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Does Trump Kind of Have a Point About TikTok?

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Banning the silly social media app may seem drastic. But TikTok poses a real threat.
Over the weekend, TikTok began filling up with testimonials—some of them emotional, a lot of them just silly—like this one from a grandma with 2.5 million followers who is maybe best known for putting some Mentos into a soda bottle and letting the concoction explode all over her face. These videos were spurred by the president’s assertion, on Friday, that he was going to ban TikTok. He’s alleged the Chinese-owned company is a security threat. The president may be backing off his initial threat to ban TikTok, but that still leaves an open question: What do we do about this app? I asked Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, who covers China for Axios. About a year ago, she downloaded TikTok and planned to sign up, but she ended up deleting the social media app off her phone. As a journalist, she’s already had her email hacked by the Chinese government. She worries about the app’s data collection and that she could be targeted. But watching the Trump administration debate the idea of deleting TikTok for everyone else in the U. S., Allen-Ebrahimian thinks we have to understand how we got to this point and what the risks are—whatever we end up doing. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Mary Harris: Over the weekend, the president got a lot of attention for suggesting he wanted to ban TikTok. And it sounds like you’re not sure that’s such a far out idea. Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian: The idea of our government taking action to protect our society from TikTok is absolutely not a far out idea and is, I think, appropriate. The problem with banning something is we don’t have any kind of special legal or decision-making structure about how to ban a social media app. This is kind of uncharted territory for the U. S. And it’s a really delicate thing, because if you look at China 10 years ago, when they were banning Facebook and Twitter and lots of other websites, that was universally viewed as censorship, as a threat to free speech, and as a threat to an open world. And for the U. S. to ban TikTok would in a sense be emulating that. I’ve been struck by all the folks out there putting out memes preemptively mourning TikTok. And I think it’s hard for people to square in their minds: How could the platform that hosts silly videos be a national security threat? I think there’s a couple of reasons for that. One of them is related to China. And one of them isn’t. A sort of separate discussion is: How much data do we want these big companies to have? And what do they do with that data? And how do we govern that as a society? But the other part of it that’s specific to TikTok is that the Chinese government, and not the U. S. government, would be the one that would have access to that data. And that’s deeply concerning. You can think I as an individual don’t want the Chinese government to have my information.

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