Banning TikTok Is a Terrible Idea

Large numbers of both Republican and Democratic officials, including Joe Biden, are indicating their support of a measure to ban TikTok. It’s a nonsensical idea born of elite mistrust of ordinary people.

The TikTok logo is displayed outside TikTok offices on March 12, 2024 in Culver City, California. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)

As outrage at the Israeli war on Gaza and US backing for it continues to grow, US politicians have responded calmly and reasonably with a measure that threads a fine line between advocating for the US government’s position on the war and respecting the intelligence and basic rights of ordinary Americans.

Just kidding. They’ve put forward an idea that stands to anger large swaths of the public and massively encroach on ordinary Americans’ right to free speech, all while having little to no effect on US voters’ growing repugnance toward Israel’s war: banning TikTok.

This censorious idea has been pushed by conservatives for years and was recently given renewed momentum with a bill set to be voted on in the House this week, and President Joe Biden pledging to sign it into law. In the eyes of the forces backing the measure, banning TikTok in the United States would be an easy way to fix what the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Jonathan Greenblatt referred to in a leaked phone call the “major, major, major generational problem” that the pro-war, pro-Israel side faces, where the divide over US support for Israel “is not left and right, it is young and old” — a divide that can be seen perhaps most clearly on the video-sharing service.

Since Israel began its systematic razing of Gaza five months ago, many other pro-Israel voices have insisted that the reason survey after poll after questionnaire shows young people are by far the most unsympathetic to Israel and critical of its war is simply because of TikTok.

“Oct. 7 really opened people’s eyes to what’s happening on TikTok” and its “differential treatment of different topics,” Democratic Illinois representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, one of the cosponsors of the ban, recently said.

Sure enough, last November, twenty-five Republican lawmakers signed a letter to TikTok CEO Shou Chew charging that a “deluge of pro-Hamas content” on the platform “is driving hateful antisemitic rhetoric and violent protests on campuses across the country.”

Calling for a ban, Republican Missouri senator Josh Hawley claimed there’s a “ubiquity of anti-Israel content on TikTok,” while Republican Florida senator Marco Rubio, who has introduced his own TikTok ban bill into the Senate, called it “a tool China uses to spread propaganda to Americans” that was now “being used to downplay Hamas terrorism,” among other Republican senators. Republican Wisconsin representative Mike Gallagher, the other cosponsor of the House ban, charged that TikTok was what was giving young Americans “the raw news” that gave them an “upside-down world view” to root “against a key American ally.”

As on immigration, the White House has accepted the Republicans’ framing of this issue. A spokesperson for Biden’s National Security Council recently told Rolling Stone that TikTok poses a threat to US national security “through the manipulation by foreign powers of Americans’ views and beliefs.”

This Republican-led push for censorship has been reinforced by behind-the-scenes pressure from pro-war celebrities, Zionist groups like the ADL, and tech executives like the former executive of dating app Tinder Jeff Morris Jr, who is “convinced” TikTok “is the reason we’re losing the information war with high school & college students.” All of them have pressed TikTok to censor more pro-Palestine content.

“What is happening at TikTok is it is creating the biggest antisemitic movement since the Nazis,” Borat actor Sacha Baron Cohen told TikTok executives on one of these calls. Former Will and Grace actress Debra Messing pushed them to simply bar the phrase “from the river to the sea” from the platform entirely. For start-up founder Anthony Goldbloom, who organized the come-to-Jesus meeting with forty tech leaders, the fact that pro-Palestinian content was so popular on the platform “just seemed crazy” and was simply inexplicable.

This panic has mingled with the escalating and increasingly hysterical anti-China fervor building in Washington, with Republicans viewing TikTok’s supposed promotion of anti-Israel content as part of a grand Chinese conspiracy to “brainwash” young Americans and sow political discord within the United States. The result is the House bill, which effectively gives ByteDance, TikTok’s partly Chinese-headquartered parent company, a less-than-six-month ultimatum: either sell the app, or be booted off US app stores.

“If they pass it, I’ll sign it,” said Biden, whose press secretary called the bill “important” and something “we welcome.”

Let’s not mince words about what this is: an extreme attempt at state censorship whose aim is to shut down Americans’ ability to dissent from currently unfolding US foreign policy, driven explicitly by elite fear at a rapidly growing antiwar protest movement that has largely succeeded in persuading the US public.

A Classic Case of Wartime Censorship

Pro-war voices’ certainty that simply banning TikTok will halt the Israeli war’s growing unpopularity with voters smacks of a combination of wishful thinking and moral deficiency. Because they are personally unbothered by the hideous images and news of human slaughter emerging daily from Gaza, the pro-censorship side assumes that only mass hypnosis could explain the outpouring of basic humanity triggered in response. Personally numb to this horror and having lost the battle for public opinion, the war’s supporters are desperate for “one weird trick” to swing mass opinion back their way — and, like all warmongers through history, they’ve settled on curtailing people’s ability to freely speak and share ideas as the way to do it.

But the irony is that banning TikTok, as authoritarian and menacing as it would certainly be, won’t do what they want it to. The fact is that the same chasm in popularity of pro-Palestinian versus pro-Israel content can be seen across all social media platforms, even those that have a history of censoring pro-Palestinian speech. While there’s no doubt social media plays a role here, by letting internet users bypass traditional media gatekeepers and get and share news about the war from independent outlets, it also reflects a very real generational divide on, and a decline in support for, Israel that existed long before TikTok came along, and whose roots are deeper than any social media platform.

That doesn’t mean this move doesn’t pose a threat to Americans’ basic freedoms, though. Gallagher claims the move isn’t really a ban, because “as long as ByteDance no longer owns the company, TikTok can continue to survive” — though, to be clear, he also flatly said it was “time to ban TikTok” a few months before introducing the bill.

But we also know what Washington’s plans are once ownership of the platform passes to hands more favorable to US politicians. Documents leaked last year revealed the Biden administration had demanded from TikTok that, in exchange for being allowed to keep operating in the United States, it hand the US government total access to its users’ data and other information, control over its privacy and content moderation policies, and even the power to temporarily shut down the platform — in other words, the exact powers of “propaganda and censorship” that China hawks complain Beijing has over TikTok’s content.

This is the latest iteration of the undercurrent of contempt toward ordinary voters that has become central to political elites’ worldview, especially since 2016. For those first few years, the consensus in Washington was that if the American people held any views contrary to their elected overlords — whether opposing fracking, being critical of Wall Street, aversion to war and police brutality, or voting for Trump — it had to be because they were tricked into it by Russia over Facebook. The push to ban TikTok shows this mindset is alive and well.

Political Malpractice

The Republican enthusiasm for this isn’t surprising. Aside from a brief period on a few select issues, the Right has always been by far the most censorious force in US politics, demanding the power to stop people from being able to say, think, feel, or live how they choose, often on the same spurious grounds of protecting national security.

For the Biden White House, the impetus is a little more confusing. The president is currently heading into a reelection campaign as the most unpopular leader in nearly seventy years, in no small part thanks to his dismal standing among voters under thirty-five years old — tens of millions of whom are active users of TikTok. Biden has already angered the left-leaning young voters with his unconditional support for Israel’s war; now he’s toying with alienating even the apolitical members of this cohort, who will wake up one day to find they’ve lost access to their favorite app because of something the president did — and at the same time that his election opponent has backtracked and now publicly opposes a ban, and when public support for the move has plummeted.

There are layers upon layers to the nonsensical and politically irrational nature of this idea. The good news is that even if it passes the House this week, it still has an uphill road in the Senate. The bad news is that, unlike this bill, the bipartisan hysteria and antipopulism among the political elite that it reflects is very much here to stay.