Will LGBTQ youth, and teens in general, need to find a new safe space? For many teens around the world, no. For teens living in the United States of America, possibly.
Earlier today, Donald Trump told reporters that he and other government officials are considering banning the use of the cell phone app and entertainment service TikTok.
“We’re looking at TikTok, we’re thinking about making a decision,” said Trump.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin then added, “TikTok is under CFIUS review. We will be making a recommendation to the president this week so we have lots of alternatives.”
Donald Trump confirms the government is considering banning TikTok due to national security concerns:
“We’re looking at TikTok, we’re thinking about making a decision.”
— Pop Crave (@PopCrave) July 29, 2020
This isn’t the first time that U.S. government officials have expressed suspicion of TikTok. According to the Independent, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently issued a warning for Americans who use TikTok.
“With respect to Chinese apps on people’s cell phones, I can assure you the United States will get this one right too, Laura,” he said. “I don’t want to get out in front of the President [Donald Trump], but it’s something we’re looking at.”
In addition, a group of Republican lawmakers, led by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, wrote to the FBI and Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday about concerns over the app and it’s ties to the Chinese government.
“TikTok has become a popular forum for Americans — particularly younger Americans — to engage in political conversations,” Sen. Cotton and his colleagues wrote, according to a Hill report. “I’m greatly concerned that the CCP could use its control over TikTok to distort or manipulate these conversations to sow discord among Americans and to achieve its preferred political outcomes.”
But what exactly is the U.S. government’s problem with TikTok, how is the app connected to the Chinese government, and how does this affect LGBTQ people?
When it comes to the first two questions, we must look at ByteDance and a Chinese law from 2017. In 2017, the Chinese company ByteDance bought the Musical.ly app and relaunched it as TikTok. At that point, the app grew popular in Western countries and began to make ByteDance significant money. In fact, ByteDance is now worth about $78 billion, according to Vox.
But what’s the problem? One major concern is with a 2017 Chinese law that requires Chinese companies to comply with government intelligence operations if their cooperation is requested. This means, if the Chinese government were to ask for data found on TikTok, including users’ account information, ByteDance would have to comply.
As the Sen. Cotton quote noted earlier, TikTok has also become a place where American youth discuss political issues like the 2020 Presidential Election, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ Rights, and more. There is some concern, given the Russian interference with past U.S. elections, that the Chinese government could use its power over TikTok to spread misinformation.
Due to these fears, the U.S. government has been adamant in monitoring Chinese-owned apps. This includes the gay dating app Grindr, which had a somewhat similar situation to TikTok. Due to Chinese law and Grindr’s former ownership by gaming company Kunlun Tech, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) ruled that Kunlun Tech had to sell Grindr. Now, that very same committee has turned its eyes toward TikTok.
But, it’s not just the U.S. government that’s concerned with this law, TikTok, and other apps. In June, India announced that it would be banning TikTok and 58 other apps developed by Chinese firms. The Indian government justified the ban as an act of supporting “national security and defence of India.”
According to Tech Crunch, “New Delhi said nation’s Computer Emergency Response Team had received many “representations from citizens regarding security of data and breach of privacy impacting upon public order issues. The compilation of these data, its mining and profiling by elements hostile to national security and defence of India, which ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India.”
But again, what does this have to do with LGBTQ people? In the three years that TikTok has existed, the app has become a safe space for LGBTQ users. This is especially true for LGBTQ youth. As we noted in a look at TikTok’s LGBTQ corners, many queer teens celebrate their sexualities and gender identities on the app with dances, sketches, real-life stories, and relationship updates. TikTok has become a space where LGBTQ youth can not only be open but be praised. Knowing that, the potential loss of this digital space is significant.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that LGBTQ people have lost digital space due to a ban. In 2018, LGBTQ people left Tumblr in droves after the app announced a ban of NSFW (Not Safe For Work) content. The reason for that ban was the influence of the Apple app store. After Tumblr’s censors were deemed too weak, the app store threatened to remove Tumblr. This led to the infamous ban, which preceded many LGBTQ users feeling their content was unnecessarily targeted by the changing standards (SFW or not). While Tumblr has continued to stand, and still mysteriously holds some NSFW content, many LGBTQ users have long abandoned the space. In fact, Tumblr reported losing 30% of its userbase by the three-month mark post-ban.
But with the loss of each LGBTQ digital space, LGBTQ people have migrated to other sites like Facebook groups, Reddit forums, Twitter circles, and more. If TikTok were to be banned in the United States, would LGBTQ youth similarly migrate to other apps/sites? Or, will they feel a deeper effect from losing their space to dance and thirst? No matter what, it looks like LGBTQ TikTokers have no say in the matter. The government big wigs are already at work.