The President of the United States, facing a global pandemic killing more than 1,000 Americans daily, declared TikTok, a video sharing app beloved by more than a hundred million Americans, a “national emergency” Thursday and said it would be illegal for anyone in the country to do transactions with its parent company in 45 days.
The executive order puts pressure on its parent company, ByteDance, to sell TikTok to an American company. Microsoft has shown interest in purchasing the social media platform.
The executive order is the latest salvo in a decaying relationship between China and the United States; a separate executive order hit WeChat, which is owned by the Chinese conglomerate Tencent. Donald Trump claimed that “TikTok automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users,” a statement that applies to nearly every smartphone app. It comes on the same day that Facebook launched Reels, a TikTok clone, on Instagram, and comes immediately after an antitrust hearing in which various lawmakers said that Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google had concentrated power and created a series of tech monopolies. ByteDance, which owns TikTok, represents the only real threat to Facebook’s dominance in the social media space.
The order comes after weeks of fearmongering by the Trump administration about TikTok’s potential use as a surveillance or disinformation vector for the Chinese Communist Party. While TikTok does indeed collect information about its users, ByteDance says that American data is not stored in China and that it would not hand over data about Americans to the Chinese government. While there is certainly the risk that China could use TikTok as a spying vector, the federal government has yet to point to any specific evidence that it has done so, or any specific security vulnerabilities in the TikTok app. In recent weeks the Trump administration has made TikTok one of its top priorities even as coronavirus continues to ravage the country and more than 40 million Americans are out of work. TikTok has been downloaded 175 million times in the United States and is both a widespread form of free expression in the United States and a crucial means of income for influencers on the platform.
Trump’s executive order claims that TikTok “may also be used for disinformation campaigns that benefit the Chinese Communist Party, such as when TikTok videos spread debunked conspiracy theories about the origins of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus.” It did not provide any more specifics about what videos it was referring to and did not mention that Trump has been repeatedly censored by American social media companies for spreading disinformation about coronavirus. Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook have also been used to spread disinformation and conspiracy theories about coronavirus.
Whether the executive order, which bans Americans from performing any “transactions” with ByteDance after a waiting period of 45 days, holds any water or will actually go into effect is yet to be seen. Microsoft has shown an interest in buying TikTok, and ByteDance’s American subsidiary can challenge it. In the meantime, Trump’s executive order looks like the kind of censorship and protectionism we’ve seen from the Chinese Communist Party.