all winter During the holidays, 16 states, including Georgia and Texas, banned the use of the popular short-video app TikTok in work settings, specifically on any devices provided by their employers. Governors from Texas to New Hampshire have issued sweeping bans on “state IT infrastructure.” In South Dakota and Georgia, higher education governing bodies ordered compliance with their governor’s order on all college and university facilities. Other states have even banned the use of TikTok while connected to campus WiFi.
Concerns about TikTok can be traced back to the app’s parent company, the Chinese-owned ByteDance. The concern is that the Chinese government will force ByteDance to hand over US TikTok data, or force them to manipulate their already highly customized algorithms to push divisive content. As a result, former President Donald Trump tried unsuccessfully to ban the app in 2020 through potential executive orders and divestment demands. In December, FBI Director Chris Wray testified before the U.S. House of Representatives and the Homeland Security Committee that the app posed a threat to national security.
However, the panic over TikTok is overblown. While there are some data issues — though no more extreme than any American social media platform — the political policy and discussion surrounding TikTok amounts to a modern-day red scare. U.S. politicians seem keen to blame China for its lack of data security, rather than looking in the mirror, as they have been allowing any meaningful attempts by big tech lobbyists to overturn federal social media regulation. Without a federal ban on TikTok across the US (which remains unlikely), it’s impossible to put the app back in the proverbial Pandora’s box. These TikTok bans are doing more harm than good when it comes to developing good media citizens in college classrooms.
Social media research and teaching has become a staple in academia and higher education courses. The app has fundamentally changed the nature of modern communication with its aesthetics, practices, storytelling and information sharing.
From an educational standpoint, if we can’t teach the pillars of the modern media field, how can media and communication professors prepare students to be savvy content creators and consumers? While students can of course still access TikTok in the privacy of their own homes, professors can no longer put TikTok into PowerPoint slides or display TikTok links through classroom web browsers. Brands, companies, and novel forms of storytelling all depend on TikTok, and professors will no longer be able to train students in best practices for those purposes. Plus, TikTok makes it more accessible around the world, as students can see what they’re learning in real time.
The world is constantly changing as these countries impose bans, putting their citizens at a disadvantage in the fast-paced media world. Additionally, media and communications students in the states will be at a disadvantage in applying for jobs and demonstrating communication and technology mastery, as well as branding and storytelling skills, as their peers from other states will be able to access education and training.
Professors also have to do research. If these prohibitions persist, social media academics in these states can’t actually do what they’re hired to do, and become experts. Who would pay for a more expensive cell phone data plan for one, though the University Compliance Office says the ban may only apply to campus WiFi and the use of mobile data is still allowed? The answer is no one. While working from home is indeed still an option, professors are employees too, and they should come to campus regularly to show that they are indeed working. That means any social media professor trying to study TikTok on campus will have to rely on video streaming over mobile data, which can be very expensive and either have to pay for unlimited data separately or accidentally exceed the limit for one person.