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The Dartmouth
April 15, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Students and professors speak out against potential TikTok ban

After the U.S. House of Representatives advanced legislation that would enable a nationwide TikTok ban, students and professors expressed concerns with First Amendment rights and the potential ban’s effectiveness.

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In recent months, lawmakers in several countries, including the United States, have discussed a possible ban on the social media app TikTok, sparking debate among the Dartmouth community. While the government has cited issues with national security, students and professors have expressed concerns that a potential ban would infringe on First Amendment rights or have limited effectiveness.

On Feb. 27, the White House gave federal agencies 30 days to remove the app from government devices, and two days later, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee advanced a bill that would allow President Joe Biden to ban TikTok nationwide, The New York Times reported. Government professor Sonu Bedi said that the legislation would likely violate the constitutional rights to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of association.

“This is going to generate a First Amendment case,” Bedi said. “How do we conceptualize or consider these platforms that are privately run but [create a space for individuals to exercise] First Amendment liberty? That’s the novel question. We’ve never had a situation where these private platforms are ones that are facilitating most of our First Amendment freedoms.”

Bedi said Packingham v. North Carolina — a 2017 Supreme Court case that dealt with the issue of privately-owned online platforms acting as a public forum — is relevant to the TikTok debate. According to Bedi, the case establishes that social media functions as a public sphere by facilitating the free and open exchange of ideas, and it should therefore be protected by the First Amendment. 

“While in the past there may have been difficulty in identifying the most important places, in a spatial sense, for the exchange of views, today the answer is clear,” the Court wrote in its opinion for Packingham v. North Carolina. “It is the cyberspace — ‘the vast democratic forums of the Internet’ in general … and social media in particular.”

While government professor Russell Muirhead recognized potential First Amendment infringements, he said he does not think the threat is dire because he doubts that a ban will be passed at all. Muirhead said the push to ban the app represents “symbolic position-taking,” or a way for legislators to show their electorate that they are worried about China. The U.S. government fears that the app — which is a subsidiary of Chinese technology firm ByteDance Ltd. —  will grant China access to sensitive information, The New York Times reported.

“The [representatives are] not serious about passing legislation,” Muirhead said. “This is a general problem in American politics right now. We have a legislative class that isn’t serious about governing. They’re just taking symbolic positions for the sake of advancing their own celebrity and power.”

Muirhead added that he does not “quite see the mechanism by which TikTok is posing a security problem.” He explained that companies like Chinese-owned technology corporation Huawei — which Muirhead said might be connected to the Chinese government — could be more likely to violate American privacy than TikTok. 

Bedi added that the U.S. government has not released enough information on the security issues posed by TikTok to warrant a ban. 

“[The government] can’t just say it’s a national security threat,” he said. “That’s not sufficient if the government is seeking to restrict the First Amendment.”

According to Muirhead, other issues with TikTok — such as the spread of misinformation online — will persist in spite of a ban, as younger users could easily turn to a similar app. Muirhead added that the country should instead focus on learning to regulate the rapidly changing digital landscape and understand our reliance on online information. 

“The half-life of these platforms is very short,” Muirhead said. “Something that’s really compelling to you is not going to be very compelling to the kids who are in third grade today. They’re going to go to something else. Believe it or not, Facebook was once upon a time used by young people, not just grandparents.”

Already-existing alternatives, like Instagram Reels, would be the greatest beneficiaries of a ban, government professor Brendan Nyhan wrote in an email statement. Nyhan called for federal privacy legislation and platform transparency, “not an ad hoc ban on a single product.”

Zoe McGuirk ’25, who said she uses TikTok for about an hour every day, agreed that other apps could simply replace the platform. 

“There’s so many other social media platforms, and you already see TikToks [reposted] on Instagram Reels, and other apps adopting similar features,” McGuirk said. “I feel like you could just seek out the same platform elsewhere.”  

While David Rogers ’25 — who reached 66,000 followers on TikTok after posting a video where he cosplayed as Augustus Gloop and smeared chocolate on his face — agreed that video content can be found elsewhere, he said that he appreciates the “fun” aspects of TikTok that distinguish it from written media.

“I’m not a big newspaper reader, but I’ll watch a video,” Rogers said. “Give me some fun music behind it, like some Dua Lipa, [and] I will sit there and watch your one-minute video on whatever you’re talking about.”

Rogers said he has since deleted the app because of how much time he was spending on his phone, adding that he used to watch TikTok for about five hours everyday. Still, Rogers agreed with Nyhan that alternative platforms, such as Youtube Shorts and Instagram Reels, have replaced his TikTok habits. 

“I’ve also switched into the Snapchat and Instagram versions of [TikTok], which is kind of the same thing,” Rogers said. “It’s easier for me to click out of [Instagram and Snapchat], because I just feel like TikTok is its special little thing.”