Trump’s China fight has extended to TikTok. But is it really a threat?
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What we know — and don’t know — about the alleged national security concerns surrounding TikTok and WeChat. Last week, President Trump seriously escalated his threats toward the social media app TikTok, which he has accused of posing a threat to national security. If the Chinese-owned app doesn’t sell to an American company in 45 days, it will effectively be banned in the US.
You may be wondering how an app that’s best known as a place where teenagers post viral lip-syncing videos poses a national security threat. That largely comes down to the fact that TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance. The US government worries the app could be used not only to surveil US users but to censor political speech and spread misinformation that could hurt democracy in the US.
Many of TikTok’s users and creators haven’t been deterred by government warnings. Take Laura Lee Watts , who posts skin care and makeup reviews on the app and has about 2 million followers. What she’s worried about is losing access to TikTok.
“As a civilian, I’m not concerned about it all,” Watts told Recode. “Even if the Chinese government had my information, what are they going to do with it?”
While Watts’s data might not expose anything sensitive, she’s just one of the app’s 100 million US users. Several cybersecurity experts told Recode that the app could pose a risk — if indeed the Chinese government forced TikTok to share data. Beijing has been accused of employing hackers to uncover all kinds of intellectually sensitive information in the US and other countries, from Covid-19 vaccine research to defense secrets . So it’s not a complete stretch to consider how certain TikTok users could be exploited — say, a defense contractor who uses TikTok for fun but whose phone could have other hackable, sensitive data on it.
“There are reasonable concerns on the security side,” Adam Segal, a cybersecurity expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Recode. “But the issue is, how do you address them, and what precedent are you setting?”
Some people have speculated that the president is targeting TikTok to retaliate against the app’s users that recently pranked Trump’s June campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by reportedly registering thousands of tickets that they didn’t end up using . But TikTok isn’t the only Chinese-owned company to become a Trump target. In the recent past, he has halted Chinese development of 5G networks in the US, and he’s banned a Chinese company from buying the dating app Grindr. And last week, he issued an executive order that threatens to ban the popular messaging app WeChat, owned by the Chinese mega-company Tencent. Unlike TikTok, there’s no plan for WeChat to sell to a US bidder, making it a potentially more impactful part of Trump’s crackdown.
Viewed together, Trump’s threats to ban TikTok and WeChat are part of his...