A growing group of lawmakers think TikTok is 'digital fentanyl' and want to ban it. Many others remain skeptical.

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A growing group of lawmakers think TikTok is 'digital fentanyl' and want to ban it. Many others remain skeptical.
Getty; Marianne Ayala/Insider
  • Some members of Congress have begun pushing to ban TikTok in the US.
  • But when Insider spoke with nearly 20 senators about the idea, many expressed skepticism.
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Some members of Congress have begun a push to ban TikTok nationwide, arguing that the wildly popular video-sharing platform is a potential vector for malign influence from the Chinese Communist Party.

But despite Congress recently banning the app on government devices — and dozens of state governments doing the same — plenty of lawmakers remain uneasy about the prospect of outlawing a social media platform that's grown ubiquitous in American life, especially with young people.

In interviews with nearly 20 senators on Capitol Hill last week, Insider found that many of them — despite stressing their concerns about the influence of China and the negative impacts of social media on youth — remain skeptical about banning an app that claims more than 100 million American users.

Republicans, notably including former President Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, have generally been most ardent in pushing for a TikTok ban, though an increasing number of Democratic lawmakers have joined the effort.

"I'm a little less enthusiastic about an all-out ban of it," said Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota. "What I don't want is to create a trend where every time we get irritated with somebody, we ban their product from our country altogether."

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And other lawmakers observed that the broader American public has yet to be convinced that the app — popular for delivering a steady stream of viral content and memes via an algorithmically-driven feed — poses a uniquely grave threat to its users.

"I'm an incrementalist on a lot of things, and I would be on this as well," said Republican Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming. "It's different when you're talking about it as something that you've really integrated into your daily life, and how you interact with your family and your friends."

Furthermore, dozens of members of Congress have TikTok accounts to their name — and an even greater number of lawmakers likely have children, or grandchildren, who regularly use the app. Some lawmakers have strategically used the app to reach younger voters, while others have inadvertently become stars on the site.

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Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona said that his two daughters, both in their 20s, "know better" than to send him TikTok videos, but that one of them "uses it at work for her job."

"I've got teenagers," said Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut. "I probably interact with TikTok more than a lot of senators."

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And Republican Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas, who told Insider that "social media in some ways for kids can be worse than pornography," said his 15-year-old son uses the app as well.

"He does send me stuff from it, from time to time," said Marshall. "I'm sure he considers it very entertaining. And like everything, a little bit's good, a lot's bad."

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese technology company headquartered in Beijing. Proponents of the ban argue that China's National Intelligence Law forces ByteDance and its employees to participate in intelligence activities by the Chinese government, imperiling US national security.

A growing number of lawmakers are warming to the idea of a ban. Senate Majority Leader said in a recent interview it's "something that should be looked at," lending the cause new momentum.

But for now, proponents acknowledge they still have some convincing to do — and that it will take a while before a majority of Congress is ready to vote on a ban.

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"I think there are some people that don't like the idea of banning companies, per se," said Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the chief sponsor of a bipartisan bill to ban TikTok, referring to fellow senators.

A growing group of lawmakers think TikTok is 'digital fentanyl' and want to ban it. Many others remain skeptical.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida at the Capitol on January 25, 2023.Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

"Its AI is very good, and the video content on it is very catchy," he added. "This is not about the content on TikTok — some of which I find to be ridiculous, and others which may be very interesting."

'Digital fentanyl'

Rubio first raised concerns about the app in 2019, and Trump attempted to ban TikTok via an August 2020 executive order that was later revoked by President Joe Biden. The social media giant remains under investigation by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a panel that operates under the Treasury Department.

But as millions more Americans have joined the app in recent years — and tensions between the US and China continue to rise — calls for taking some sort of action have grown. Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has taken to declaring that "Trump was right" about TikTok.

Rubio, along with Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, is pushing a bill called the "ANTI-SOCIAL CCP" Act that would ban TikTok and any other social media platform owned by a company based in China, Russia, and other US adversaries unless they're sold to an American company. Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, the chairman of a new select committee on China and the House sponsor of the bill, has dubbed the app "digital fentanyl."

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Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, who led the Senate effort to ban the app from government phones, has also since introduced a bill to ban the app entirely from the US.

And earlier this month, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado sent a letter to Google and Apple asking that the companies remove TikTok from their app store, declaring that he remained "fundamentally concerned" about the app meeting with TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew face-to-face.

Concerns about a ban

With the conversation on Capitol Hill still in its early stages, numerous senators are lodging concerns on a variety of fronts, including the fairness and efficacy of pursuing just one app, the broader concerns about social media's mental health impacts, and the "unintended consequences" of taking such sweeping action.

"We need a broader rule than simply TikTok only," said Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. "If we are threatened by a foreign government's ownership of any technology company, then we need to deal with that consistently in all forums."

"I haven't come to a conclusion that that's the best way to deal with TikTok," said Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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A growing group of lawmakers think TikTok is 'digital fentanyl' and want to ban it. Many others remain skeptical.
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut at the Capitol on March 16, 2022.Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

Some lawmakers say there should be more focus on the mental health impacts of TikTok and other social media platforms. Murphy, a prominent Democratic voice on foreign policy who said he was "open" to a ban, argued that a "conversation that is primarily about one app, and who owns it, is not connected to the way that parents experience social media."

"I wish we were talking about TikTok through the prism of how it affects our kids, and not simply as a national security matter," said Murphy "I think the bigger danger to the United States is the way that social media is making our children's lives immensely unhappy."

Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff of Georgia is one of several politicians who's used the app for campaign purposes — though not personally, he insisted.

"I think that the national security concerns, and the mental health and privacy concerns, warrant serious regulatory scrutiny," said Ossoff.

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Others said they were more concerned about social media as a whole, naming TikTok among a range of other social media apps that they say are having a detrimental effect on children.

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Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on social media and the internet's impact on children.

"There are a lot of platforms that we could probably ask some more questions for," said Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, a member of the Judiciary committee who said he wanted a "pause" on the app. "The industry as a whole really needs to work on getting a self-imposed regulatory framework."

Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, another committee member, said she's most concerned about how social media platforms are impacting kids. But she stopped short of endorsing a ban on the Chinese giant.

"You always run into First Amendment issues and all that, because there are unintended consequences when we have those kinds of discussions," said Hirono.

"That doesn't mean we shouldn't do anything, though," she added.

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