seen as a form of censorship, violating fundamental U.S. constitutional rights and setting alarming precedents for online expression and access to information.

4. Digital Colonialism

This concept refers to the domination or control over digital spaces by powerful entities, often leading to the exploitation or suppression of smaller or foreign entities. The push against TikTok can be viewed as a form of digital colonialism, where U.S. interests may be prioritizing domestic companies over foreign ones, potentially stifling competition.

5. The Chilling Effect on Innovation

Targeting TikTok could have unintended consequences on the broader tech industry, potentially chilling innovation. This principle suggests that heavy-handed regulatory actions can deter new investments or innovations within the sector, particularly in areas related to social media and digital communication.

6. Market Protectionism

This economic theory suggests that governments may use regulatory measures to protect domestic industries from foreign competition. The scrutiny of TikTok can be interpreted as an effort to shield American social media platforms from a successful foreign competitor.

7. Reciprocity in International Law

The concept of reciprocity involves mutual exchanges of rights or privileges between countries. The treatment of TikTok might reflect a broader geopolitical struggle where actions against the company could lead to reciprocal measures against U.S. companies in China, affecting international trade norms.

8. Social Construction of Technology (SCOT)

This theory examines how society influences technological development and how technology, in turn, affects society. The narrative around TikTok as a threat could be socially constructed to support broader political or economic agendas.

9. Ethical Consumerism

This principle involves making choices that are ethically good for society. The debate around TikTok touches on whether banning the app aligns with the values of ethical consumerism, considering the potential suppression of market diversity and freedom of choice.

10. Utilitarianism in Decision Making

From a practical perspective, the best action is one that maximizes well-being for the greatest number of people. The impacts of banning TikTok—such as limiting access to a platform that offers significant cultural and economic benefits—must be weighed against the potential security risks.

Further Exploration

The theories and principles I mentioned above can be further explored through rigorous empirical research, comparative legal analysis, and interdisciplinary studies to provide a more concrete explanation of the motivations and implications behind the U.S. government's stance on TikTok.

I suggest that the attempts at banning TikTok in the U.S. should not be taken lightly. It might have unintended consequences for other or future applications that might be deemed "unAmerican" using whatever standards.

Understanding these dynamics is crucial in assessing how restricting or banning TikTok could be counterproductive for the American public, affecting everything from cultural engagement to economic opportunities in the digital space.

An Update: May 8, 2024

TikTok's Lawsuit

TikTok has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government, challenging the constitutionality of a new law that could force the app's sale or lead to its ban. The lawsuit, filed at the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., and dated, May 7, 2024, argues that the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act infringes on First Amendment rights by unjustifiably targeting TikTok as a unique speech platform, thereby threatening free speech without substantial evidence of national security risks.

TikTok contends the law lacks concrete evidence linking the app to data security threats or foreign propaganda, violating both free speech and due process protections. The law is criticized as a disproportionate, unconstitutional measure that could set a troubling precedent for other platforms.

Also read "TikTok's Rise, Struggle, and Uncertain Future in the U.S.: A Comprehensive Analysis."

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