By Catherine Thorbecke, CNN
In July 2020, the same month former President Donald Trump said he would ban TikTok in the United States, Callie Goodwin of Columbia, South Carolina, posted her first video on the app to promote the small business she had started out of her garage during the pandemic.
Inspired by a neighbor dropping off some brownies and a handwritten note for her while she was in quarantine, Goodwin decided to launch a pre-stamped greeting cards company called Sparks of Joy Co. A few months later, a TikTok influencer with some two million followers shared one of Goodwin’s cards on her account and Goodwin saw her business take off.
Goodwin, now 28, told CNN that more than 90% of her orders currently come from people who discover her business through TikTok. “If it were to get banned, I would see business plummeting,” Goodwin told CNN. “I would lose most of my sales.”
For much of the past two years, talk of an outright TikTok ban seemed to recede. TikTok outlasted the Trump administration and only saw its popularity continue to grow. It was the top downloaded app in the United States last year, and remains the top downloaded app year-to-date in 2022, according to data from analytics firm Sensor Tower. In the process, TikTok, which said it had 100 million US users as of 2020, became even more central to American culture and to livelihoods of influencers and business owners like Goodwin.
But suddenly, the future of TikTok in the United States appears more uncertain than at any point since July 2020. A growing number of Republican governors have recently announced bans on TikTok for state employees on government devices, including from multiple states on Thursday alone. State attorneys general and a Republican commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission have each pressured Apple and Google to take tougher measures with the app. And a trio of US lawmakers led by Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, introduced a bill earlier this week that once again seeks to block TikTok in the US due to the parent company’s base in China.
The renewed political scrutiny comes amid a broader, ongoing reckoning over the impact that TikTok and other social media platforms have on their youngest users. There have been recent debates over whether TikTok’s content is age-appropriate for teens as well as fears that its algorithms may lead users to potentially harmful subject matter, including posts related to suicide and eating disorders.
At the same time, TikTok has come under fire in Washington for its ties to China through its parent company. The criticism ramped up earlier this year after a Buzzfeed News report said some US user data has been repeatedly accessed from China, and cited one employee who allegedly said, “Everything is seen in China.” TikTok, for its part, has confirmed US user data can be accessed by some employees in China.
TikTok has been negotiating for years with the US government and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) on a potential deal that addresses the lingering national security concerns and allows the app to continue operating in the United States. Recently, there have been reports of delays in those negotiations.
The tremendous reach of TikTok may only make it harder to ban the service outright, some national security experts say. Even some TikTok critics have hedged on whether a ban is the right approach. Sen. Josh Hawley, who authored a bill to ban TikTok from US government devices, said this week he would be “fine” if the US government and TikTok reached a deal to safeguard US users’ data. “But if they don’t do that,” Hawley said, “then I think we’re going to have to look at more stringent measures.”
As lawmakers have renewed calls for tougher action to be taken with the app, some of its users who have built their livelihoods and found a sense of community on the app say they can’t imagine an America without it.
TikTok now drives culinary habits (including a 200% jump in Feta sales at one grocery store after a baked pasta dish went viral); countless fashion and beauty crazes (from “skin cycling” to “glazed donut nails”), and propels new and old music (including the 1980s song “Break My Stride”) to the top of streaming charts. A significant percentage of US politicians campaigned on the app ahead of the midterm elections. And legacy news organizations like the 176-year-old Associated Press have recently joined TikTok to reach new audiences.
“So many people, myself included, are always on TikTok,” Kahlil Greene, 22, of New Haven, Connecticut, told CNN. “That’s where we get our entertainment from, our news from, our musical taste from, our social inside jokes we make with friends come from memes that started on TikTok.”
Greene, who is known as the “Gen Z historian” across social media, has amassed more than 580,000 followers on TikTok by documenting social and cultural issues. Greene’s following on TikTok even garnered the attention of the Biden administration. Greene was among the handful of TikTokers who were recently invited to a White House press briefing on the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“So much of our culture and lives are driven by TikTok now that it’s not just something you can rip away easily,” he said.
“Too big to fail”
TikTok has simultaneously tried to ease concerns about its impact on Americans and their data while also working to expand its footprint in the country.
The company, which is owned by Beijing-based Bytedance, has committed to moving its US user data to Oracle’s cloud platform and to taking other steps to isolate US user data from other parts of its business. TikTok said last week that it would restructure its US-focused content moderation, policy and legal teams under a special group within the company led by US-based officials and walled off organizationally from other teams focused on the rest of the world.
In response to the bill calling for a ban, a TikTok spokesperson said: “It’s troubling that rather than encouraging the Administration to conclude its national security review of TikTok, some members of Congress have decided to push for a politically-motivated ban that will do nothing to advance the national security of the United States.”
“We will continue to brief members of Congress on the plans that have been developed under the oversight of our country’s top national security agencies—plans that we are well underway in implementing—to further secure our platform in the United States,” the statement added.
The company is also stressing its broad popularity. “TikTok is loved by millions of Americans who use the platform to learn, grow their businesses, and connect with creative content that brings them joy,” the spokesperson said.
Now, the company is taking steps to keep growing its reach. At a time when major tech giants including Meta and Twitter are slashing staff, TikTok is still hiring American engineers. TikTok also appears be to taking aim at a chunk of Amazon’s e-commerce empire by seeking to build out its own warehousing network in the United States, a flurry of recent job postings indicates.
The challenge for the federal government “is it’s almost like TikTok is too big to fail,” said Rick Sofield, a partner at Vinson & Elkins L.L.P., who focuses on national security reviews, export controls and economic sanctions. “I think their minds are made up that ByteDance owning TikTok is a national security concern — the reason that we’ve been hung up is it’s too big to fail, and they’re trying to figure out a soft landing.”
“There’s a whole lot of things I think that would have to happen first, before there’s a ban,” he added.
A livelihood and a lifeline
For Adrianna Wise, 30, TikTok hasn’t just been “essential” for building her bakery in Columbus, Ohio, it’s also been a critical tool that lets her reach young Black and brown people in her community and share knowledge and tips on how to build a business.
“I see the impact that I’m having when I go out into the community and people are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I follow you TikTok,'” Wise, who is co-founder of Coco’s Confectionary Kitchen, told CNN. “I had a little girl a few weeks ago tell me, ‘It was just so cool because you have hair like me, and you’re on TikTok and you have so many views!'”
“A lot of them are learning the skills and the tools they need to be able to create and cultivate their own businesses on platforms like TikTok, if not exclusively on TikTok,” she said.
Goodwin, the Sparks of Joy Co. founder, similarly says a TikTok ban would not only be devastating for her business, but also for her sense of community. She candidly documents her mental health journey via TikTok and has built a support system via the platform. “My best friend in the world right now, I met on TikTok,” she said. “We’re practically family at this point.”
“TikTok is way more than just dancing videos or lip-syncing videos. It really has so many different niches, and you can find community in any of them,” Goodwin told CNN. “So if it were to go away, it would be it would be a great loss.”
Despite the hullaballoo, Greene, the Gen Z historian, says he is not particularly worried about a potential TikTok ban — even though he acknowledges it could cause a hit to his income and sponsorship deals. If anything, he says the folks in government calling for a ban don’t seem to be aware of how central it is to the lives of people in his generation.
“Generally speaking, the side of the argument that’s like super against TikTok, super alarmist about what it means, hasn’t done a great job communicating that message,” he said. Greene views “data privacy concerns” as “more of a buzzword than a tangible fear.”
“We grew up in a generation where our data was always public,” he said, “and we always put our lives on social media.”
Hootie Hurley, 23, a Los Angeles-based full-time creator with more than 1.3 million followers on TikTok, told CNN that he now makes most of his income through his TikTok following. While a ban would be “very scary” for him and his livelihood,” Hurley said he and other TikTok creators are more focused on entertaining their audience than stressing about it — especially after weathering the first ban threats back in 2020.
“If the government ever did ban it,” he said, “everybody would actually be very, very surprised.”
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