Column: What would banning TikTok accomplish? Answer: Virtually nothing

Shou Chew
In January, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified along with other social media CEOs at a Senate hearing about their platforms’ effect on children.
(Senate Judiciary Committee)

In just the last few days, a couple of developments involving TikTok have arisen to illustrate the right and wrong way to think about the rapidly expanding social media platform.

The first was a devastating exposé that independent journalist Jonathan M. Katz posted there of a misleading story Sen. Katie Britt (R-Ala.) told during her official GOP response to President Biden’s State of the Union address.

In his TikTok on March 8, the day after the speech, Katz expertly demolished Britt’s claim to have interviewed an immigrant who told of having been sold out as a sex slave and Britt’s attempt to tie the story to Biden’s immigration policy — never mind that the subject’s travails took place 20 years ago, in Mexico, and had nothing to do with immigration policy.


It’s a great business and I’m going to put together a group to buy TikTok.

— Ex-Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin

In doing do, Katz also exposed the laziness of our own political press corps, which had to scurry to follow his lead. This was social media at its best — concise, visual and effective.

The second occurrence was the House vote Wednesday to effectively ban TikTok. The measure, which passed by a lopsided, bipartisan vote of 352 to 65, requires TikTok’s Beijing-based owner, ByteDance, to divest the platform’s U.S. operations within six months or face a nationwide ban.

The rationales put forth for the ban are varied and almost uniformly questionable. Its advocates cite the threat of Chinese government breaches of users’ privacy, its potential use as a conduit of Chinese anti-democratic propaganda into the U.S., its purportedly deleterious effect on its youthful users — one critic likened it to “opium.”

The campaign to ban TikTok deserves close scrutiny, covering such issues as who’s really behind it and why this platform is taking more heat from lawmakers than all other social media platforms put together.


The House’s headlong plunge into TikTok-banning smacks of what the fictional panjandrums of “Yes Minister” labeled “politicians’ logic”: “Something must be done; this is something; therefore, we must do it.” The thing that something must be done about is clipping the wings of the Beijing regime.

Whether targeting TikTok will advance that purpose is doubtful in the extreme. As Sir Arnold Robinson and Sir Humphrey Appleby of that classic British political farce understood, this is all about theater.

Let’s start with the huge majority of the House vote, which brought 197 Republicans together with 155 Democrats in favor. The “no” vote, however, was also bipartisan, with 50 Democrats and 15 Republicans opposed.

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Capitol Hill observers chuckled over how the issue brought together the strangest of strange bedfellows, with Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) voting on the same side (the “no” side) possibly for the first and last time from now to the end of recorded time. The ban’s prospects in the Senate are uncertain, though President Biden has said he’d sign it if it passed.

Donald Trump, who used to advocate a ban and even tried to implement a ban while he was president, more recently reversed himself, notably after a meeting with GOP megadonor Jeff Yass, who owns 15% of ByteDance. That stake is worth about $40 billion, based on the parent company’s putative value of $268 billion as of year-end 2023. (Trump said the subject of TikTok didn’t come up during their encounter.)

Interestingly, a figure who slithered out of the woodwork as a potential buyer of TikTok if ByteDance does divest is Steven T. Mnuchin, who was Trump’s Treasury secretary. He posed less as a savior of TikTok’s users from the sinister designs of Chinese overlords than an investor spotting the main chance on the horizon. More on him in a moment.


First, let’s turn to who’s pulling the strings on a TikTok ban. One evident culprit is Meta, which owns the social media platforms Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

Meta paid for an extensive publicity campaign aimed at eroding TikTok’s reputation by playing up its supposed threats to the health and welfare of young users, the Washington Post reported in 2022.

Meta’s concern isn’t hard to understand: TikTok has become more popular than any of its platforms. Social media marketing surveys indicate that the average monthly time spent on Facebook this year has been around 15.4 hours; on Instagram it’s 16.5 hours and on WhatsApp it’s 16.75 hours. On TikTok, it’s 27.9 hours.

Even worse from Meta’s standpoint, TikTok’s user base has been skewing younger than Instagram’s, its most direct competitor, and much younger than Facebook, which has been trending toward older users.

As for the suggestions that TikTok is somehow uniquely injurious to youthful users, represents a unique threat to users’ privacy, or presents a national security issue, one can only think this is some sort of a gag.

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The worst serial violator of users’ privacy is arguably Meta. The company drew a record $5-billion fine from the Federal Trade Commission in 2019, when it was known as Facebook. That fine arose from Facebook’s violations of a settlement the company had reached with the government in 2012 over its previous privacy violations, as well as a habit of deceiving users into thinking their privacy was secure.


The FTC isn’t done with Meta yet; as recently as Tuesday, the agency obtained a ruling from a federal appeals court allowing it to continue investigating the company’s privacy practices, including allegations that it deceives parents about policies designed to protect children from online contacts with potential abusers.

Spreading anti-democratic propaganda? Facebook’s connections with the data firm Cambridge Analytica, which facilitated the spread of political propaganda in the presidential election and Brexit vote in 2016, have been thoroughly documented. (That’s not to excuse the Chinese regime’s appetite for censorship, or its mistreatment of ethnic minorities such as the Uyghurs.)

Anyone inclined to wring their hands over TikTok’s role in sullying public discourse and internet safety in this country must acknowledge the role of all the leading social media platforms — not only Meta but X and YouTube.

All have fallen down on the job of policing disinformation, racism, antisemitism and other forms of hate speech on their sites. X bathes in all this as examples of “free speech,” as the platform’s owner, Elon Musk, brags. All have undertaken layoffs that eviscerated their “trust and safety” teams, allowing untrustworthy and dangerous content to inundate their users.

That brings us to Mnuchin. He surfaced Thursday on CNBC and the financial press with an announcement that he was putting together an investment consortium to take TikTok off ByteDance’s hands, if the divestment becomes mandated. “It’s a great business and I’m going to put together a group to buy TikTok,” he said.

Would that make TikTok any safer for its users or democracy? Why would anyone think so? The last takeover of a social media company by a prominent individual was Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, now renamed X. From the standpoint of users or anyone interested in a civil, reliable, safe public space, that deal has been disastrous. Under Musk’s leadership, Twitter has become a sub-functional hellscape of filth that has evolved into a megaphone for its owner to pump conspiracy theories and hate speech out onto the internet.


But the ban-TikTok campaign really isn’t about any of that. As Jason Koebler of 404Media observes, a TikTok ban would “have the effect of further entrenching and empowering gigantic, monopolistic American social media companies that have nearly all of the same problems that TikTok does.”

He’s right. At its heart, TikTok today is no different from the other platforms, and it won’t become different no matter who owns it. All of them share the same business model, which is to deceive their users into thinking they’re getting a valuable service for free, when in fact the users are simply raw material to be sold to advertisers and political manipulators, en masse.