Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp recently banned government employees from using the TikTok social media app on government devices. Kemp has joined Greg Abbott and several other governors in issuing similar mandates, a move in line with concerns expressed by some political leaders. As an educator at the University of Texas, we recently received an email from the University Compliance Service instructing us to “immediately remove” the application. Gov. Abbott says the ban is intended to protect government information from the Chinese government, which is a pressing concern since TikTok is owned by China’s ByteDance.
Efforts to ban TikTok from government devices stand in stark contrast to the app’s popularity among young Americans. According to Pew Research, two-thirds of teens aged 13 to 17 have used the platform. Just over a quarter of 18-29 year olds report that they regularly get news from the platform, and many young people have used it as a search engine. While the platform is well known for dance videos and funny pet content, the misinformation and lack of enforcement is a concern.
Without access to TikTok, government employees, including researchers and public university professors like us, are limited in their ability to provide relevant information. A total ban also ties the hands of experts working to understand the platform and the complexities involved in real-world privacy and security issues online.
Our mission at the UT Austin Media Engagement Center is to understand and improve the information ecosystem for the benefit of democracy. Limited access to TikTok undermines our ability to explore today’s most disruptive media space, such as our study of how TikTok influencers amplify partisan messages. Our research on the impact of platforms and efforts to combat disinformation is limited. Our media ethics case study program should now advise students not to write about the most dominant communication platform in many of their lives.
Outreach is also closed. The TikTok channel we created to educate youth is no longer able to share content. If organizations like ours can’t communicate on the platform, other content will take their place.
The ban also applies to teaching. Some educators are using TikTok as a strategy to engage students. Students share TikTok links and use TikTok for class projects—activities that now need to be scaled down.
The regulation of access to TikTok limits our ability to do our work on the devices that are provided to us. Some might argue that we should just access TikTok from our personal devices. However, we also access password-protected UT sites from our personal devices, leading to similar vulnerabilities. When conducting a TikTok study, we had to ask students and staff to use personal devices to work at the university.
Protecting the US and national security is important. But an insufficiently detailed security threat is not the same as evidence of consistent security breaches. Policies to counter the threat must be weighed against the associated costs. In this case, the security risk may be enough to ban the use of TikTok by government employees with access to sensitive information. Another issue is to prevent teachers and university students using public resources from accessing the platform, which is an important part of young people’s lives.
Governor Abbott’s ban comes amid comments by FBI Director Chris Wray about the possibility of manipulating TikTok’s recommendation algorithms, which are used to deceive people and collect data on Americans. We do not deny possible security threats. However, one important strategy for evaluating Americans’ safety and security concerns is thorough research. This is exactly the kind of computer propaganda work that our researchers are doing, but for this we must have professional access to the platform.
The ban is applied too broadly, hinders research, and puts young people obsessed with the platform at risk by restricting government bodies from collecting, analyzing and providing information. The solution is either to ban the platform outright—an action with broader social and global implications—or to establish reasonable exemptions for teaching and research.
Professor Natalie (Talia) Stroud directs the University of Texas Media Engagement Center and is the author of Niche News: The Politics of News Choice. Professor Samuel Woolley is Program Director of the Propaganda Research Laboratory at the Center for Media Engagement.