TikTok is on trial as U.S. authorities consider a ban. There's just one problem: it's not only an app for silly videos anymore, it is now entwined with our culture.
Who are they? The TikTok generation. You might think of them as tweens shaking their hips to a Megan Thee Stallion song. In actuality, more than 1 in 3 Americans are using the app.
Just this week, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew said the app had reached 150 million active users in the United States. That's up from the 100 million the app said it had in 2020.
It has changed the online experience well beyond its own platform, with almost every other major social media platform pivoting to video.
What's the big deal?
Any potential ban of the app wouldn't just be a regulatory or legal battle. It would have to reckon with how American culture has become significantly altered and intertwined with the foreign-owned app.
Pew research found a small but growing number of U.S. adults are also now getting their news on TikTok, even as news consumption on other social media platforms stagnates or declines.
It's that very reach that appears to have the Biden administration worried. It has cited national security concerns over TikTok being owned by the Beijing-based company, ByteDance, which is subject to Chinese laws that would compel it to comply with requests to hand over information to the government about its customers. White House officials have told TikTok that it must divest from ByteDance or face the possibility of a ban.
Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country. However ... you don't simply have to take my word on that. Rather, our approach has been to work transparently and cooperatively with the U.S. government and Oracle to design robust solutions to address concerns about TikTok's heritage.
TikTok has fully penetrated U.S. culture. Take for instance a trip to grocery chain Trader Joe's, which features an "as seen on TikTok" section promoting foods made popular by TikTok. Or, for example, Barnes & Noble stores, with tables dedicated to #BookTok. And, of course, TikTok has perhaps had the most obvious influence on the music industry; trending songs on TikTok find commercial success and land at the top of the charts.
In just two years, the share of U.S. adults who say they regularly get news from TikTok has roughly tripled, from 3% in 2020 to 10% in 2022. The video-sharing platform has reported high earnings the past year and has become especially popular among teens – two-thirds of whom report using it in some way – as well as young adults.
So, what now?
NPR's Bobby Allyn reports that at Thursday's hearing, Zi Chew is expected to say that a forced divestiture would not address the fundamental concerns about data flows or access. A lengthy legal battle could ensue, regardless of the outcome.
The United States isn't the only place with second thoughts on Tiking and Tokking: the app is banned in India, with other restrictions in place or being considered in The European Union, Canada, Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia, The Netherlands, and more.
Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.