Trump's TikTok Ban: Is TikTok A Threat To National Security? : Consider This from NPR The app doesn't seem to collect any more data than other social media platforms. But the Trump administration argues that data could fall into the hands of the Chinese government.

NPR's Bobby Allyn reported on TikTok's role in the racial justice movement.

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President Trump Wants To Ban TikTok. Is It Really A National Security Threat?

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President Trump Wants To Ban TikTok. Is It Really A National Security Threat?

President Trump Wants To Ban TikTok. Is It Really A National Security Threat?

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Last fall, a 17-year-old from New Jersey named Feroza Aziz posted a video on TikTok. It looked like a makeup lesson.

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FEROZA AZIZ: Hi, guys. I want to teach you guys how to get long lashes. So the first thing you need to do is grab your lash curler, curl your lashes, obviously...

MCEVERS: But after those first seven seconds, Feroza changed the subject.

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AZIZ: Curl your lashes, obviously. Then you're going to put them down and use your phone that you're using right now to search up what's happening in China, how they're getting concentration camps, throwing innocent Muslims in there, separating their families from each other...

MCEVERS: Feroza was talking about what the Chinese government is doing to Uighurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim people who live in China - 1.5 million people in internment camps, women forced to be sterilized, have abortions or use mandatory birth control. One researcher recently told NPR that what China is doing now meets the United Nations definition of genocide.

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AZIZ: This is another holocaust, yet no one is talking about it. Please be aware. Please spread awareness. And yeah, so you can grab your lash curler again...

MCEVERS: That's how the video ends. Millions of people saw it. But what also happened, Feroza Aziz said, is that TikTok, whose parent company is owned by China, suspended her account. She told CNN it wasn't the first time. She'd done an earlier video about China that was more straightforward.

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AZIZ: But that video got taken down. So I knew that if I did it again like, then my video would be taken down. So using the eyelash curler helped disguise my video. And TikTok - obviously, I - they've seen it now.

MCEVERS: After all this happened, TikTok said they don't suspend accounts for political speech. But The Washington Post found last fall that if you search for content about Hong Kong on TikTok, you wouldn't find anything about the anti-government protests. And now the company has become a target of President Trump. He says he wants to ban TikTok in the U.S. by next month because, he says, it's a national security threat.

Coming up, what we know about whether or not that's true. This is CONSIDER THIS from NPR. I'm Kelly McEvers. It's Friday, August 7.

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MCEVERS: OK. So first off, if you are one of about a hundred million Americans who TikTok says have their app, experts say it's not collecting much more data than any other social media platform. The reason it's different is that the Chinese government could at any time get ahold of that data.

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JAMES GRIFFITHS: The argument is that as a Chinese company, there are obligations under Chinese law. And also, there is kind of extra-legal obligations - you know, pressure that Beijing can bring on these companies if it wants access to that data.

MCEVERS: James Griffiths is based in Hong Kong for CNN. He wrote a book about China and the Internet.

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GRIFFITHS: And so Washington has argued that given that these companies have all this data, and China can in theory access it, that might present a national security risk if users such as, you know, government employees or families of government employees are using these apps.

MCEVERS: So for that reason, last December, the Pentagon ordered military personnel to delete the app from their phones. TikTok, for its part, has pointed out that its data is stored on servers in the U.S., that it has an American CEO and that the company recently said it would let outside experts and regulators examine its data to prove it's not sharing that data with authorities in China.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It can't be controlled for security reasons by China - too big, too invasive.

MCEVERS: But still, President Trump signed an executive order this week that about 45 days from now would outlaw any U.S. citizen from doing business with TikTok - unless an American company buys TikTok's U.S. operations by then.

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TRUMP: We set a date, I set a date of around September 15, at which point it's going to be out of business in the United States. But if...

MCEVERS: TikTok isn't the only app the president is focused on. Thursday night, he actually signed two executive orders, one targeting TikTok and one targeting the messaging app WeChat. It's pretty clear both these orders are going to be challenged in court. But what happens if they are allowed to go through? James Griffiths with CNN, who you heard earlier, explained that to my colleague David Greene.

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DAVID GREENE: So how are these orders from the president last night being viewed in China at this point?

GRIFFITHS: Well, Beijing is not happy - sad Friday afternoon here in Beijing - that it firmly opposes the Trump administration's orders and also accused Washington of using national security as an excuse. But, you know, this is fairly ironic rhetoric coming from China given that these are pretty much the same justifications that it uses for a lot of his own controls on the Internet.

GREENE: So I just think, I mean, about WeChat as an example - I mean, you have people - users in the United States. You have U.S. citizens in China using WeChat. The executive order from the president - I mean, it's really vague, right? Do we know what the impact will be on people who use it?

GRIFFITHS: Yeah, it is very vague. And I think we've already seen quite a lot of concern online, you know, especially from people within the Chinese diaspora in the U.S., a lot of whom use WeChat to talk to their parents or family back home. You know, this could cut off WeChat from users in the States. And that would essentially mean that they can't talk to family back in China because, of course, Beijing for its part through the great firewall blocks pretty much every other messaging app.

And so, you know, were we just to be cut off from the U.S., that could have major ramifications. And then for Americans in China, that could also have major repercussions because WeChat is - far more so than any apps we use in the English-speaking world, WeChat is, you know, a super-app. It's what people use to pay for things, do mobile payments. It's what - how people book taxis. It's - you know, it's a million apps in one.

And so if Americans are prevented from using this or prevented from paying it or using U.S. bank accounts to connect to it, that could really impact how they - you know, how they just live their lives in China. And then also for U.S. companies in China, they may find themselves in a bind because many use WeChat for sales and customer service.

GREENE: Could there be a positive here, though, if this forces a lot of those users to turn to apps that might be more secure?

GRIFFITHS: Certainly. One potential silver lining to this is that, you know, these apps - the complaints about them are quite real. The concerns about data gathering, the concerns about potential censorship on WeChat - those are legitimate. And if it forces these apps to address them, and if it also acts as a wake-up call for the rest of Silicon Valley to behave better when it comes to data collection, that could be a really positive development for users.

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MCEVERS: James Griffiths with CNN in Hong Kong talking to my colleague David Greene.

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MCEVERS: We should say TikTok has been the most-downloaded app in the U.S. during the pandemic - so popular, this week Instagram launched a copycat feature called Reels. TikTok, of course, is mostly short videos, 60 seconds or less, served up one after the other - everything from pets to animal to cooking, dance challenges, lip sync videos, all made to grab your attention in the first few seconds. A huge portion of its user base is under 30 years old.

And over the past few months, a lot of those people have been using it for more than just dancing and lip syncs. Here's NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn.

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BOBBY ALLYN: Raisha Doumbia is a 20-year-old swimming instructor in the Atlanta area. She downloaded TikTok about a year ago, mostly to post fun videos like her lip-syncing and dancing to songs from the British girl group Little Mix. But after protests swept the nation over George Floyd's death, Doumbia switched it up with messages like this.

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RAISHA DOUMBIA: The Black Lives Matter movement is not a photo-op. This is not a chance for you to just take photo shoots. If you really wanted to stand up for our rights as an ally, you would be out there marching.

ALLYN: Doumbia admits it was a drastic change in tone.

DOUMBIA: I was just so disgusted that I felt like I needed to say something. So I started to speak out even though I had, like, 13 followers.

ALLYN: She has more than 60,000 now, though, because some of her videos went viral. Doumbia is far from alone. Videos with the Black Lives Matter hashtag have skyrocketed to the top spot on the platform. The so-called queen of TikTok, Charli D'Amelio, has taken a break from posting dance videos. The 16-year-old, who is white, told her 60 million followers recently she was having a moment of reflection.

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CHARLI D'AMELIO: As a person who has been given the platform to be an influencer, I realize that with that title I have a job - to inform people on the racial inequalities in the world right now.

ALLYN: Debra Aho Williamson of eMarketer studies social media trends. She says TikTok videos that are funny or full of raw emotions can reach huge audiences and quickly, so it makes sense that TikTok is what teens are using to address police brutality and racial inequality.

DEBRA AHO WILLIAMSON: For the first time, they might be exploring how they feel about these issues. And being able to do that on TikTok talk and see other young people who are maybe expressing similar things - I think it's really valid and valuable.

ALLYN: But TikTok is being forced to grow up with its users. Black creators noticed early on that videos that reference George Floyd and Black Lives Matter were being hidden. And the Chinese company that owns TikTok does have a history of censoring videos in places like Hong Kong. TikTok says that's not what's happening here. It blames a technical glitch and says it stands with the Black community.

Not all of the app's users do, though. When 17-year-old Kai Harris (ph) of New Jersey posted about going to a protest, some viewers responded with racist and mean comments.

KAI HARRIS: They're, like, I came here for a good time. I came here to laugh and dance, and you're bringing me down with all this stuff. And I'm, like, the fact that this is happening is bringing me down.

ALLYN: Harris doesn't see herself going back to making videos of her dancing in wigs or lip-syncing because she can't stop thinking about Black people dying at the hands of police.

HARRIS: I do not want to grow up in a world where this just keeps happening. So I decided, you know what? I've been silent on these issues sometimes. I don't share my opinions, but I need to share them now.

ALLYN: Harris says she remembers when Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012. But she didn't fully grasp it at the time because she was just 10 years old. Now she is 17, and she says she's ready to change some minds, one 30-second video at a time.

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MCEVERS: NPR's Bobby Allyn. Additional reporting in this episode from our colleagues at All Things Considered and Morning Edition. We should also say TikTok helps fund but does not produce NPR content that appears on the platform. For more news, download the NPR One app or listen to your local public radio station. Supporting that station makes this podcast possible.

The show is produced by Brianna Scott, Lee Hale and Brent Baughman. It is edited by Sami Yenigun and Beth Donovan, with fact-checking from Anne Li. Our executive producer is Cara Tallo. Thank you for listening. I'm Kelly McEvers.

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