TikTok bans could cause headaches for government employees
Jan 13, 2023

TikTok bans could cause headaches for government employees

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Researchers could face obstacles trying to study the social media platform, and officials might be prevented from communicating with its millions of users.

TikTok is under a lot of scrutiny from federal, state and local governments. Congressional lawmakers recently banned the social media platform from most federal government devices.

More than a dozen states, including New Hampshire, South Dakota and Texas, passed similar measures due to growing concerns over data security and privacy on the platform owned by Chinese company ByteDance.

Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams spoke with Joshua Scacco, associate chair of the University of South Florida’s department of communication. He said this blacklisting can make it harder for some, like researchers, to do their jobs.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Joshua Scacco: So when we think about the rules, there will be various approaches that local, state, even federal government will take with regard to essentially ban the use of TikTok on government devices during business hours. And these can take a couple of different forms. So one is for the government employee who might be an 8-to-5 or a 9-to-5, during that period of time, they cannot visit TikTok on their government devices. Another possibility, which we’ve seen less of, although this is a potential worry as a researcher who focuses on digital and social media, is that as part of conditions for these bans or limitations, they could also spill over and affect research on the TikTok platform. And one of the things we know is it’s growing and has millions of users. It is not only a realm for information, but also for mis- and disinformation about politics and health. And these are critical topics that researchers need to study. The potential negative effects for not being able to conduct public research on a very important social media platform are quite real.

Kimberly Adams: Can’t there be an exception, though, if someone is doing research specifically related to the platform?

Scacco: So that would have to be up to the individuals who are writing the restrictions and bans on use of TikTok. There are instances in jurisdictions where other activities that might be limited could be allowed with a research-based exception. But to give you an example here, a blanket ban, for instance, at the federal level would potentially apply to areas like National Science Foundation funding or National Institutes of Health funding. Those things would be very challenging. The other big challenge would be how would elected officials or candidates for office, how would they be able to communicate in this particular space? Would they be able to communicate in this space? That’s also a challenge. So there would have to be built into the sorts of regulation here potential exceptions to how it could be used.

Adams: What sorts of complications do you think this ban on TikTok from government devices at the federal level creates for government employees when it comes to reaching younger audiences?

Scacco: So one particular challenge is TikTok is quite popular among younger individuals in the United States. The challenge is, for public communication, is to go where your audiences are. And that includes many social and digital media platforms. If governments and government officials don’t go there, or they can’t go there, the individuals who have access to information, and important information at times, are not going to be part of the narrative that’s being shaped in these places. Places like TikTok, other social and digital media platforms, are havens of mis- and disinformation, whether that’s about health topics, whether that’s about politics. The challenge is if elected officials, if government officials, are not in those spaces, they do not have the opportunities to counter myths and disinformation, to fact-check. And that can be a challenge to information literacy.

Adams: I’ve seen federal officials on TikTok sending out messages, information. Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, was sending TikToks out related to the problems with Southwest Airlines. How do you see government officials kind of striking this balance between the official bans but the unofficial need to reach these audiences?

Scacco: Pete Buttigieg using the platform to be able to get the message out on Southwest makes a lot of sense. Part of the population of individuals who were going to be traveling over the holiday who would have been affected by the conditions at airports were younger people who might get the message on TikTok. And so showing that federal efforts were being directed at trying to figure out what was going on was important for the transportation secretary to do in that particular circumstance. So there is that balance in the sense of concern over the “security concerns” with the platform versus, as well, the fact that this is a platform where millions of users go to get information. So for government officials, they will have to balance those, those things and decide on an individual jurisdictional basis how they want to confront that.

You can read more about how some of these TikTok restrictions are playing out in real life in this recent piece from The Wall Street Journal that covers South Dakota’s ban.

Lawmakers who support the blacklisting of TikTok on state-owned devices say there are real potential threats to user data privacy and that they worry that China could order TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, to collect data on American users.

Critics point out there’s no real evidence of this yet and that other social media apps also collect a wealth of user data that could be exploited.

The website Govtech has a comprehensive map of which states have taken some kind of official action against the app — so far, more than 20 of them.

Other states have not shied away from the platform. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, for example, has his own, official government account.

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