Threatening a TikTok ban likely to damage American interests
Andy Mok

Editor's note: Andy Mok is a research fellow at Center for China and Globalization. The article reflects the author's views, and not necessarily those of CGTN.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a recent interview that the United States is considering banning TikTok and other Chinese apps in the name of national security. Even the mere voicing of a threat like this is likely to undermine the Trump administration, Trump's re-election campaign and the American political system as a whole.

Before diving into why even a threat like this is so detrimental to American interests, we must first understand a bit more about TikTok.

Tiktok is a video-sharing social networking mobile app that launched in 2016. In the first half of 2018, it achieved almost 105 million download on Apple's App Store, which made it the most downloaded app for that period.

TikTok's combination of short 15-second videos with music has made it a sensation with those born between 1995 and 2015 or otherwise known as Gen Z. These users have fallen in love with the distraction provided by the bursts of micro-entertainment such as content creators lip syncing and dancing as well as performing comedy skits and other physical activities. As such, it is becoming as much a foundational cultural touchstone for this generation as Saturday morning cartoons were for an earlier generation of Americans.

Protecting a country's national security is the most vital job of any government and therefore must be approached with the highest levels of judgment and wisdom as well as a clear focus on real threats. In particular, an overly broad conception of national security can lead to waste, distraction and even failure because attempting to do too many things often results in none of them being done well. It would be a stretch of the imagination to consider an entertainment app such as TikTok a national security threat. Devoting resources to treating it as such would likely result in a loss of effectiveness in addressing actual threats.

President Donald Trump listens during a "National Dialogue on Safely Reopening America's Schools," event in the East Room of the White House, July 7, 2020, in Washington. /AP

President Donald Trump listens during a "National Dialogue on Safely Reopening America's Schools," event in the East Room of the White House, July 7, 2020, in Washington. /AP

With the November elections only a few months away, the Trump administration has already alienated a large portion of the American electorate. A threat to ban TikTok and apps like it would only further antagonize the most digitally savvy voters and those with the greatest amount of future political clout. According to Pew Research, one in ten eligible voters in this year's election are in the Gen Z group. Many are already deeply skeptical towards Trump and the GOP for their stance on Black Lives Matter. These types of words and deeds will only strengthen their distrust and further erode the already scant political support this cohort has for the Republicans.

Moreover, these digital savants may be provoked by this threat to even more energetically seek to undermine Trump's re-election efforts. For example, to reduce attendance at a recent Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a TikTok user named  MaryJo Laupp posted a video in which she said, "I recommend that all of those of us that want to see this 19,000-seat auditorium barely filled or completely empty, go reserve tickets now and leave him standing there alone on the stage."This video earned more than two million views and inspired a number of other similar videos with many believing that these videos played an important role in the low turnout at this rally.

Finally, the spurious invocation of national security may serve to weaken the legitimacy and effectiveness of the American political system as a whole. According to Edward Watts, author of Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny, because the U.S. system was modeled on a romanticized and idealized understanding of Rome's, a deeper understanding of the Roman system can help us better appreciate the structural advantages and deficiencies of the U.S. system.

Watts observed that the fall of Rome began when its governing institutions and political customs, which should only be used to advance legitimate national goals, were instead perverted and misused by its leaders to cynically pursue individual gain and obstruct their opponents. The demonization of China for domestic political advantage bears the hallmarks of this type of perversion and misuse of legitimate policy tools. As such, deeming Chinese apps like TikTok a national security threat may also further erode the legitimacy of the American political system.

While it is unclear whether the U.S. government will indeed attempt to ban Chinese apps such as TikTok, the articulation of such a threat has already damaged the Trump administration, Trump's re-election campaign and the legitimacy of the American political system. Given the harm the American body politichas sustained through the government's mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and other missteps, can the U.S. really afford another self-inflicted blow? 

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