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As states ban TikTok on government devices, evidence of harm is thin

Hilary Gamble, an associate professor at Auburn University at Montgomery in Alabama, had for months seen TikTok as a powerful teaching tool for students in her classes on media and culture. She often punctuated her lessons with TikTok videos from young creators, whose commentary on books, philosophy and current events always felt fresher than textbooks — and which the students, relating to the videos’ language and style, could follow at home.

Then last month, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) announced that TikTok was banned from all state-owned devices due to fears that the app, which is owned by a company based in China, threatened to expose Alabamians to “Chinese infiltration operations.” “Look, I’m no TikTok user,” Ivey, 78, said in an announcement, “but the evidence speaks for itself.”

Auburn banned TikTok from its WiFi network, blocking Gamble from showing anything from an app with more than 100 million U.S. users and an unavoidable presence in modern culture. The university’s 16,000-follower TikTok account also stopped posting videos about school spirit and campus life.

But Gamble’s students quickly figured out that they could still scroll TikTok all they wanted just by hopping onto their phones’ data plans. “They’re rolling their eyes, basically,” she said. “I had a couple students who were like, ‘What? I didn’t know it was banned. I’ve been on it all day.’”

Alabama is one of the more than two dozen states that have banned TikTok on government-owned devices, nearly all of them within the last two months, as part of a snowballing government panic over a wildly popular app best known for its viral jokes and dance routines. On Thursday, Maine became at least the 28th state to ban TikTok on state devices, citing unspecified risks to the “sensitive and confidential data that we are entrusted to protect.”

@diantedj How to shoot diverse skin tones pt 1/2 #filmmaking #photography #art #skincare #filmtok #movietok #cinema #fyp #trending #blackskin ♬ original sound – DiAnte Jenkins

For some students, TikTok videos can feel fresher than textbooks for classroom use. Hilary Gamble used videos like this one, from a filmmaker named DiAnté Jenkins, to teach students how to capture different skin tones on video.

The state officials — and TikTok’s critics in Congress, who are now pushing for a nationwide ban — have offered no evidence for their sweeping claims that the company poses a “clear and present danger” to American fans, perhaps by abusing Americans’ data or skewing its video recommendations in line with the geopolitical goals of the Chinese Communist Party.

But it’s not exactly clear whether the largely symbolic bans are anything more than political grandstanding, given that the number of devices covered in each state is relatively minuscule. At Pennsylvania’s treasury department, officials last month passed a ban covering all of the agency’s devices: 500 laptops and desktops and 40 cellphones. None of the devices had TikTok installed, though two of the phones had installed the app more than two years ago for “research purposes,” a spokesperson told The Washington Post.

In any case, the bans suggest officials are trying to pull TikTok into the center of a culture war over what has become one of the most popular and influential social media platforms in America.

Some tech experts argue that the sudden explosion of the bans, coupled with doubts over TikTok’s actual harm, is more a reflection of government groupthink — and an overreaction to an app they don’t entirely understand.

“This is the U.S. adopting a Chinese attitude toward the internet: We’re going to block things we don’t want you to see because everything’s a national security threat,” said Milton Mueller, a Georgia Institute of Technology professor and co-founder of the Internet Governance Project. “It’s really a dangerous attitude — not just for American values of free expression but for this whole idea of an open and interconnected internet.”

Before the recent ban wave, few states had sought to pass any rules related to TikTok since 2020, when Florida’s department of financial services and Nebraska passed limited device bans during then-president Donald Trump’s failed crusade to outlaw the app nationwide.

That changed suddenly in late November, when South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) ordered the app banned on all devices owned by one of America’s least populous states. South Dakota’s tourism department deleted its 62,000-follower account showing off the state’s natural beauty. So, too, did the state’s public broadcaster and its public universities, which had used the app to share information with a young audience they might not reach anywhere else.

Two months before the ban, Noem had enthusiastically endorsed one of TikTok’s most viral stars, the 7-year-old “Corn Kid,” by designating him South Dakota’s “official Corn-bassador” and tweeting that he had visited “South Dakota’s very own @Corn_Palace!!!”

But after the ban, Noem, an early entrant to the 2024 Republican presidential race, told a Fox News audience that the Chinese government was using TikTok to “destroy the United States of America.”

“Listen, China hates us,” she said. They’re “manipulating their algorithms to gather information on American citizens to use against us. Here in the state of South Dakota, we’ve taken action.”

@doingthings Do you think corn is real? @Recess Therapy ♬ original sound – Doing Things

The viral TikTok star known as Corn Kid was celebrated by South Dakota officials two months before they declared the app a threat.

Noem’s office shared the executive order with the Republican Governors Association, where officials from other statehouses were eager to follow. “The governors are very competitive, so if there’s a good idea in one state, they want to make sure they’re doing it as well,” said one official involved in the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.

Within the next few weeks, more than a dozen other Republican-led states issued similar restrictions. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said his ban would defend the state “against a Chinese government that wields TikTok to attack our way of life.” Maryland issued an “emergency directive” banning the app due to fears of “algorithmic modification to conduct disinformation or misinformation campaigns” and “cyberespionage.”

Several states’ orders closely echoed the ones that had come before it, including Oklahoma’s, which was almost identical to the order Noem had written 750 miles away. Idaho, which said the Chinese government could “control TikTok’s content algorithm” and “perpetrate influence operations,” used many of the same words and phrases that Texas had used a few days before. Some governors’ orders also garbled in the same way the name of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, the cross-government panel, known as CFIUS, that has for three years led negotiations between TikTok and the United States.

A few states expanded the net to cover more than just TikTok. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) banned all apps owned by Chinese entities, specifically calling out 20 Chinese shopping, messaging and social-networking apps, including Ding Ding, Meituan, Qzone, Renren, Tencent QQ, Toutiao, WeChat, Xiaohongshu, Youku and Zhihu. (An official in Ohio’s Department of Administrative Services said the agency didn’t know whether any of the apps had ever been installed.)

Democratic governors in Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, North Carolina and Wisconsin joined their Republican counterparts in calling for bans. And in states where governors did not pass full bans, some agencies passed their own, including Louisiana’s Secretary of State. In West Virginia, the state auditor’s office passed a ban and the agriculture commissioner’s office pledged not to create a TikTok account, given that, as an agency spokesman said, “we are a targeted industry of foreign actors.”

Some public university systems, including in Texas, Georgia and Alabama, have banned the app on campus WiFi networks, going even further than their governors required; students who try to open the app see only, as one student described it, a “perpetual loading screen of doom.” After Idaho enacted a ban, citing the “sinister motives of a foreign government” that “seeks to weaken and manipulate our country,” Boise State University administrators ordered a purge of all traces of TikTok’s logo from campus websites and magazines.

The University of Florida this month told its 58,000 students over email that it was “strongly discouraging” them from using TikTok. A spokesman said the university has also stopped posting to its several TikTok accounts, with a combined 375,000 followers, devoted to campus life, enrollment and sports. Their last videos include students celebrating graduation, recounting school traditions and sharing their favorite study spots.

But it’s unclear how successful the measure will be. One first-year UF student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to affect her school performance, said her classmates had laughed off the email as “so silly” and “out of the blue.”

“I’ve seen a couple of people delete TikTok as a distraction,” she said. “Nobody’s deleting TikTok because the university told them to.”

@ufadmissions Come along for a #DayInTheLife with one of the Student Admissions Officers & see spots on the #UF ♬ original sound – Univ of Florida Admissions

University of Florida has stopped posting to its popular TikTok accounts, including one that offered students a view of campus life.

Some cities have joined the ban rush, including Charlotte, which moved to block TikTok on city-owned phones last month after Republican state lawmakers warned of “a security threat for North Carolina.” Cleveland County, the third-most populous county in Oklahoma, also voted this month to ban TikTok on county devices, with one commissioner telling the Norman Transcript newspaper that they would “not participate in helping the Chinese Communist Party gain access to government information.”

But not every local official has been convinced of the danger. In Rapid City, S.D., city council members this month voted down a TikTok ban proposed by a Republican mayoral candidate, saying the bill — which would have covered 300 city-owned devices — was an unsubstantiated distraction from the actual business of running the city.

“We’ve got housing issues. Crime is increasing. We’ve got city departments, a civic center, a library, a landfill,” councilwoman Laura Armstrong told The Post. “Frankly, we have more important and pressing matters to address.”

After researching TikTok, Armstrong said she had found the discussion devoid of actual evidence. Talking about Chinese surveillance schemes felt like “going down the rabbit hole” toward “media McCarthyism,” she said — a reference to the anti-Communist scare campaigns of the 1950s.

“My dad’s a former police officer and my husband’s an attorney. The need for evidence has been drilled into my head my whole life,” she said. “Those who don’t study history are bound to repeat it.”

To TikTok critics, the bans are a sign that state governments are getting tough on a possible threat. Brendan Carr, a Trump appointee at the Federal Communications Commission who has become the company’s loudest media critic, said the app is a Chinese Communist “propaganda arm” dependent on an “algorithm feeding you content from Beijing” — making it easier to ban than, say, an app like Facebook, in which users build up networks of family and friends.

“Is this thing so important to some segment of young users that we can’t go so far as to ban it?” Carr said. “If anything, TikTok is uniquely situated to be banned without the backlash from the user base. They can just flip over to another short-form social media app.”

But Mueller, the Georgia Tech expert on internet governance, said he has been dismayed to see how much some local lawmakers have been “entirely misled.” After fielding questions about the topic from a state legislator hoping to push his own ban, Mueller began researching the app’s possible risks and came away feeling the panic was overblown.

“We kept asking people: Give us a scenario in how you use TikTok data to threaten our country,” Mueller said. What he heard most often were cinematic, speculative cases — a U.S. intelligence official might have his TikTok viewing patterns used for blackmail, for instance — or the same kinds of threats that arose from every social media app, and which a single app’s arbitrary ban would not resolve.

He cautioned local lawmakers to think through the dangers of the United States — an internet pioneer with some of the world’s strongest protections for free speech — banning a service that tens of millions of Americans use to express themselves, he wrote in a report co-authored by Karim Farhat.

“If nationalistic fears about Chinese influence operations lead to a departure from American constitutional principles supporting free and open political discourse,” he wrote, “we will have succeeded in undermining our system of government more effectively than any Chinese propaganda could do.”

Blocking taxpayer-funded workers from accessing entertainment apps is the kind of rote, bureaucratic micro-decision that information-technology staff often perform without gubernatorial involvement. Federal employees and members of the U.S. military are already banned from using TikTok on government devices.

But some lawmakers hope these bans will mark a step toward a more aggressive goal: banning TikTok for everyone nationwide. A House bill introduced this month by 19 Republicans, including the serial fabulist George Santos (N.Y.), proposes to block federal funding from any “institution of higher education” that refuses to ban the app. And last month, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Reps. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) introduced a bill that would block Americans from using the app they called “digital fentanyl” — likening TikTok to the deadliest drug crisis in American history — and ban any social media company operating from a “country of concern,” a loosely defined list that Congress could change at any time.

These state bans create “more momentum for precipitous change at the federal level … even though very few people are pausing to ask whether they make sense,” said Jon Bateman, a former cyber-strategy director in the Department of Defense who now researches U.S.-China tech policy for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank. “How many bills do you see on the other side, suggesting caution or deeper analysis? When the political energy is so one-sided, it just closes down debate.”

Adam Kovacevich, the founder of Chamber of Progress, a left-leaning tech industry group that counts Facebook parent Meta among its members, said the state bans on TikTok are “low-hanging fruit” for government officials who want to convey their suspicions and show off their political bona fides of being tough on China, critical of tech and protective of American families.

“It’s a low-cost way for a policymaker to express their concern about TikTok without risking blowback,” Kovacevich said. “The one thing that does tend to unite politicians, left and right, is China.”

But Carl Szabo, a vice president at the tech industry group NetChoice, whose members include Meta and TikTok, said the bans have distracted from bigger and more important issues such as the country’s lack of data-privacy and algorithmic-transparency rules that would protect users of every app, not just TikTok. “Some people may consider this attack on TikTok as sufficient to address the bigger conversation that’s not being had,” Szabo said.

“CFIUS is taking its time and doing a deliberate and deep investigation into these accusations,” Szabo added. “Until that information is provided, we shouldn’t use a single company as a punching bag for anger against the Chinese Communist Party.”

He also expressed alarm at the ease with which government officials were citing unspecified national-security concerns to shut down a platform used by tens of millions nationwide.

“You start with one app saying it’s a national-security threat, then it’s another and another, and you don’t know if it’s politically motivated or otherwise,” he said. “That’s why we have the First Amendment. … There’s a danger that comes from the government deciding what is and isn’t protected speech.”

Those worries, however, have not stopped members of Congress from working to ratchet up the pressure against TikTok. Reps. Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi earlier this month urged the TV network ESPN to stop letting TikTok sponsor college-football halftime shows.

Aaron Schaffer contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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