March 14, 2024 - 7:30pm

A bill that could effectively ban TikTok in the US enjoys strong bipartisan support in Congress, but attitudes are far more divided across the rest of the country.

Proponents view TikTok as a national security risk that’s particularly damaging to youth mental health, while critics believe the bill is a Trojan horse that will pave the way for censorship of other social media platforms. The legislation would make the app unavailable in the US unless its Chinese-owned parent company, ByteDance, sells it. 

Unusually, progressives such as AOC have found themselves on the same side of the debate as Republicans like Donald Trump in opposition of the ban. And outside Washington, it has drawn together an unlikely array of voices, ranging from Left to Right. “The TikTok bill is how rights erosions always always always work: Pick a target to start with that everyone hates or fears, so that everyone unites in support, nobody wants to defend,” Glenn Greenwald wrote. “Then the precedent is set, so when it expands inward, nobody can object any longer.”

Tapping into similar concerns, Tucker Carlson and David Sacks argued that the bill could be used to restrict speech in the name of blocking supposed “election interference”. Many have also compared it to the Patriot Act, legislation billed as protecting Americans from foreign threats which in reality was used to spy on American citizens. 

The common thread in the attacks on the ban is that the bill is too broad and could be used to crack down on other companies which may or may not be foreign adversaries. As Tulsi Gabbard wrote on X: “The TikTok ban is not about TikTok. Don’t be fooled. It’s about politicians having the power to decide what thoughts, ideas, and information Americans are allowed to hear and see. It’s about freedom. It’s about destroying our democracy in the name of protecting it.”

Proponents of the legislation dispute claims that it could be used for censorship of American-owned apps. FCC commissioner Brendan Carr believes the bill narrowly targets apps controlled by designated adversary nations that pose a national security threat to the US. Apps like Rumble and X, this coalition argues, will not be affected. 

But perhaps none of the bill’s supporters have come out so forcefully as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. “TikTok harms kids in so many ways, and has so much influence over what they believe,” he wrote on X. “It is insane that we let kids live on a platform that is legally bound to obey the CCP. @RepGallagher is right: Bytedance must sell it, or else America (or its parents) will need to ban it”.

Ben Shapiro also praised the ban, calling TikTok a “viral psyop” that the Chinese government uses to promote politically polarising content and LGBT identities among young users.

The bill passed in the house Wednesday and will now work its way through the Senate, where it will face a number of obstacles, including a Democratic majority leader who hasn’t committed to bringing it to a vote. The future of the legislation, and of TikTok itself, remains up in the air. 

is UnHerd’s US correspondent.