I don’t buy it. And I’ll explain why you shouldn’t either.
The list of governors who’ve banned the social media platform includes Texas’ Greg Abbott, Alabama’s Kay Ivey, Maryland’s Larry Hogan, Utah’s Spencer Cox, North Dakota’s Kristi Noem, South Carolina’s Henry McMaster and Nebraska’s Pete Ricketts, who did so in 2020. They cited security concerns about undue influence by China’s government, which owns TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance.
For the record, TikTok does pose some legitimate security concerns — and you can read up on some of them in previous ReidOut Blog posts here and here. And just today, right-wing Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida teamed up with Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., to try to pass legislation to ban the company in the U.S. because of concerns over foreign influence.
What isn’t clear, though, is how these security issues are materially different from issues on social platforms Republicans tend to love these days — like Twitter and Facebook.
Both of those platforms, for example, have well-documented histories of being used by foreign governments to manipulate and demoralize Americans. Whistleblowers from both companies have come forward with damning claims. If the GOP were concerned about influence from foreign governments, you’d think more of them would decry the fact that the Saudis have openly touted their investment in Elon Musk’s Twitter.
Curiously, there isn’t a similar wave of bans targeting Facebook or Twitter. So, what’s the difference for Republicans? Political influence, it seems.
Twitter was briefly a target of right-wing angst after the platform instituted basic moderation measures to block some of the most vile hate speech on the site. But now that right-wing Musk is at the helm, and a lot of the worst hate speech has returned, they’ve deified the man. Similarly, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, has reportedly placed right-wingers in leadership and given them influence over content moderation in an effort to make the site more favorable to conservatives.
According to The Washington Post, Meta officials even hired GOP strategists to malign TikTok, with claims that the platform is a threat to America — language mirroring the Republican governors’.
But fundamentally, Republicans haven’t been able to wield the same influence over TikTok as they have with Facebook and Twitter. This isn’t to say the platform is exclusively liberal: There are plenty of right-wing trolls on TikTok, too. But Republicans haven’t been able to place their thumbs on the moderation scale as they’d like.
And that’s been to their own political peril, as right-wing strategist Newt Gingrich says plainly here (before suggesting Republicans may “abolish” TikTok).
In fact, TikTok has been used in recent years to wage some of the most effective public demonstrations against right-wing figures.
That list includes the time TikTokers said they gobbled up tickets to attend a 2020 Trump rally and intentionally never showed. And the time TikTok users trolled Trump’s “voter fraud” hotline with prank calls. And the time activists on TikTok owned right-wing Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin by flooding an inbox he created for parents to snitch on teachers.
Again, this shouldn't be read as a ringing endorsement of TikTok. You should still carry a healthy skepticism of the platform (and all social platforms, really). But you should also be skeptical of the reasons Republicans want to ban it.