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The GOP is Setting a TikTok Trap
Politics of TikTok are very complicated - especially for Democrats
Yesterday, the CEO of TikTok testified before the U.S. House. Like every previous example of tech titans appearing before Congress, this hearing was a reminder that we are not sending our best to Washington. Once again, many of the members demonstrated the tech-savvy of your grandparents (or parents) trying to navigate their phones after the latest IOS update. Frankly, the CEO of TikTok did not fare much better.
The hearing occurred amidst an ongoing and vituperative debate about the future and safety of the Chinese-owned company. As you certainly know, TikTok is the most popular and fastest-growing app in the world; and its parent company is based in China with close ties to the government. There is little specific evidence that the Chinese government has either accessed U.S. user data or used the platform’s algorithm to influence U.S politics. Still, there is a generalized, common-sense view that 100 million Americans running around on a Chinese platform presents some sort of threat.
I am certainly not qualified to evaluate the size or seriousness of the threat posed by TikTok. And the Administration and Congress (for reasons of classification) have not provided the public with sufficient evidence to justify the concern.
If the technological and national security concerns are unclear, the political concerns are obvious. Republicans see an opportunity to set a trap for President Biden. The politics of TikTok are complicated — especially for Democrats.
Pushing a TikTok ban is a relative freebie for the Republicans. Only Biden could enact a ban, so they pressure the President without having to be accountable for the outcome.
The Republicans see the issue as a win-win for them. If Biden doesn’t ban TikTok, they can paint him as soft on China. If Biden does ban TikTok, he risks alienating the young voters who put him over the top in 2020.
Dating back to the 2020 campaign, the Republicans tried to stick President Biden in China’s pocket. This hysterically xenophobic ad from the Trump campaign summarizes the Republicans’ ridiculous case.
It’s worth noting that Trump and all of these Republicans are completely full of shit on China. Trump had a Chinese bank account and you haven’t heard a peep from Republicans about it.
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But that won’t stop Republicans from seizing on China as a way to attack Joe Biden. According to Gallup, which has been tracking Americans’ opinions of China for more than 40 years:
A record-low 15% of Americans view China favorably, marking a five-percentage-point, one-year decline in this rating, which Gallup has measured since 1979. China has been gradually falling in the U.S. public’s esteem in recent years and is down a total of 38 points since 2018. More than eight in 10 U.S. adults have a negative opinion of China, including 45% who view it very unfavorably and 39% mostly unfavorably.
To put that number in perspective, 9% of Americans have a favorable view of Russia (All of them watch Tucker Carlson). Two-thirds of Americans view China as a “critical threat.”
A Washington Post poll found that 71% of Americans are concerned that TikTok is based in China. Additionally, 65% think TikTok is collecting data on U.S. citizens on behalf of the Chinese government and 56% believe TikTok is letting the Chinese government control the content seen by U.S. users.
If Americans see China as a threat and believe TikTok is doing harm on behalf of the Chinese government, the politics of banning TikTok should be simple, right?
Not so fast.
TikTok’s Base is the Democratic Base
Here’s the challenge for Democrats on TikTok: Quinnipiac University recently polled Americans about a potential ban on foreign technologies like TikTok — 49% support such a ban, while 42% oppose it. Independents also support a ban by a margin of 50-43. A majority of Democrats, on the other hand, oppose a ban (51-39). And 63% of voters 18-34 oppose a ban.
These younger voters are core to the present and future of the Democratic Party. They powered Joe Biden’s win in 2020 and will be critical in 2024. According to the Pew Validated Voter study, Biden won voters under 30 by 24 points.
The Washington Post poll also found —unsurprisingly — that TikTok users were more likely to oppose a ban. Only 17% of daily TikTok users would support a ban on the app. A sizable portion of TikTok’s younger user base profiles as Democrats and potential Biden voters.
Biden’s Third Way
Banning and not banning TikTok both have political downsides, which is why Biden’s current approach is the best one politically. The Biden Administration reportedly told TikTok’s parent company to sell the platform or face a ban. To strengthen its hand, the White House indicated its support for legislation giving it the authority to enact a ban. This was the approach attempted by the Trump administration. That effort failed due to the incompetent yahoos charged with implementing it.
Hopefully, it works this time around. Otherwise, the President will be forced into a difficult and politically painful decision.