Why Conservatives Are Trying to Force a TikTok Sale

Last month, the House passed a bill that would require TikTok’s parent company to sell its U.S. business to a company without ties to the Chinese government, or face a ban of the TikTok app in the United States.

In Washington, which has become increasingly hawkish toward the Chinese government, worries and fears about the Chinese Communist Party’s role in ByteDance are widespread. But outside Capitol Hill, millions of people — especially younger Americans — use TikTok everyday for entertainment and increasingly for search. Even beyond the potential speech or other legal issues, if this bill becomes law and a divestiture doesn’t work, those people might be pretty surprised if they were no longer able to download or update the TikTok app.

Representative Mike Gallagher, the Wisconsin Republican, is a co-sponsor of the legislation — he’s about to leave Congress but if this becomes law, it will have an effect on social media and U.S.-China relations long after his departure. Many lawmakers in both parties are concerned about the effects of social media on teens. Mr. Gallagher’s much more concerned about the Chinese government, and we spoke about speech concerns, the message to authoritarian governments from a bill like this and how Donald Trump’s fluctuating support affects the chances the bill will actually become reality.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity and is part of an Opinion Q. and A. series exploring modern conservatism today, its influence in society and politics and how and why it differs (and doesn’t) from the conservative movement that most Americans thought they knew.

Jane Coaston: So what’s the scenario with TikTok that you fear the most? Data theft, misinformation, tracking generations of Americans, and then using their information and attention against ‘em — or something duller than what I’m imagining.

Representative Mike Gallagher: There are two threats. One is what you could call the espionage threat. It’s data security — using the app to find Americans, exfiltrate data, track the location of journalists, etc. We have incidences of this happening already that are in the public domain. That’s a serious threat, but I actually think the greater concern is the propaganda threat. If TikTok continues to establish itself as the dominant news platform in America, and if the algorithm remains a black box and subject to the control of ByteDance and by extension the Chinese Communist Party, you’re placing the control of information — like what information America’s youth gets — in the hands of America’s foremost adversary. And that’s a risk I don’t think we can afford to take. Obviously, there’s well-established precedent when it comes to traditional media for foreign ownership, which is why we think a divestiture is the most prudent way to guard against both of those threats.

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