When President Trump entered the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma for a 2020 re-election rally, he wasn’t met by the typically packed crowd brandishing MAGA hats and American flags. 

Despite Trump’s claim that over a million people had requested tickets to the June event, a little over 6000 people showed up—under one third of the venue’s total capacity. Although it’s probably for the best that fewer people showed up considering that very few COVID-19 guidelines were followed, the low attendance  may be explained by millions of teenagers around the globe on the social media platform TikTok.

When a series of viral videos on the platform called for their followers to register to attend the rally on the official Trump 2020 website and not show up, many TikTok users adopted aliases to clog the system. As the trend gained popularity, it recruited the likes of many fan bases on the app, most notably including K-pop fan groups that flooded the website with fake registrations.

Despite the administration’s best efforts to reduce the fallout from the event, every major news network captured the empty stands, the deserted overflow areas set up outside the stadiums, and the eerie silence.

Fast forward just one month later, and we can see that the Trump administration has struck back. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have come forward to say that the United States government is considering a ban of TikTok. While they each cited separate reasons for doing so, they both argued that since TikTok is a platform based in Beijing, it could pose a security threat to the U.S. if American user information was seized by the Chinese government.

This back and forth between social media platforms and governments  is not something new to the global social media space. China has banned the use of many platforms including Facebook and Google since 2009, forcing users to purchase VPNs to browse U.S.-owned sites. Even TikTok has faced similar challenges due to intercountry conflict, as India recently announced a large-scale ban of TikTok as part of an ongoing border conflict with China.

With social media platforms being mobilized in international disputes, we must ask: who exactly does this impact?

Despite the arguments for national security, many domestic apps we use daily such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter also collect immense amounts of data on all of its users. 

Bans such as the ones being explored by the Trump administration simply shift the burden of governmental conflict to citizens. Instead of directly sanctioning the countries violating American interests, banning digital platforms simply disrupts the means by which citizens interact with each other, without necessarily impacting other nations. By banning apps such as TikTok due to the unproven potential for data concerns, the U.S. blindly banks on the possibility that the Chinese government has large plans to scrape data from the platform, meaning that there is no guarantee of leverage but an inevitable negative impact on Americans.

As it stands, platforms such as TikTok have been surprisingly powerful tools used to promote business and political agendas. From businesses posting videos of their products in hopes of getting customers to political representatives voicing their opinions on controversial issues, the app allows for direct engagement with millennial and Gen-Z consumers .

Removing such platforms would inevitably cause a ripple effect on future policy decisions. Banning social media platforms immediately blurs the line between protection and censorship. 

What powers does the government have to regulate the presence of social media networks and the corresponding data? Should the government treat domestic companies differently than foreign ones despite similar data collection practices? These questions open the floodgates to the ambiguous field of social media regulation. 

Without defined laws surrounding media transparency, it is very difficult to understand the implications of social media bans (let alone stop censorship ). It’s especially important that the U.S. initiate actions to provide concrete legislation about the operation of social media platforms, since so many are U.S.-based.

Although the United States prides itself as the land of the free, it has consistently been criticized for its lack of freedom when it comes to internet consumption. Reporters Without Borders has listed the United States as one of 19 “Enemies of the Internet”, citing censorship of internet media and the repression of various online users through media attacks from political figures and anti-digital consumer legislation. 

Before the U.S. goes about banning entire social media platforms, it needs to consider what  such a move would achieve. Setting a precedent and adding to limited existing legislation would make it difficult for social media platforms to promote and encourage the freedom of expression without fear of censorship. The lack of oversight upon such a large decision means that there is little stopping a head of state from banning a digital platform with just a simple explanation. We could only imagine how catastrophic that would be if a network such as Facebook was shut down, causing businesses and individuals to lose millions of valuable interactions and political discourse.

Instead of banning Americans from TikTok—which many could bypass anyway through tools like VPNs—the Trump administration should instead consider passing legislation requiring more transparency regarding data collection features programmed into the app. Companies including Apple have already started doing this. Their new IOS 14 software forces developers to specify all the data that is being collected from the user, giving us the ability to view exactly what our favorite apps have access to and enabling us to turn off those functions if possible.

But without categorical measures, many social media users will go unprotected from the vast amounts of data being collected by large platforms. Even though TikTok is based in China, domestic companies owning thousands of data points about us is nothing to shrug off. Especially with the news of a potential Microsoft buyout, we cannot guarantee that our data will be any safer if ownership is brought into the U.S.

Without the transparency of all social media companies, it only takes one large platform for our data to fall into the wrong hands.

There is no denying that despite all this, foreign-owned apps like TikTok indeed pose potential threats to the privacy of our data. But it isn’t the responsibility of our government to shut down such large platforms without considering the ramifications for its millions of users. From dances to debates, platforms such as TikTok encourage free speech and expression for people of all interests and backgrounds, and to simply shut it down without considering alternative methods of regulating this giant is an impulsive and dangerous decision to make.

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