TikTok Is Taking Talk of a Ban Seriously. Here’s Why It’s in a Bind.

Estimated read time 3 min read
  • There’s talk again about a ban on TikTok.
  • This time, TikTok is fighting back by sending messages to some of its app users.
  • TikTok is in a bind here: If it really scares its users about an app ban, it runs the risk of having them leave for competitors.

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Congress is working on a bill that would either ban TikTok or force its Chinese owners to sell the company. The president thinks that’s a good idea, too.

And if you think you’ve heard this before, you’re right: The Trump administration previously pushed TikTok owner ByteDance to sell its US operations, in a clownish and convoluted effort that eventually went nowhere.

But now the idea is back in circulation: There’s a new bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin and Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois that would force ByteDance to sell its US TikTok operations to a non-Chinese company. If ByteDance didn’t comply, the bill would ban app stores like the ones owned by Apple and Google from distributing the app.

And, once again, the White House thinks this is a good idea.

I find it very, very hard to imagine this will ever go anywhere: There’s no downside for a US politician to say they want to ban TikTok. But there’s significant risk of blowback from young voters if they actually went through with a ban on the most important app in pop culture.

Not to mention the fact that politicians — including both the Democratic National Committee and Joe Biden himself — have embraced TikTok as a messaging tool.

But ByteDance and TikTok are taking the bill seriously. Or at least a little bit seriously: On Thursday, TikTok started telling some of its users, via a post on the site’s home screen, that “Congress is planning a total ban of TikTok” and that they should “speak up now — before your government strips 170 million Americans of their Constitutional right to free expression.” A link provided users with the phone number of their local rep.

A screenshot of a Twitter post from user Caiwei Chen, showing a TikTok message urging users to call Congress

Screenshot/Twitter @CaiweiC

I haven’t seen the messaging on my TikTok timeline, so I don’t know how widespread the campaign is. I’ve asked the company for details.

But my bigger question is this one: Does TikTok/ByteDance really think a ban is a real possibility this time around?

If the answer is “yes,” I would expect this campaign to get much louder, and much more widespread, very soon.

And if the answer is “no”: Then why rile up your user base any more than you have to?

Because one obvious response, for some users, to “TikTok is going to get banned” is “Well, then I better start heading over to Reels or YouTube Shorts,” the TikTok clones owned by Meta and Google.

No need to do that unless you’re worried about a much, much worse outcome.

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