Social media expert breaks down national security concerns surrounding TikTok

CEO of Organization for Social Media Safety advises developing ‘resilience’ to online misinformation, propaganda

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Increasing concerns are being raised over the video-sharing social media app TikTok, now among the most-downloaded and used apps of its kind in the United States.

National security officials and several Republican governors are now moving to ban its use on government devices — over concerns about Chinese data gathering.

The U.S. Senate has unanimously approved a bill that would ban the popular video platform from devices issued by federal agencies.

A total of 12 states now have such a ban in place — including Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Maryland, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Virginia.

“The main concern here with TikTok from a national security perspective is what the Chinese government can do with this information if they got hold of it all the data on our citizens and how they could potentially use the platform to interfere in our elections through propaganda,” said Marc Berkman, the CEO of the Organization for Social Media Safety.

Most social media platforms collect and track data from their users as a means of refining their algorithms and marketing an optimal user experience. Still, companies like Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp owner Meta, and other U.S.-based companies are bound by American laws and policies, whereas ByteDance, which owns TikTok, is based in China.

“Obviously, the Chinese government has different incentives than for-profit companies in democratic countries around the world,” Berkman said. “So there is a security difference in risk level here.”

A bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida would ban all transactions with ByteDance and any other company from an adversarial nation.

Most experts say passing such a law could present a challenge given that more than 136 million U.S. users log onto the site each month. That’s the biggest share of TikTok’s global user base and more than twice the amount of users as the country in second place, Indonesia.

More than half of TikTok creators are between ages 18 and 24, representing 53% of the app’s base.

Berkman emphasized the importance of educating young people, as well as ourselves, on how to employ a healthy level of scrutiny in the online content we consume.

“For all of us across the country, teaching students critical literacy skills when it comes to news media, obviously in a very non-partisan way, is incredibly important because misinformation and propaganda are happening on social media on a regular basis from the bad actor, certainly hostile foreign countries — that is happening on a number of different social media platforms,” Berkman said. “So we need to build resilience through education and skills, especially with young people across the country. It’s an urgent task.”

TELL US: What do you think about the proposed bans and restrictions on TikTok?

If you have TikTok and you are wondering whether to delete the app, according to Berkman, if you are not ready to ditch TikTok, he said awareness is the main thing to take away from this. He said you basically just need to know how these apps operate and that way you can employ the appropriate level of skepticism for everything you see.

About the Author:

Joe covers education and breaking news. He is a frequent contributor to the News4Jax I-team and Trust Index coverage.