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Could spying accusations spell an end for TikTok in the US?

Lawmakers have also criticised the app’s addictive algorithm, comparing it to ‘digital fentanyl’ – now, they’re calling for an outright ban

TikTok has a fraught relationship with US authorities. From President Donald Trump proposing an outright ban in 2020, to lawmakers constantly warning about the platform’s problems with fake news and harmful content, the ByteDance-owned company has been walking on thin ice in the US since it rose to prominence via viral dance challenges, cute dog videos, and a new generation of online personalities. Now, a fresh wave of opposition sees the platform under threat once again.

Earlier this week, the Republican politician Mike Gallagher said that he believes TikTok should be banned across America. Why is that significant? Because Gallagher was recently appointed to chair a new committee on China, which will – among other issues – decide how much of a threat the video-sharing app poses.

Of course, we’ve heard plans to ban TikTok before, including Trump’s ill-fated effort, which was reversed by Joe Biden in the wake of his inauguration. This time, though, the concerns seemingly stretch across party lines, and action has already been taken to limit access for some Americans – namely, government officials who might be susceptible to spying.

Below, we’ve gathered everything you need to know about the looming ban. What is the US government so scared of? Are US TikTokers really going to have to call it quits, and migrate to a different platform? Can a US buyout save the day?


Last month, TikTok was under fire for its addictive algorithm that, in pursuit of more views and engagement, has been caught feeding harmful content to vulnerable users, including young teenagers. Gallagher echoed these criticisms over the weekend, telling the press that he calls TikTok “digital fentanyl” because “it’s highly addictive and destructive”, citing “troubling data” about social media’s impact on frequent users.

Looking past the extreme language, it’s no surprise to hear that TikTok, like most social media platforms, is inherently addictive. Nor is it a surprise to hear a Republican lawmaker stoking fears about young people and youth culture. Some more shocking accusations, however, revolve around claims that the app is being used to spy on US citizens for the big bad Chinese Communist Party.

“TikTok is owned by ByteDance; ByteDance is effectively controlled by the [Chinese Communist Party],” says Gallagher. “So, we have to ask whether we want the CCP to control what is on the cusp of becoming the most powerful media company in America.” Basically, it’s a Red Scare for Gen Z.


In a statement, ByteDance says that Gallagher’s comments about its links to the CCP contain “zero truth”. “The Chinese Communist Party has neither direct nor indirect control of ByteDance or TikTok,” the company adds. “ByteDance is a private, global company, nearly 60 per cent of which is owned by global institutional investors, with the rest owned primarily by the company’s founders and its employees – including thousands of Americans.”

That being said, TikTok has previously been accused of censoring content that is deemed sensitive by the Chinese government. In 2019, a teen was blocked after she posted a video criticising China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims. The same year, leaked documents revealed that TikTok censored videos that mentioned Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, banned religious groups, or certain world leaders who didn’t align with China’s foreign policy interests. US companies would never... right?

In December 2022, TikTok also admitted to spying on journalists – including improperly looking at their IP addresses – in an effort to identify anonymous sources, walking back categorical denials of the allegations when they were first made.


A significant motion of no confidence in TikTok came in late December, when the app was banned from all electronic devices managed by the US House of Representatives “due to a number of security risks”. President Biden has since signed an official ban on the use of TikTok by almost four million employees working for the federal government – with some exceptions for law enforcement and research purposes – albeit as part of a huge spending bill.

Since tensions arose in 2020, the US government has also been negotiating with TikTok to resolve national security concerns and avoid a nationwide ban. So far, the company has “walled off” US user data from other parts of the business, but apparently it hasn’t gone far enough.


Besides the banning of TikTok on devices used by federal government staff, more than a dozen US states have taken action to stop their employees from scrolling TikTok on their work phones. With increasing hostility from both Republicans and Democrats, is it possible that the US could go TikTokless in the near future? And, if so, what can be done to save it?

Well, TikTok has already made some efforts to quell US fears, by reassuring users that their data is safe and that content can’t be influenced by the CCP, and by pledging to open itself up to outside scrutiny. According to Gallagher, though, the solution could lie in selling TikTok to an American company. “What we don’t want is some quasi-solution,” he adds, “where there’s a data centre in Singapore, but the CCP and ByteDance effectively retains control.” 

Now we’re just left with one difficult question: would we rather have a TikTok owned by a desperate billionaire like Elon Musk, or no TikTok at all?