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Banning TikTok Won’t Solve the US Social Media Problem 

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Banning TikTok Won’t Solve the US Social Media Problem 

While the Biden administration seeks to aggressively regulate TikTok, it has given up attempting to control disinformation on domestic social media companies.

Banning TikTok Won’t Solve the US Social Media Problem 
Credit: Depositphotos

On March 13, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act. The legislation orders TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, to divest its ownership stake from TikTok within 165 days or be removed from U.S. app stores and web hosting services. President Joe Biden has indicated he will sign the bill into law if it is passed by the Senate. 

To observers who have tracked Biden’s long-standing concerns with TikTok, his support comes as no surprise. During his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden said that TikTok was a “matter of genuine concern” and instructed his campaign staff to delete the app from their work phones. In 2022, Biden banned TikTok on all federally issued devices and demanded compliance with localized U.S. data storage, and strict federal oversight. The following year, the Biden administration told ByteDance it should sell its stake in TikTok, or face a U.S.-wide ban.

Biden’s concerns with TikTok stem in large part from worries over foreign governments and platforms spreading disinformation inside the United States. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre publicly acknowledged that TikTok’s ability to spread disinformation is ”a concern we have.” John Plumb, the principal cyber adviser to the secretary of defense, named TikTok a “potential threat vector” over its disinformation capacities. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence also raised TikTok’s ability to spread disinformation through Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-affiliated generative AI as a national security concern. 

It’s Not Just TikTok

While CCP officials and state media have accused Biden of xenophobia and mercantilism for targeting TikTok, private and academic studies have supported the Biden administration’s concerns. In 2020, the research firm NewsGuard found that nearly 20 percent of TikTok videos on popular news topics contained misinformation. Academics at Rutgers University found that content sensitive to the CCP (like discussions of rights abuses in Xinjiang) was being suppressed on TikTok. Other media investigations point to sensitive content being actively censored by the platform. These concerns all come with long-standing allegations that China’s government holds direct influence over TikTok through its parent company, ByteDance

Biden’s policies against domestic platforms and disinformation also puncture arguments about potential bias against TikTok. On his first day in office, the Biden administration promised to address the “crisis of disinformation and misinformation” on domestic platforms like Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), and YouTube. Biden has publicly shamed Facebook for “killing people” through widespread vaccine disinformation. Biden officials have also criticized X for its rampant disinformation and over new owner Elon Musk posting anti-Semitic content. Biden’s reelection campaign called YouTube “reckless” for refusing to remove misinformation about the 2020 and 2024 presidential elections.

Similar to concerns with TikTok, independent research also supports the administration’s concerns over disinformation on domestic social media platforms. During the 2020 election, Texas A&M scholars found that 1 out of 4 images on Facebook – which make up 40 percent of total Facebook posts – contained disinformation. Media investigations have also found that YouTube, Facebook, and X make millions from accounts posting disinformation and their algorithms incentivize sharing disinformation

TikTok, Biden, and the Future of Social Media 

Regulating both domestic and foreign disinformation on social media companies like TikTok or Facebook is part of Biden’s larger vision for a more democratic global internet. 

In 2022, the United States and 60 member countries signed the Declaration for the Future of the Internet. Among several points, signees promised to work together to reduce “illegal and harmful content and activities” on social media platforms and “bolster resilience to disinformation and misinformation.” A leaked early-stage draft document indicated that members would form an “alliance” on “tech platform regulation and information integrity” standing in opposition to the “alternative vision of the Internet as a tool of State control promoted by authoritarian powers such as China and Russia.” 

The Biden administration’s hope to build an open and disinformation-free internet stands in stark contrast to the CCP approach of cyber sovereignty. Though complex and multi-faceted, in the context of social media, cyber sovereignty posits that each country has the sovereign right to regulate the behavior of social media users and companies as they see fit. China has used cyber sovereignty to justify not only censoring false, hateful, or harmful information, but also targeting netizens and suppressing content that threatens the stability of the CCP’s autocratic rule. 

Unsurprisingly, the CCP rejects Biden’s goal to battle disinformation across global social media platforms. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian has accused Biden of drawing “ideological lines” around acceptable practices in cyberspace. State media columnists have predicted that Biden’s efforts will sharpen differences and “fragmentation” between the United States and China or dismissed such policies as a “trick” to expand U.S. influence over the internet.

Avoiding Hypocrisy: Can the U.S. Regulate Domestic Disinformation?

While regulations targeting foreign social media platforms like TikTok have received robust bipartisan support, the Biden administration’s efforts to tame disinformation on domestic platforms have been met with GOP obstruction. Republican lawmakers have repeatedly intervened to stop the FBI from coordinating with social media platforms on disinformation, as well as blocked the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency from combating election disinformation. GOP House members have also coordinated attacks on academics researching disinformation, issuing dozens of subpoenas to universities and institutions. 

GOP opposition to the short-lived Disinformation Governance Board best exemplifies the challenges Biden has faced when attempting to fight domestic social media disinformation. The Department of Homeland Security launched the board in April 2022 to standardize and coordinate efforts against disinformation between multiple government agencies. After only three weeks, the project was paused and three months later was fully dissolved.

This decision came after a coordinated disinformation campaign across social media platforms led by far-right politicians and media personalities against the board and its inaugural director, Nina Jankowicz. After the board dissolved, Jankowicz mused that “it’s kind of ironic that the board itself was taken over by disinformation when it was meant to fight it.” 

GOP obstruction has also failed to address disinformation’s role in what Biden called “the greatest threat to U.S. democracy since the Civil War” – the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. Afraid of GOP backlash, the special House committee charged with investigating the riots omitted a key 122-page section from its final report. This section has since been leaked, with findings that YouTube acted as a “repository for false claims of election fraud,” that Facebook and Twitter failed or refused to execute disinformation policies, and that leadership at domestic social media platforms actively allowed disinformation from prominent conservative users. 

Investigators involved in the report have since said that unless disinformation on social media is properly regulated “other demagogues… will surely exploit the platforms to spread the next big lie.” 


In the age of social media platforms, the maximalist approach to U.S. free speech has led to disinformation fueling demagogues and political violence, while minimalist approaches like cyber sovereignty have severely restricted an open and democratic internet. In this context, the Biden administration’s attempts to battle disinformation and find a third way forward represents a worthwhile risk. But pursuing this path will require the administration to challenge forces in both the United States and China who are deeply committed to the status quo. 

While the Biden administration has continued to aggressively regulate TikTok, it has given up attempting to control disinformation on domestic social media companies. This comes despite the well-documented evidence that widespread disinformation on X, Facebook, and YouTube contributed to recent political instability and violence. By failing to address domestic disinformation, the Biden administration is increasing the probability these violent events and political forces reemerge in the near future. 

Along with weakening democracy at home, failure to address domestic disinformation also harms Biden’s vision for expanding a more democratic internet abroad. Allies are highly unlikely to collaborate on global frameworks for governing disinformation if the United States is unable to regulate the rampant disinformation of its own social media platforms. The U.S. failure to tackle disinformation on platforms like X, Facebook, and YouTube also helps to legitimize CCP claims of hypocrisy when TikTok faces strict disinformation regulations while domestic platforms face little to no repercussions for similar behavior. 

The Biden administration’s words and policies make it clear they know combatting disinformation means regulating both foreign and domestic platforms. These assessments are further supported by a wide variety of independent research. Taken as a whole, this means the ban on TikTok is unlikely to be successful in reducing domestic and global disinformation and will not further the goal of a more democratic, global internet. 

Until Biden is willing to stand up to the GOP and hold U.S. companies to the same standard as TikTok, his administration will not succeed in making the U.S. internet or global cyberspace a more open, legible, and truthful place. 

Guest Author

Matt Dagher-Margosian

Matthew J. Dagher-Margosian is a freelance China analyst and Senior Researcher for Liminal Labs. He's worked or collaborated with Trivium China, China Labour Bulletin, the China Project, Living Otherwise, and Bloomberg. He received his 2023 Masters in International Studies from Simon Fraser University, specializing in U.S.-China technology regulations and forced labor in Chinese e-commerce supply chains.