TikTok and China muddy the US election scene

House chose to pass the bill, despite intense lobbying and massive protests by TikTok


On March 13, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that could result in a nationwide ban on the popular video app TikTok. There is already a ban on using the app on devices owned by the US federal government. The ‘Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act’ would force TikTok to sever all ties with its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, or face a ban from mobile app stores, including the Apple App Store and Google Play and web-hosting services in the United States. To avoid the ban, TikTok needs to find a buyer that satisfies the US government within six months.

The bill enjoyed huge bipartisan support in the House, evident from the 352-65 vote, and now heads to the Senate, but it could get stalled in the upper chamber. However, the overwhelming support it enjoyed in the House was extraordinary, especially in a bitterly-partisan election season. “Communist China is America’s largest geopolitical foe and it is using technology to actively undermine America’s economy and security,” said Speaker Mike Johnson after the vote. Opponents of the bill, though far fewer in number, also represented an unusual bipartisan coalition, ranging from hardline Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene to progressive Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Libertarians and progressives chose to oppose the bill, arguing that it affected First Amendment freedoms, targeted a specific company and that it would give the president unrestricted powers to intervene in the social media spectrum.

The House chose to pass the bill, despite intense lobbying and massive protests by TikTok and its users who say the ban would infringe on their constitutional right to free expression and would hurt businesses and content creators. Many lawmakers complained that they had to shut down their office phone lines after being inundated with calls from aggrieved TikTok users. They said the unprecedented lobbying efforts only added to their fears about the app and its Chinese ownership. One key reason for this is the national security implications of the app.

Early this week, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the head of the 18 intelligence agencies in the US, released its annual threat assessment in which there were references to China interfering in US elections through TikTok. It spoke about TikTok accounts run by a Chinese propaganda arm reportedly targeting candidates from both political parties during the midterm election cycle in 2022. The report said China might attempt to influence the upcoming elections, too, to sideline critics of China and magnify societal divisions in the US. It also pointed out that China now has more capabilities to run such covert operations.

The Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) recently identified three potential sources of danger from TikTok. It said the app could be part of a Chinese government plan to sway US politics; it could be used to collect personal data and it could be used to inject malicious software onto American devices. The CSIS particularly flagged the third one as the most significant threat.

TikTok is not available in China, where Douyin, another app owned by ByteDance with far more restrictive protocols, is more popular. Many members of the Congress expressed concern that the Chinese government could force ByteDance to share personal data from TikTok. Under existing Chinese laws, ByteDance will have to comply. Moreover, since this is an election season, there is also worry that Beijing could employ TikTok’s powerful algorithms to spread propaganda and influence results. While TikTok has assured lawmakers that the user data is safe, what perhaps prompted the lawmakers to take an extreme stance were the reports that China-based employees of the app have the ability to access nonpublic data about US subscribers. TikTok, meanwhile, says its US user data is held in Singapore.

Interestingly, a large number of Republican lawmakers broke with their party’s presumptive presidential candidate Donald Trump in supporting the ban. When he was president, Trump had tried to shut TikTok down. He called the app a threat to national security and said that the Chinese government was using the app to spy on Americans. He signed an executive order to ban TikTok unless it was bought by an American company. ByteDance responded by reaching an agreement with Oracle and Walmart to form a US-based company to get around the order. But Trump's move was ultimately blocked by a federal court on First amendment grounds. When Biden became president, he revoked Trump's order. Trump now seems to have made a complete U-turn on the issue. “There are a lot of young kids who will go crazy without TikTok. There are a lot of users,” he told CNBC the other day.

There seems to be a couple of reasons behind Trump's latest opportunistic pivot, especially since his conservative backers and national security hawks are all in support of the ban. The first one is purely about the numbers. There are about 170 million Americans who use TikTok and a majority of them are under 30. It is a demographic group that usually goes with Biden, but many of them are angry now, especially about Biden's handling of the Israel-Hamas conflict and his climate policies. Biden, meanwhile, has announced that if the bill to ban TikTok reaches his table, he would sign it. The White House even provided lawmakers technical support while drafting the bill. And Trump sees an opening as he believes that it would be crazy to go after TikTok in an election year and alienate a key voting bloc, despite the obvious national security challenges.

The second thing is about Trump's friendship with hedge fund manager Jeff Yass, who owns a 15 per cent stake in ByteDance, worth $33 billion. The billionaire megadonor is closely associated with the right-of-centre think tank Club for Growth, which supports TikTok. The group and Trump had a falling out during the 2022 midterms, but it seems they have made up. While speaking at the Club’s retreat held last week at Palm Beach, Florida, Trump said he and the organisation's president David McIntosh were “back in love”. Trump also met Yass during the retreat. Former senior Trump aide Kellyanne Conway has been roped in by the Club for Growth to lobby on behalf of Tik Tok. A polling she conducted on the issue showed that nearly half of independents and 40 per cent of Republicans would not vote for a candidate who supported a ban on TikTok. Conservative talk show host Steve Bannon, who was a former Trump campaign strategist, alleged that Trump's decision to oppose the ban was influenced by the prospect of funding from Yass.

Trump, however, gave the reason that apart from alienating a considerable section of voters, he also did not want Facebook to be all powerful in the social media landscape following TikTok’s ouster. “Without TikTok, you can make Facebook bigger and I consider Facebook to be an enemy of the people along with a lot of the media,” said Trump. He is still angry about Facebook suspending his account for two years following the Capitol riots on January 6, 2021. Conway has also been forcefully making the argument against giving Mark Zuckerberg, who owns Facebook and Instagram, a free run on the social media scene. “I wonder how many in the Congress have considered it for themselves and not just for the presidential race. If Zuckerberg owns Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, we might as well not even launch a campaign,” she said. Still, Trump has not actively campaigned to kill the bill, considering its national security implications.

The bill’s death could, however, happen in the Senate, though. The upper house appears more circumspect than the House on the issue. Republican Senator Rand Paul has indicated that he would block the bill from being passed unanimously, which means that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will have to schedule a floor vote. Floor time is hard to come by in the Senate, and many committee chairs are already pushing for their favourite pieces of legislation, which might stall the TikTok bill. And Schumer appeared non-committal about a quick floor vote.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government is likely to object to any sale of TikTok. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said the attempted ban would inevitably come back to bite the US itself. “This kind of bullying behaviour that cannot win in fair competition disrupts companies' normal business activity, damages the confidence of international investors in the investment environment, and damages the normal international economic and trade order,” he said.

Moreover, very few buyers would be able to purchase the app outright, or even its American business, pegged at more than $50 billion. It could also run into monopoly and antitrust investigations and litigation, further complicating the already murky election season.