Treating TikTok like a Trojan horse | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Treating TikTok like a Trojan horse

Congress weighs free speech against national security

Supporters of banning TikTok in front of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

Treating TikTok like a Trojan horse

Dan Schneider, vice president of the Media Research Center, was in China in 1989 when the People’s Liberation Army rolled its column T-54 tanks into Tiananmen Square and reestablished control at the end of a barrel. Today, Schneider thinks the tools for control can be more subtle—like a video-sharing social media platform.

“Like so many things the Chinese Communist Party is up to, they are trying to exploit every possible weakness with TikTok,” Schneider said. “There are serious national security implications.”

TikTok doesn’t have a 100 mm cannon or armor plating. What it does have is 150 million American users—roughly 40 percent of the U.S. population. Because ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, is based in China, Schneider thinks that Congress should take steps to ban the app altogether, citing data security concerns. If there’s a possibility the Chinese Communist Party uses TikTok for its strategic advantage, he said, the United States should consider it a threat.

I asked Schneider to clarify what that strategic advantage might look like. He said he wasn’t sure, but he postulated that the app could be used to predict human behavior. For him, the CCP’s potential involvement is all he needs to know he doesn’t want anything to do with the app.

Schneider isn’t alone in that conclusion. Last month, U.S. senators introduced a bill designed either to force the app out of U.S. markets or to compel its sale to a U.S.-based company. But despite a rare unified front in Congress, lawmakers won’t get far unless they carefully tailor a ban that avoids running afoul of First Amendment protections that would nullify the legislation.

The United States has banned overseas technology before due to security concerns. In 2019, it blacklisted the Chinese tech company Huawei, in part due to concerns that the Chinese government could spy on Americans through the technology. But no ban has so directly taken away a platform for expression like TikTok. In a letter to Congress opposing a ban, PenAmerica, a free speech advocacy group, urged lawmakers to consider the large number of Americans who use the app to “livestream, promote a small business, share their creative work, connect with family,” and more.

The app, it argues, is more than just another piece of software; it’s a key way Americans consume and spread information.

In its current form, the proposed bill instructs the Commerce Department to notify the president of online products and services controlled by states designated as “foreign adversaries.” The secretary of commerce may also, in consultation with the director of national intelligence, apply or strike the designation. From there, the president would have the power to remove the technology. It would lower the bar for banning not just TikTok, but also technologies that raise similar concerns.

President Joe Biden has said he would sign the bill if it passed.

Jonathon Hauenschild, a policy counsel at the Lincoln Network, said that to avoid breaching the broad protections of the First Amendment, the legislation has to focus on specific national security concerns.

“When you start singling out apps or a specific country, you do start running into First Amendment concerns,” Hauenschild said. “What you need is a [ban] that is conduct-focused rather than content-focused.”

Specifically, Hauenschild says the act would have to circumvent the Berman amendments—a Cold War–era component of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act that prevents the banning of informational material from a foreign rival. It was originally created to protect the exchange of art, literature, and academic information.

“The idea was [Congress] was going to protect the free exchange of ideas,” Hauenschild said. “Now in the information age, you have hostile nation states that would use computer programming, which is a form of information, as a way to engage in a form of combat against—not the nation—but engage in asymmetric warfare against the American populace.”

Those security concerns prompted Isabella DeLuca to leave the app. As a political advocate with TurningPoint USA and content creator on social media, she originally adopted TikTok to grow her audience along with her accounts on Instagram and Twitter.

“TikTok is currently the most downloaded app in the world,” DeLuca said. “I think its popularity is mainly because of its attractiveness towards young people. In a world where everyone wants to be famous, everyone has their shot on TikTok.”

That assessment changed when she heard that China could be a part of the picture.

“I had heard that TikTok was CCP spyware, but I wasn’t sure what that meant. As a sister of someone who is serving in the Navy, I worry about China and where we are headed. … I don’t want any part of what they offer so long as I can help it,” DeLuca said.

Leo Briceno

Leo is a WORLD politics reporter based in Washington, D.C. He’s a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and has a degree in political journalism from Patrick Henry College.


This keeps me from having to slog through digital miles of other news sites. —Nick

Sign up to receive The Stew, WORLD’s free weekly email newsletter on politics and government.

Please wait while we load the latest comments...