TikTok becomes GOP’s next front in rhetorical war on China

Republican governors stampeding to ban the popular video-sharing service TikTok from state-owned phones and devices are using the app as a way to talk tough on China and the growing cybersecurity threat it poses to the United States. 
(AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)

Republican governors stampeding to ban the popular video-sharing service TikTok from state-owned phones and devices are using the app as a way to talk tough on China and the growing cybersecurity threat it poses to the United States. 

The governors are succeeding where former President Donald Trump, who tried to ban the app in 2020, failed.

“You will never lose votes by taking on China, ever,” said Matt Gorman, a Washington, D.C.-based Republican strategist. 

Republicans have opened several fronts in a rhetorical war on China and its communist regime. Leading Republican officials like South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) are targeting Chinese entities that purchase American farmland. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced an executive order prohibiting public agencies from procuring technology or services from companies in China or other “foreign countries of concern.”

In Texas, state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R) this month introduced legislation to bar individuals and companies from China, Russia, Iran and North Korea from purchasing property. In a ban targeting TikTok announced late Friday, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) also placed limits on WeChat, a social media and payment processing site developed by the Chinese tech giant Tencent.

TikTok is a high-profile target. Ranked earlier this year as the world’s most downloaded app, it has an estimated 85 to 100 million users in the U.S., including hordes of teens who are drawn to the site’s short, viral dance videos — and content that some Republicans warn is more explicit and dangerous. 

It is TikTok’s connection to China, through its parent company ByteDance, that has drawn scrutiny from government officials and backlash from politicians.

Earlier this month, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that the Chinese government could access user data and influence content on the site. 

In November, Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr called for a ban on TikTok, citing concerns about U.S. data. Previously, Carr had urged Google and Apple to remove TikTok from their app stores.

TikTok says it has taken steps to protect U.S. user data, including storing that data on servers in the United States and Singapore. Earlier this year, the company announced it was migrating “100% of US user traffic” to Oracle Cloud Infrastructure servers.

But a series of media reports in recent months have called into question the independence of TikTok’s U.S. operations and even raised the specter of TikTok tracking individual U.S. citizens — reports that have given Republicans ammunition in their drive to vilify the social media behemoth. 

In statements, TikTok has insisted the app has never been used to “target” individuals and that it does not collect the precise location of U.S. users. The company also rejected the suggestion that it is susceptible to Chinese government interference and said it will continue to brief state and federal officials on its efforts to secure the platform.   

“We’re disappointed that so many states are jumping on the political bandwagon to enact policies based on unfounded falsehoods about TikTok that will do nothing to advance the national security of the United States,” said Jamal Brown, a TikTok spokesperson. 

In announcing their bans, Republican governors have abandoned nuance in favor of sweeping assertions that TikTok is a tool for China to spy on Americans. 

“The communist Chinese government can use TikTok to collect critical information from our state and federal government,” Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R) said in a statement announcing his state’s ban.

Similarly, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) warned in a letter laying out his ban that “TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices — including when, where, and how they conduct Internet activity — and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government.”

TikTok said it does not track users’ keystrokes or share U.S. user data with the Chinese Communist Party or Chinese government. The company also noted the governors have not cited specific intelligence to suggest the company has done anything wrong.

Still, the TikTok bans have spread like wildfire in recent weeks. Republican governors in at least a dozen states have issued decrees, some of which go beyond just TikTok. 

While some state agencies, public universities and athletic programs have TikTok accounts, the Republican governors have not claimed that the app is in wide use on state networks. Some Democrats have suggested the bans are mostly political theater. 

“I’d say this seems to be more of a headline-grabber than it is an actual policy decision,” Oklahoma state Rep. Forrest Bennett (D) told local media.

In addition to the bans, a dozen Republican attorneys general recently sent letters to Apple and Google demanding they raise TikTok’s age rating on their app stores. Also this month, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita (R) filed a pair of lawsuits against TikTok accusing the company of being a “Chinese Trojan Horse” that doesn’t adequately protect user data and lures children to its site where they are apt to encounter inappropriate material. 

“It’s a blitz to make certain that we take it seriously,” said Zack Roday, a Virginia-based Republican strategist, of the multi-pronged attack on TikTok. 

John Wittman, a Texas-based public affairs consultant who previously served as Abbott’s communications director, said the state-level bans are an easy thing for Republican governors to do and draw attention to an issue they care about. 

“Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s also a good move politically,” Wittman said. 

The bans are also likely just a first step. In a letter to Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) and Speaker of the House Dade Phelan (R), Abbott said he “stands ready” to assist the legislative branch in enacting cybersecurity reforms in 2023, including passage of a law codifying his ban

“This legislative session, we must pass legislation to safeguard our state against threats like TikTok,” Abbott wrote. 

Lawmakers in at least two states, Virginia and Georgia, have already announced plans to introduce bills to restrict TikTok.

While Republican governors and attorneys general have spearheaded the recent assault on TikTok, Democrats are not uniformly opposed to the idea. Only one Democratic governor — New York’s Kathy Hochul (D) — has barred the app from state devices. U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) joined Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in sponsoring a measure to ban the app altogether.

The Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic Attorneys General Association did not respond to a request for comment. 

There is a history of bipartisan concern about TikTok. In March, a group of Republican and Democratic attorneys general announced an investigation into TikTok’s impact on youth. And on Wednesday, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to ban the app from devices owned by the federal government. 

In a brief interview, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) told Pluribus News he had not been briefed by his cybersecurity advisors about any specific concerns related to TikTok, but he acknowledged the threat China poses. 

“I think there’s a legitimate concern about access to our technology in China today, given their aggressive activities,” Inslee said. “It’s something we definitely need to be aware of.”