Politico: The pandemic multiplied TikTok’s audience — and its critics in Washington

July 9, 2020 Media

Coronavirus quarantines catapulted TikTok beyond teens, drawing everyone from 20-somethings to grandmothers onto the Chinese-owned video app. But that’s brought the kind of attention TikTok didn’t want — a bigger, more bipartisan fight in Washington and a face-off with the president himself.

The sharpest jab yet came this week, with President Donald Trump saying he is considering banning the app, known for its lighthearted, short-form videos of viral memes and easy-to-learn dance choreography. But Trump’s remark was only the latest in a series of escalating actions against TikTok across the Capitol that have been building throughout the pandemic.

Late last year, it was mostly Senate Republicans and China hawks pushing a piecemeal effort to crack down on TikTok, warning that Beijing-based parent company ByteDance could funnel user data to the Chinese government under a cybersecurity law there, or censor content China disagrees with on the platform. Children’s advocates had a separate concern: the prevalence of kids on the app. The FTC slapped TikTok with a then record-setting fine in February for violating an online children’s privacy law.

The fears around data gathering, censorship and child safety have ballooned during the Covid-19 crisis, picking up fresh support from both parties, both chambers of Congress and directly from Trump — a government backlash that is hitting TikTok from all sides and increasing the likelihood that its U.S. presence will be reined in.

“Do we want to allow a social media platform to really grow and expand in the United States that has ties with the Chinese government [and] that’s been very upfront about its right to censor speech and shape communications in the U.S. if it is against their national interests?” asked Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project, a group that champions stronger antitrust enforcement.