TikTok is an addictive drug China’s government is providing to Americans, says the incoming chairman of a new House select committee on China.
GOP Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin told NBC’s “Meet The Press” in an interview that aired Sunday that he calls TikTok “digital fentanyl” because “it’s highly addictive and destructive and we’re seeing troubling data about the corrosive impact of constant social media use, particularly on young men and women here in America,” and also because it “effectively goes back to the Chinese Communist Party.”
Gallagher, whom House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy has appointed to chair the new select committee in the new Congress, has said he believes the video app should be banned in the United States. (McCarthy is the apparent front-runner to become House speaker when the new session begins Tuesday, though he still does not have enough vote commitments to be elected in the floor vote.)
TikTok, whose parent company, ByteDance, is Chinese-owned, has been banned from electronic devices managed by the US House of Representatives, according to an internal notice sent to House staff. Separately, the US government will ban TikTok from all federal devices as part of legislation included in the $1.7 trillion omnibus bill that President Joe Biden signed last week. The move comes after more than a dozen states in recent weeks have implemented their own prohibitions against TikTok on government devices.
The company in a statement said Gallagher’s comments contain “zero truth.”
“The Chinese Communist Party has neither direct nor indirect control of ByteDance or TikTok,” the company said. “ByteDance is a private, global company, nearly 60% of which is owned by global institutional investors, with the rest owned primarily by the company’s founders and its employees — including thousands of Americans.”
TikTok has previously called efforts to ban the app from government devices “a political gesture that will do nothing to advance national security interests.”
TikTok declined to comment on the House restrictions.
Reining in TikTok
Gallagher says he wants to go further. As TikTok surges in popularity, he believes it needs to be reined in.
“We have to ask whether we want the CCP to control what’s on the cusp of becoming the most powerful media company in America,” he told NBC. Gallagher supported the ban on TikTok on government devices and said the United States should “expand that ban nationally.”
The company has been accused of censoring content that is politically sensitive to the Chinese government, including banning some accounts that posted about China’s mass detention camps in its western region of Xinjiang. The US State Department estimates that up to 2 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been detained in these camps.
“What if they start censoring the news, right? What if they start tweaking the algorithm to determine what the CCP deems fit to print,” Gallagher warned, analogizing the situation to the KGB and Pravda buying The New York Times and other major newspapers during the height of the Cold War.
US policymakers have cited TikTok as a potential national security risk, and critics have said ByteDance could be compelled by Chinese authorities to hand over TikTok data pertaining to US citizens or to act as a channel for malign influence operations. Security experts have said that the data could allow China to identify intelligence opportunities or to seek to influence Americans through disinformation campaigns.
There is no evidence that that has actually occurred, though the company last month confirmed that it fired four employees who improperly accessed the TikTok user data of two journalists on the platform.
But TikTok has hundreds of millions of downloads in the United States, and the highly influential social media platform has helped countless online creators build brands and livelihoods. As its popularity soars, TikTok may have grown too big to ban.
Working toward a resolution
Since 2020, TikTok has been negotiating with the US government on a potential deal to resolve the national security concerns and allow the app to remain available to US users. TikTok has said that the potential agreement under review covers “key concerns around corporate governance, content recommendation and moderation, and data security and access.” The company has also taken some steps to wall off US user data, organizationally and technologically, from other parts of TikTok’s business.
But an apparent lack of progress in the talks has led some of TikTok’s critics, including in Congress and at the state level, to push for the app to be banned from government devices and potentially more broadly.
Gallagher said on “Meet the Press” that he would be open to a sale of TikTok to an American company, but “the devil is in the details.” He continued, “I don’t think this should be a partisan issue.”
When asked about Russia’s investment in Telegram and the Saudi investment in Twitter, Gallagher said that his “broad concern, of which both of those are part, is where we see authoritarian governments exploiting technology in order to exert total control over their citizens,” calling it “techno-totalitarian control.”
Gallagher also called for “reciprocity,” noting that Chinese officials are allowed on apps like Twitter but Chinese citizens are not allowed access to those same apps. He said he would like to see an arrangement under which “if your government doesn’t allow your citizens access to the platform, we’re going to deny your government officials access to that same platform.”
“The government can’t raise your kids, can’t protect your kids for you,” Gallagher said, “but there are certain sensible things we can do in order to create a healthier social media ecosystem.”