In its haste to ban TikTok, Congress is embarrassing itself — again | Heather MacDonald

Washington’s efforts to protect teenagers read like efforts by people who have never met an actual teenager

March 28, 2023 6:30 am
A view of the TikTok app on an iPhone screen.

(Getty Images)

On March 15, President Joe Biden publicly gave popular social media app TikTok an ultimatum:  Sell to an American company or face a nationwide ban. 

Two days later, Biden appeared in a TikTok, filmed inside the White House, with singer Niall  Horan, and within minutes, the 19 second video got 3.1 million views. 

The majority of those views likely came from GenZ users as that demographic makes up 60% of  TikTok’s user base according to Pew Research. 60% is also how much Biden won the 18–24- year-old vote in the 2022 election. 

This has created the perfect case study of our nation’s political past and future colliding. 

Old Man Yells at Cloud 

Last week, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew spent nearly 6 hours testifying before a Congressional  committee so spectacularly out of their technological depth that it would be funny if it weren’t  so frustrating. We learned that we have Congressmembers who clearly do not know how WIFI works, have never seen a funny filter, and generally couldn’t spell algorithm let alone question a tech CEO on the inner workings of an app that has 150 million American users. 

It is possible to look stupid in a bipartisan manner, and the hearing’s panel proved this by members from both parties taking turns conflating separate issues like content moderation, data-mining, and  social media’s effects on mental health. Other Reps simply called the app Tic Tac. 

Most infuriating was the pointless spectacle. Unable to grasp the necessary technological know-how to provide value, the more shameless on the panel resorted to using the hearing to  get the perfect sound bite to show off their digital nationalism. Others cried out on behalf of  America’s children that banning a social media app was, in a country suffocating with gun  violence, what would save them. This was a mistake. 

Oh, Honey, No 

Undoubtedly, those who put on a show for the camera assumed that snippets of their faux  outrage would air on Fox News in an anti-China, anti-woke segment. What these politicians  failed to grasp is that the topic of discussion that day was an app where sound bites have the  ability to be weaponized.  

The backlash to the hearing was immediate with TikTok itself serving as the platform of choice for Gen Z and Millennials air their multifaceted grievances. The confident stupidity of the  politicians made it easy for thousands of videos of their fumbling questions to quickly rack up  millions of views.

Pa. Senate approves bill banning TikTok on state devices, networks

Otherwise unknown congressmen were trending by name. Some viewers  laughed until they cried at U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter’s, R-Ga., childlike insistence that TikTok’s  algorithm relied on pupils dilating to know what videos to suggest to users.

Others did a deep  dive on which members of Congress owned stock in TikTok’s competitors including U.S. Sen. Mark  Warner, D-Va., our wealthiest senator with a net worth of nearly $300 million, who just so happens to  be the one who introduced the Senate’s version of the bill to ban TikTok.

Others pointed out the irony of a congress that couldn’t be bothered to meaningfully address issues like student loan debt, gun  violence, climate change, or healthcare now churning out a pitiful performance of caring about  the youth. 

Generational disillusionment with government is nothing new.

Each generation has its own  signature way to protest. What is new is that pure idealism is not enough to silence today’s  youth especially on topics of technology. The technologically illiterate making rules for the most  tech-savvy generation is a problem we are just now being forced to navigate. 

Some college campuses that have instituted bans on TikTok to which students laugh, turn off  the school’s WIFI, and continue to scroll. This week Utah’s governor signed into law two bills  addressing children and their social media use, one of which imposes a social media “curfew” from 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.

While these bills attempt to address the very real need for kids to be protected, they must have been written by people who have never met a teenager.

Even the  well-meaning provision forcing apps to cease advertisements to children goes about it in the  wrong way. Instead of policing the data-miners themselves, the state now wants social media  companies to somehow perfectly verify the age of its users. How this will happen in practice is  anyone’s guess.  

Wasted Opportunity 

The scrutiny of TikTok in Washington was a wasted opportunity. National security is a worthy  topic of discussion, and much of the spotlight on TikTok originated from fears that an app with  ties to China could easily be compromised. China has in the past been blatant in its efforts to  obtain, even through theft, American’s data with the Equifax breach being a great example of  this. 

Therein lies a nuanced distinction that Congress could never grasp: the differentiation of data. 

Social security numbers and credit card info are the type of data we go out of our way to keep  private while much of the data utilized by social media companies is public. More than that,  the content that younger generations provide these social media platforms is curated, selected,  and hand delivered to the public sphere where mass consumption is the goal.  

GenZ is the first generation to be raised with technology from the start.

To assume they do not  have a deeply nuanced and deeply personal relationship with tech is foolish.

What is being  horribly missed by these politicians is that the younger generations are not merely observing or reflecting on historical events like previous generations, they are connected all day every day, their news feeds are personalized, their experiences are validated, and the things they care  about are deeply known to them. The main page of TikTok is literally called the For You Page  (FYP).  

The algorithm is a reflection of themselves, why wouldn’t they like it? This was all specifically designed for them, and data is an extension of who they are. They understand the tradeoff. Is there tension between an inherent desire for privacy and the desire to be seen? Sure. Does  this generation rail against the idea of control like every generation before them? Of course. But it is a doomed strategy to underestimate this generation’s fearsome certainty in their autonomy. 

What They will Remember 

Biden appearing on TikTok less than 48 hours after publicly demonizing the company is the type  of hypocrisy that, humorous ridicule on TikTok aside, will also create lasting damage. In the  2022 election, the DNC had obviously done its research.

Not only could they conclude that after  2016, GenZ was voting in increasingly large numbers, but also that TikTok was their platform of  choice. Obama popped up in popular TikToker’s videos in a GOTV blitz.

U.S. Sen John Fetterman, D-Pa., expertly utilized trending sounds to rapidly rack up 240k followers and 3.6 million likes. Gov. Josh Shapiro was  constantly shooting hoops, and Bernie Sanders is verified with more than 10 million likes. 

It is disingenuous to court voters on TikTok only to demonize one of their preferred platforms for communication. The youth vote undoubtedly impacted the outcome in our last election,  and it is arrogant to think you do not have to meet them where they are. 

It is also infantilizing to assume they won’t see through the spectacle. So Congress has an  undying need to protect their data, but they are going to choose an a la carte solution of  singling out one app while Meta, Twitter, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft take a breather from  the spotlight?

Many seem to recall millions of American women deleting their period tracking  apps in the wake of the overturning of Roe v Wade because of their fear of the American  government accessing their data. 

This hearing took place during the same week as the anniversary of the founding of March for  Our Lives. This hearing took place the same week that Biden green-lit Project Willow, an oil  drilling project in Alaska. The Delaware River was poisoned this weekend putting the tap water  of a million Philadelphians at risk, and can’t afford to fund school lunch programs, but a 6-hour congressional hearing is supposed to provide substance.

Undeserved outrage towards an app is  an insult when issues like these go unaddressed. 

National Security Agency Director Gen. Paul Nakasone flippantly commented, “The American youth say they are  constantly on TikTok. I’d say that is a loaded gun.”

Making an analogy of banning a  metaphorical gun to a generation of children raised doing active shooter drills is deeply  offensive and spectacularly tone deaf.

Political theater is lost on a generation of children who know too much. The potential of a data  breach or billionaire tech lords fighting over who owns said data simply does not move them. 

No one is thrilled with their every move being scrutinized, packaged, and sold to companies  who wish to influence them but attempting to separate one social media company from the  rest clearly does not solve this.

They are unswayed by the unsubstantiated theory that a foreign  government will infiltrate their psyches via propaganda between the cat videos. A hypothetical risk pales in comparison to the realities of being crushed by student loan debt and being  achingly frustrated with growing inequality.

They are unfazed by the bombast and thankfully  have long memories which will not bode well for any member of Congress who dares to come dance  on their app after wasting their time.

Until then, they will take their cues from people like U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.,  who understood that in order to effectively communicate the pros and cons of TikTok, she  would need to create an account … on TikTok. Her first and only video on the app is up to 3.5  million views and counting.

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Heather MacDonald
Heather MacDonald

Opinion contributor Heather MacDonald, of Camp Hill, Pa., is a co-founder of The Good Trouble Project, a central Pennsylvania real estate agent, and a former Democratic candidate for the 103rd House District.