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Why do so many conservatives want to ban TikTok?

According to the app’s right-wing critics, TikTok is threatening national security by spreading ‘woke’ ideology

For many conservatives today, TikTok provides a convenient narrative. Any time you arrive at an opinion they don’t like, it’s because you have been brainwashed by the Chinese and their deliberate efforts to pollute the minds of young people with radical propaganda. This conspiracy to destroy the West is the only plausible explanation for why you might have arrived at crazy notions like “minority groups deserve rights” or “war crimes are bad”. The idea that conservative viewpoints are out-of-touch and unpopular, or that you might’ve come to a different conclusion based on evidence and your own principles, is way too far-fetched. You have been duped and hoodwinked by a video-sharing app, which means all of your opinions are void.

The anti-TikTok backlash has been playing out for a while now, and there have already been several attempts to legislate against the platform, including a state-wide ban in Montana which is due to be enacted next January. This campaign has mostly been driven by mounting tension between the US and China, but concerns about national security are being used as a pretext for a much wider assault on progressive politics. TikTok, according to its right-wing detractors, is in large part to blame for the scourge of “wokeness”.

Over the last month, the debate about TikTok has come to the fore again in relation to the ongoing war against Gaza. Several politicians in the UK and the US have called for the app to be banned outright over its alleged pro-Palestine bias. Senator Marco Rubio claimed that it is “a tool China uses to … downplay Hamas terrorism”, New Jersey governor and Presidential candidate Chris Christie argued that it is “polluting the minds of American young people all throughout this country, and [...] doing it intentionally,” and Tory MP Alicia Kearns said that “TikTok is fast becoming a platform for misinformation at best, and extremist-glorifying content at worst, regarding the current conflict in the Middle East.” It’s true that social media has been a source of rampant misinformation over the last month (some of it coming from the IDF’s official Twitter account), but the argument that TikTok has been uniquely bad is less convincing. 

As evidence of the platform’s bias, right-wing critics of TikTok have pointed to the fact that the number of videos using the hashtag ‘FreePalestine’ is much higher than those using ‘StandWithIsrael’, even though a similar disparity can be seen on Facebook, Instagram and X. Responding to these allegations, TikTok wrote in a blogpost that hashtags are a “flawed and misrepresentative” way of analysing activity on the platform, that its algorithm does not take sides, and that the company is taking additional steps to moderate content.

“We can try to create a better internet while still recognising that it’s cynical and ridiculous for politicians to intervene because information is getting out that they don’t like” – Vincent Bevins

According to TikTok, videos with the ‘StandWithIsrael’ hashtag, while fewer in number, are actually being viewed at a higher rate in the US. At the same time, young people in the US (and elsewhere) have shown consistently high support for Palestine for years, so it makes sense that pro-Palestine content would be well-represented on a platform which is most popular among this demographic. The level of support is also surely tied to the content which people are seeing, which can’t all be dismissed as misinformation. As the human cost of the Israeli military’s assault on Gaza becomes clear, and countless videos emerge which show dead Palestinians and their grieving families, it’s unsurprising that more and more people are calling for a ceasefire – it’s a rational response, rather than a bizarre phenomenon which can only be explained by the sinister machinations of the Chinese government.

“TikTok, though not without its issues, has shown less of a bias than most other major social media outlets in how it treats Palestinian versus Israeli content on its platform,” Nadim Nashif, the founder and director of 7Amleh, a non-profit which promotes the digital rights of Palestinian and Arab communities, tells Dazed. While the platform has faced some accusations of bias against Palestine, this pales in comparison next to the accusations of censorship which have been levelled at Instagram. “Banning TikTok in the United States would serve to further distort US citizens’ understanding of the situation in Palestine, by taking away one of the few places Palestinians are able to share their realities more freely than on most mainstream media outlets,” Nashif says.

While the conservative backlash against TikTok is currently focused on Palestine, it has long been a popular cause in the anti-trans movement, where there’s a widespread perception that TikTok is both literally making young people trans and manipulating them into having a sympathetic view towards trans rights. I recently went to a “gender-critical” conference (not for pleasure!) and was struck by how much of a bogey-man TikTok was for the people attending, who seemed to think that it possesses almost supernatural powers of indoctrination. Many parents had instituted an outright ban on social media in their homes, out of the fear that one glance at the ‘For You’ tab would ensnare their children in “gender ideology”. 

A number of right-wing commentators and lobbying groups have gone so far as to argue that, as with the issue of Palestine, the prevalence of trans-friendly content on TikTok is part of a deliberate campaign by the Chinese government to destabilise the West. Within this worldview, trans people (and queer people in general) are positioned as an enemy within, sowing the seeds of national self-destruction.

“If you want to explain why they think that China is ‘transing our kids’ or exposing kids to LGBTQ content, there’s a belief that the more LGBTQ+ people there are in your nation, the weaker your nation will be,” says Erin Reed, a journalist and legislative expert who writes a Substack, Erin in the Morning, about trans politics in the US. This dynamic is related to Russia as well as China, she says, pointing to the popularity of memes where both countries are depicted as stronger than the US because they are not burdened with a “woke military”. This comes alongside legislative efforts to ban Diversity and Equity initiatives in the military, to prevent drag from being performed on bases, and to ban trans people from serving. According to Reed, there is also a more general belief that America is in a state of decline, for which the existence of LGBTQ+ people is both the symptom and the cause. China is simply trying to hurry this along.

But these kinds of fears are nothing new. Like the “lavender scare” of the 1950s, when thousands of gay people were demonised as a “security threat”, accused of dual loyalty to Soviet Russia and purged from the US government, gay people have often been conceptualised as spiritually and morally depraved, and therefore more likely to be communists. As historian David K Johnson reveals in his book, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government, many conservatives in the 1950s pushed the idea that gay people were part of a “communist plot to hasten the moral degeneracy of America”, to make Americans physically weak and to defeat the US from within. Homosexuality was described by one prominent psychiatrist as “Stalin’s atom bomb”.

Today, you’ll find conservatives making much the same claim about China, TikTok and trans people: for example, hard-right media personality Oli London has argued that China is “using TikTok to manipulate and weaken young minds with trans ideology”, while Charlie Kirk, founder of lobbying group Turning Point USA, has suggested that the popularity of trans-friendly content on the platform is the result of a Chinese military operation. Just like during the ‘Red Scare’ era of the 1950s, concerns about national security are being used as a pretext to persecute minority groups and stifle political dissent. 

“If you want to explain why they think that China is ‘transing our kids’ or exposing kids to LGBTQ content, there’s a belief that the more LGBTQ people there are in your nation, the weaker your nation will be” – Erin Reed

But the enemy of your enemy isn’t necessarily your friend. We don’t have to leap to an impassioned, unqualified defence of TikTok simply because the worst people on the planet are trying to get it banned. "TikTok certainly has a history of serious privacy issues, and many of the criticisms against the company are valid," says Abigail Burke, Platform Power Programme Manager at Open Rights Group. "In December 2022, the company acknowledged instances where its employees had improperly used location data to monitor reporters while trying to uncover the source of leaked information. Forbes also reported last year that the company was planning to track the locations of specific U.S. citizens through their device's location data. The platform generally has quite intrusive tracking measures, collecting biometric identifiers and encouraging users to give the company access to their phone contacts."  TikTok can be a useful tool, it has arguably been a net positive for certain progressive causes and it operates in much the same manner as other, less-maligned social media companies, but it still demands a degree of scepticism.

“Right now, everyone gets their news from social media platforms that are driven by the search for advertising profits and designed to keep you glued to your phone for as long as possible,” Vincent Bevins, author of If We Burn, a non-fiction book about political activism across the 2010s, tells Dazed. “My personal instinct is that this should not be the only way we can understand our world. But we can oppose that and try to create a better internet while still recognising that it’s cynical and ridiculous for politicians to intervene because information is getting out that they don’t like. TikTok is a red herring – they just want to complain about voters disagreeing with them and blame it on China.” 

While it has many elements, the anti-TikTok backlash is primarily driven by antagonism towards China and a sense of paranoia about America’s standing in the world. Montana, still the only US state to have successfully passed an outright ban, made its case on the basis of national security concerns, arguing that TikTok is a tool of surveillance and cyber warfare. But this anti-China sentiment is increasingly bleeding together with different forms of repressive politics, just as the US government weaponised Cold War-era anticommunism to crack down on civil rights campaigners, trade unionists and left-wing activists at home.

While not targeting TikTok specifically, many other US states are in the process of enacting legislation which would prevent under-18s from accessing information related to LGBTQ+ issues and sexual health or curb their ability to organise protests. Just this week, according to Reed, Florida passed a new bill which aimed at protecting minors from ‘grooming’ on social media. “We know what ‘grooming’ means to Florida Republicans: it means being LGBTQ+ and posting LGBTQ+ content,” she says. “They are going to try to make platforms like TikTok suppress LGBTQ+ content.”

There is never a clean separation between domestic and foreign policy: if we really are entering into a new Cold War, as some commentators believe, and which many Western politicians would seemingly love to happen, this kind of political repression is probably going to get worse. And if you have a problem with that, then you are, at worst, a traitor to your country and, at best, the hapless, brainwashed stooge of Xi Jinping. 

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