The clock is already ticking in Donald Trump’s 90-day deadline for ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, to divest its US operations. While this doubles the 45-day deadline the President set the short-form video app earlier this month, the executive order increases pressure on ByteDance by removing loopholes, making any legal challenge more difficult.
Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ latest US national poll found a plurality (44%) of respondents in America agreeing with a statement suggesting that TikTok should be banned in the United States unless it is sold to an American buyer, with only 20% disagreeing.
Half (50%) of all men supported outlawing the app, compared to 39% of all women, which maybe reflects the fact that the majority (58.8%) of the app’s users are female. Further, a large majority (65%) of those likely to vote for Trump in November supported the ban, compared to a minority (28%) of likely Biden voters. Such wide disparity is in line with our previous research, which indicated that the President’s followers favour a more hawkish stance on China.
The app has particularly come under fire for its close connection with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and its selective moderation policies. Leaked documents suggest its employees are instructed to censor content relating to politically sensitive issues, including Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, and outlawed religious group Falun Gong, as well as artificially restrict other ‘undesirable users’ along criteria such as wealth, disability, beauty, and sexuality.
Other critics have warned of the national security risk posed by TikTok. Almost identical results were produced when another plurality of 44% agreed that TikTok poses a risk to the national security of the United States, while on this occasion 23% disagreed.
Once more, a majority (51%) of men agreed, compared to just a plurality (37%) of women, as did a strong majority (65%) of likely Trump voters and only a minority (30%) of likely Biden voters.
This overall plurality is strongly represented in the American political elite, among whom rumours swirl about TikTok’s capabilities to harvest sensitive data. Trump has himself claimed he possesses “credible evidence” that ByteDance might take action to harm American security interests. The global row over Chinese ‘soft power’ in other technology companies such as Huawei, seen by many as a strategic asset of the CCP, and by extension Trump’s firm response in ending a waiver that had permitted certain American companies to continue to trade with Huawei, has likely reinforced public apprehension towards all Chinese businesses.
As the deadline approaches, the debate has turned to potential details of the app’s sale. Opinion was exactly split on Trump’s call for the US Treasury to receive a cut from the sale of TikTok’s US unit if an American company buys it, with 31% agreeing and the same proportion disagreeing.
Gender disparities were smaller than before, but support for the President’s proposal was greater among likely Trump voters (49%) than among likely Biden voters (17%).
Microsoft appears the most likely buyer and will look to secure a lower price as the asset’s value depreciates now that a fixed deadline is in place. However, co-founder Bill Gates has labelled the deal a “poisoned chalice”. Oracle has now held preliminary talks with ByteDance as a credible alternative, while Twitter has indicated it is “looking at” a possible acquisition.
Either way, legal experts have insisted that the federal government generally does not possess the authority to use the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to take a profit from a private deal, sparking doubts over such a transaction’s eligibility. Many also point out contradictions in the federal government’s recent efforts to curb the monopolies of large tech firms, while simultaneously encouraging them to acquire a relatively new competitor.
There are broader implications in this debate on TikTok, particularly since the Trump administration’s policy risks provoking similar measures of foreign retaliation towards American tech companies. Nonetheless, it is worth pointing out that the great majority of American social networking platforms are already banned in China.
TikTok’s role in the wider public debate on China marks it as an important electoral issue. Our previous research has found that a majority regards the stances of Presidential candidates towards China to be either ‘very’ or ‘moderately’ important, both nationally and in key swing states. As the new deadline looms, which is just nine days from the date of the election in November, the rising attention on TikTok and China will likely benefit Trump’s campaign, as our polling has found that he has consistently been outperforming Biden on this issue.