Democrats are growing increasingly hostile toward TikTok over its ties to China, appearing to align themselves with more hawkish Republicans who have long called for curbs on the platform.
TikTok is owned by ByteDance, which is based in Beijing, and top U.S. officials have been warning that the technology could be used to pass on U.S. users’ private data to the Chinese government and even influence Americans to benefit China.
Fueling these concerns is the country’s national security law, which requires Chinese companies and those operating within China to share data with its government if requested.
Biden’s top intelligence adviser, Avril Haines, has described the country as America’s “most serious and consequential intelligence rival.”
But any possible ban on TikTok could have political implications for the White House and Democrats at large.
TikTok Gets An Ultimatum
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. is a committee of top Cabinet and intelligence officials who review foreign transactions in American businesses for national security concerns. CFIUS has been trying to broker a deal with the platform for the past two years and has now given TikTok’s Chinese owners an ultimatum: Either sell their stake in the company or risk a nationwide ban in the U.S., according to a Wall Street Journal report published Wednesday.
TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter denied that a sale would meaningfully address security concerns.
“If protecting national security is the objective, divestment doesn’t solve the problem: a change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access,” Oberwetter told the Journal.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Thursday said the administration was letting CFIUS lead the charge on TikTok.
“There’s a process here,” she told reporters. “We try to stay away from that process.”
Caitlin Chin, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told HuffPost it would be much harder this time around to find a buyer for TikTok than it was when then-President Donald Trump tried to force a sale of the company in 2020 citing concerns about the safety of Americans’ data.
Oracle and Walmart had reportedly struck a deal to buy 20% of TikTok at the time, but that agreement fell apart after courts ruled that Trump’s threats to ban TikTok went beyond his authority.
TikTok’s market share and user base have expanded significantly in the years since, meaning that any company that wants to buy the social media giant would need to be even bigger than TikTok, but also be willing to endure the global scrutiny around the technology, Chin explained.
“There are not many companies that both have the resources to buy TikTok and have the economic or the strategic motivation to do so,” Chin added. “And I think that any sale will also potentially raise antitrust concerns, just because the U.S. social media market is so concentrated.”
More Bipartisan Consensus In Congress
Momentum against TikTok has been building in Congress.
Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) last week introduced the Restrict Act, meant to address the threat of technologies created by U.S. foreign adversaries. While the legislation doesn’t specifically target TikTok, it could be used to ban the platform in the U.S. The bill was co-sponsored by 10 senators from both parties, and has also been endorsed by the White House.
“This legislation would provide the U.S. government with new mechanisms to mitigate the national security risks posed by high-risk technology businesses operating in the United States,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement last week.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee has also advanced a bill brought by its chair, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), that would give President Joe Biden more power to take action against TikTok.
How Americans Feel About A Possible TikTok Ban
A new Quinnipiac University national poll released Wednesday found that almost 50% of Americans support a ban on foreign technology, including TikTok.
But crucially, support for a possible ban seems to be split along party lines.
While 64% of Republicans and 50% of independents support a ban, only 39% of Democrats agree with the action.
Just a third (33%) of Americans ages 18-34 would back a ban, the poll found.
During hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this month, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the vice chair, asked top intelligence officials whether the app’s popularity with younger people should stop efforts to curb it.
“Not from my perspective,” replied FBI Director Christopher Wray, who has also been critical of TikTok.
Asked if Democrats should be concerned about alienating young voters if they supported action against TikTok, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), a co-sponsor of Warner’s Senate bill and one of the most vocal critics of the platform in the Democratic Party, said other platforms would fill that gap.
“If we ever get to that point, there are going to be plenty of alternatives,” Bennet told HuffPost on Wednesday.
But in reality, Chin said, users don’t have that many options to go to, given that social media is one of the most consolidated markets in the U.S.
While Instagram’s Reels feature appears to be a close competitor to TikTok, its parent company Meta collects just as much personal information from users, and it would be one of the most direct beneficiaries of action against the Chinese-owned platform.
Chin added that TikTok creators who have amassed a following on the app would have a hard time migrating their communities elsewhere.
How Banning Or Restricting TikTok Could Hurt Democrats
Some Democrats have expressed concern that action targeting TikTok could hurt the party’s standing with younger voters.
While Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo has endorsed the Restrict Act, she previously warned that action specifically against TikTok could hurt the Democratic Party.
“The politician in me thinks you’re gonna literally lose every voter under 35, forever,” she told Bloomberg. “However much I hate TikTok — and I do, because I see the addiction in the bad shit that it serves kids — you know, this is America.”
The White House and Democrats more widely have previously appeared to embrace TikTok.
Biden once invited eight TikTok influencers to the White House and had a one-hour private meeting with them in the lead-up to the midterm elections.
The influencers’ trip to Washington, D.C., was organized by the Democratic National Committee in an effort to turn out voters for the party in November. Apart from the White House visit, the creators met with former President Barack Obama and received a private tour of the U.S. Capitol, among other things.
“We know people listen to trusted messengers, and as an increasing number of young people turn to Instagram, TikTok and other platforms for news and information, we need to engage with the voices they trust directly,” Rob Flaherty, the White House director of digital strategy, told The Washington Post at the time.
But currently the White House appears to think the drawbacks outweigh the benefits.
Still, there are lawmakers who continue to use TikTok.
Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) both post on the platform frequently. Booker has a following of 330,000 people, while Sanders’ count stands at 1.4 million followers.
During an interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation” last month, Booker recognized security issues around TikTok, but did not directly say whether the U.S. should ban it.
Sanders and Booker did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment on a potential ban.
Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) and his Republican opponent Mehmet Oz also actively used TikTok during the 2022 campaign.
The DNC joined TikTok in March 2022 to engage more young voters ahead of the midterms, and also to learn lessons about how to effectively use the platform in future campaigns, according to Axios.
Nell Thomas, a former chief technology officer for the DNC, told Peter Kafka’s “Recode Media” podcast in August 2022 that Democrats were taking several precautions to manage the security risks of using the technology, but that TikTok was crucial to connecting with voters.
“We, at this point, don’t feel like we can ignore the audience that is on TikTok,” Thomas said. “And we think it’s really, really important for Democratic values and wins and successes to be told where people are.”
Chin expects that a TikTok ban would have an effect on 2024 political campaigns given how critical social media has become for voter outreach, and how popular the app is with young Americans.
“If TikTok is banned, it’s just unclear to me how political campaigns will shift their communication strategies in the future to make sure that they’re reaching everybody,” Chin told HuffPost.
Arthur Delaney contributed reporting.