The US government may be inching towards a radical restructuring of TikTok, if not an outright ban on the Chinese-owned social media app. But for Jaci Butler, an internet personality and singer with 4 million followers on the embattled platform, the shock is old.
“I’m kind of disconnected from that,” said Butler, 27, of Los Angeles. “I’m like, ‘No, there’s no way it’s going to happen again.'”
And yet it seems that it is happening again. In 2020, then-President Trump, spurred on by growing concerns about the app’s data privacy standards and ties to the Chinese government, began pushing for parent company ByteDance to spin off TikTok’s US assets or face legal action. a total ban of the country.
Those efforts petered out after the courts blocked Trump’s attempted ban, but they never fully disappeared. Now President Biden is coming after them again.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, has reportedly told ByteDance that he has to sell TikTok or get kicked out of the country. Meanwhile, Congress is considering an outright ban on apps China can control, and there appears to be a largely bipartisan demand for change.
TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew testified before a House committee in Washington on Thursday morning, answering questions about the platform’s data privacy, ties to China and influence on American users. .
“ByteDance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government,” Chew told the House Energy and Commerce Committee. In response to concerns about user privacy and security, he added: “We believe that what is needed are clear and transparent rules that apply broadly to all technology companies.”
In the eyes of many analysts, the panel signaled an impending crisis for Tik Tok.
“We see a 3-6 month period ahead for ByteDance and TikTok to finalize a sale to an American tech player,” investment firm Wedbush Securities said in a note to clients after the hearing. “If ByteDance fights this forced sale, TikTok will likely be banned in the US by the end of 2023.”
“We would characterize today’s testimony … as a ‘disaster’ moment,” the brokerage firm said.
However, TikTok creators who spoke to The Times this week described mixed emotions in reaction to the growing likelihood of a ban or forced divestment. Some of those who generate a substantial amount of their income on the platform are concerned about how they will adapt. Others said they are less anxious, either because they’ve seen it all before or because they’re better prepared to adjust.
During Trump’s ban campaign, the app’s creators were freaking out, said Butler, who joined the app in 2017 (back when it was Musical.ly) and now, through brand partnerships, gets about 40 % of your income. “We were all posting our final videos and ‘If this is the last time we see you’ (messages) for our fans.”
This time, he said, the nervous energy that the TikTok community displayed in 2020 has been replaced with a more subdued sadness.
“People don’t seem as scared as the first time,” said Alex Stemplewski, an Orange County TikTok user known for his photography. “My friends who are creators haven’t even mentioned it to me. … People say, ‘Well, we got so nervous the first time we thought it would happen, and it didn’t.’”
TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The tone isn’t the only thing that has changed in the years since the first push for a federal crackdown on TikTok. Many social media creators and influencers have moved to diversify their online presence, asking their fans to follow them on multiple rival social media sites.
That task has gotten easier in recent years as American tech companies started releasing their own versions TikTok’s signature format: an endless feed of snappy video clips powered by unseen recommendation algorithms. Creators can now share their TikTok-like content to YouTube Shorts, Instagram Reels, and more.
“The first time TikTok was potentially banned, it was a good wake-up call,” said Stemplewski, 33, who makes more than half of his earnings through TikTok. “It was a reminder that a solid business strategy for me as a content creator was to diversify.”
Emile El Nems, vice president and senior credit officer at Moody’s Investors Service, said in an email that a US ban on TikTok would benefit competitors including YouTube, Instagram and Snap (which hosts its own copy of TikTok, Spotlight).
Yet even if platforms like Reels and Shorts offer viable alternatives, many creators feel emotionally attached to TikTok, which started the current wave of super-short video stars.
“I had a lot of fun,” said Kelsey Kotzur, a 29-year-old fashion and lifestyle influencer living in Brooklyn. “I have learned a lot. I’ve been able to access an audience that I probably never would have been able to.”
When the Biden administration began hinting that it might take action against the company, she began backing up his previous posts on Pinterest and YouTube in case one day her phone stopped letting her open TikTok.
“Are we going to have to be forced to start over in another app?” she asked. “He is playing with our creativity. We are nervous. We’re all nervous, basically, waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
To avoid a TikTok ban, politicians have suggested parent company ByteDance could sell its US operations to a domestic buyer, though the Chinese government said on Thursday would oppose a forced sale.
It would be a less disruptive change for TikTokers because they would still have access to the app. However, such a sale would introduce new questions. For example: How would another owner change TikTok?
“I never thought my audience would be global, but it is,” Kotzur said, adding that he worries a new owner could disrupt how the app’s content recommendation algorithm works. “I wonder if it was bought by an American company, if it wouldn’t be so globalized.”
The effect of a sale “really depends on who bought it,” said Butler, the singer. “I guess the concern is if something like Twitter and Elon happens, you know? How things just skyrocketed.”
Elon Musk, the tech mogul who runs Tesla and SpaceX, acquired Twitter in October after a protracted dispute with management. Since then, he’s laid off employees, faced legal challenges, monitored for bugs and outages, submitted a laundry list of changes to the site, and, at one point, official a system intended to aggressively promote your posts to users.
For many of Twitter’s users, it’s been a warning about what can happen when a popular social media app passes into the hands of a new owner.
The renewed effort to ban TikTok has also affected the ambitions of neophyte influencers.
Valeria Fridegotto, a 23-year-old student living in Chicago, began building her presence on the app in recent months, gaining popularity in part through her participation in a “Disinfluence” trend. Remember that in 2020 he saw memes on Instagram of the TikTok musical note logo stamped on a grave. Now that she is a TikTokker herself, she has a vested interest in the matter.
“I don’t think people really believe that something is going to happen,” he said. “I hope people take it a little more seriously, because now that I’m in it I’m like, ‘Okay, this could drastically change the way I support myself.'”
Los Angeles Times Fellow Helen Li contributed to this report.