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16 Million First-Time Voters: How a TikTok Ban Impacts Political Organizing

Published: Mar 26, 2024

The TikTok ban reminds me of a famous joke by President Reagan. It goes like this:

An American and a Russian were arguing. One said, in my country, I can go to the White House, walk to the President’s office, pound the desk, and say, “Mr President! I don’t like how you’re running things in this country!” 

The Russian said, “I can do that too!”


“Yes! I can go to the Kremlin, walk into the General Secretary’s office, pound the desk, and say, “Mr. Secretary, I don’t like how Reagan is running his country!”

As this joke from the 1970s makes clear, Americans’ ability to freely express their views without fear, as a God-given right, has been enshrined in the American experiment for a long time now. 

Why should free speech be under scrutiny now with the rise of modern communication methods like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, or TikTok? What has changed now that American voters use social media platforms to share their views instead of quills and public petitions? Why a TikTok ban now? 

The US House of Representatives, which recently passed a bill with an overwhelming majority to either take TikTok away from Chinese investors or ban it, says there is a difference, and national security is the reason. 

The real answer to this question might eventually only be answered by the US Supreme Court – where the case may go if the US Senate agrees with the Representatives and passes the Bill. 

TikTok: Where the young go to speak (and dance) 

TikTok users face a ban

TikTok is by far the most popular and growing platform among the young – and the advocacies that need the next generation of activists to pass the baton to.  A look at TikTok’s numbers proves why it is one of the major platforms for online conversations—especially among the young. 

  • 56% of 18-34-year-olds say they use TikTok, and the number is 63% if we only take teenagers. An estimated 150 million Americans use TikTok. 
  • Among all TikTok users, 50% say they have posted at least one video, indicating the scale of engagement.
  • 40% of users say they find the ‘For You’ page ‘very interesting’. This customization of the curated content designed to appeal to each user individually is part of TikTok’s much-sought-after algorithm. 
  • 14% say they get their news from TikTok at the start of 2024, ballooning from just 3% in 2020. That’s users of all ages. 
  • Among the young? Over 30% (or one in three) get their news there. 

Advocacy and a TikTok Ban: Individuals to Orgs

Advocacy has been as much a factor in its growth as all the viral dancing. By April 2021, CNN reported that the hashtag #blacklivesmatter had upto 25.4 billion views on TikTok – which is a mind-boggling number to consider for a serious topic among teenagers. 

And if that was the ‘big issue’ of the day, consider a ‘one-man issue’ and its impact through TikTok – William Hornby turned his pumpkin-carving skills into a moving conversation about eating disorders in men among his 250,000+ followers – a topic rarely discussed. And there are tens of thousands of individual activists like him – speaking about things few in the mainstream want to. 

TikTok is also a platform for safe spaces for the vulnerable. “As an openly gay person, it’s a place where I get so much gay information and where gay creators come to share news,” Rep Robert Garcia said during a rally. “TikTok is a space for representation, and banning TikTok also means taking away a voice and a platform for people of color and queer creators that have made TikTok their home.”

And even organizations openly accept how much being on TikTok affects their reach. “TikTok allows us to reach an entirely new demographic: younger, with a lot of passion for our issues,” said Stephen Northfield, deputy chief communications officer at Human Rights Watch – reacting to the news of a TikTok ban.

“It’s a natural platform for us to reach an audience that we aren’t getting on other channels like Facebook and Instagram, so we see this more as a net new audience.”

So TikTok not only works for millions of content creators who earn a living through it, but also for hundreds of millions of passive users – it has emerged as the critical junction for activism of any type, and at any scale, to find the audience they need to get support. 

As the 75-year-old former secretary of labor (he has half a million followers on TikTok) said – “If their minds open for even just an instant, it’s an opportunity.” And this is a man who has written 17 books and spent a life in public service. 

Campaigning on TikTok: The politics of 30-second clips 

TikTok users face a ban

PS: TikTok has banned all political ads from the app, and it is banned on all federal phones and most states have a ban on its use on government phones. 

Now, there are big gaps in these claims by TikTok. As a BBC investigation uncovered – many influencers in 2020 were paid to post anti-Trump videos, without revealing the payments. TikTok pulled down the videos, but it shows the ‘no politics’ rule is not iron-tight. And there is no public database of those who are promoting their videos by paying for them. 

But broadly, the politics, such as it is, is mostly by private citizens or non-governmental organizations. Unlike Facebook, few American political campaigns can get massive amounts of data to manipulate minds at a large scale and tip elections.   

They can’t do it now. But US politicians say the Chinese government might do it later. Hence the threat of a ban. 

(Interestingly, if you speak about democracy as purely a function of voter’s choice, even back in December 2023, only 38% supported a ban on TikTok in all ages. )

Security? What about it

If there are fears of the American system being undermined, then action should have been immediate after the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018. But Facebook was not banned, Mark Zuckerberg was not forced to sell Facebook to other investors. Other than a slew of legislation in Europe and one or two in America, and a $700 million settlement, Facebook has chugged along – just as it always has. 

The atmosphere is very much one of “Oops. We got this wrong in 2014. But we promise this won’t happen again,” and the Meta (Facebook’s parent company) was taken at its word.

In a world market where companies freely offer data to all buyers, the idea that TikTok somehow uniquely makes information available to entities hostile to the US does not stand up to scrutiny. 

For example, by their own description, ‘LiveRamp’ is “the most expansive and compliant data offering in the world, which now encompasses more than 62 countries, 2.5 billion addressable consumers, and more than 10,000 attributes—for a comprehensive representation of 68 percent of the world’s online population.”

And don’t forget – nowadays, the ‘online population’ includes your smart fridge, your Alexa, every map location you visited with your phone, the video camera on your door, and, of course, every website you visited and what you did there.

With few laws protecting user data – is then the question simply that we are fine with all of this, as long as the ‘risky data’ is ‘only’ known to the US government? Is the TikTok ban just political theater?

50% of the voters use TikTok. Now what?

TikTok users face a ban

Finally, are candidates okay with alienating so many voters with this TikTok ban? They can currently interact and engage with millions of voters on a platform those voters love in a manner that appeals to them. What would they tell the 16 million American voters who will vote for the first time in November 2024, not to mention the 50% or so of all voters who use TikTok?

While a ban on TikTok is unlikely, the restrictions that politicians (only 37 of whom are even using TikTok currently) wish to place on the platform may just turn out to be one of the biggest free speech battles of our times. 

And yes, the ACLU has already made 8 videos on the TikTok ban. They have several millions views already. And counting. 

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