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Weaponizing 100 million TikTok users for political fun and profit!

The fact that Joe "doesn't have it on his phone" doesn't mean he doesn't know what it is. In fact it's awesome he knows how to use a cell phone at all!

Biden’s TikTok Dilemma: A Ban Could Hurt Democrats More Than Republicans

App popular with younger Americans is emerging as a vital campaign asset for Democrats

TikTok is reported to have more than 100 million regular users in the U.S.

By John D. McKinnon, WSJ

March 13, 2023 5:30 am ET

WASHINGTON—Many Republicans and some Democrats are clamoring for action to address a perceived security risk from Chinese-owned TikTok, but one political leader has been largely silent: President Biden.

Mr. Biden and his aides have demurred when asked about potential actions to restrict TikTok, saying they are awaiting recommendations from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., or Cfius.

“I’m not sure,” Mr. Biden said recently when asked if the U.S. should ban TikTok. “I know I don’t have it on my phone.”

The Cfius negotiations over TikTok have been dragging on since 2019, however—leading some Republicans to say Mr. Biden is ducking the issue because of the political risk in taking on the hugely popular app, which has more than 100 million regular users in the U.S. alone.

A major unspoken problem for the president, according to political strategists, is that trying to force an outright ban on TikTok—as many Republicans are seeking—would sacrifice what is emerging as a vital campaign asset for Democrats with the 2024 election season looming.

“Right now TikTok can be a valuable weapon, especially since Republicans have run away from it for political reasons,” said Bradley Beychok, co-founder of American Bridge 21st Century, an independent political committee that backs Democratic candidates. “You wouldn’t want a tool like that to be taken off the shelf.”

TikTok’s audience is predominantly younger people, who typically favor Democrats by wide margins.

Turnout among younger voters surged in 2018, 2020 and 2022, helping the party deliver Republicans political setbacks. Unusually high turnout among younger voters in the 2022 midterm elections was credited with helping the party maintain control of the Senate and also limit its losses in the House.

For Democrats, a key to reaching those younger voters has been TikTok, according to consultants in both parties. That advantage has been sharpened by many Republicans’ refusal to use the platform because of its perceived security risks, Democratic strategists say.

“Especially among Gen Z voters, it is the dominant platform,” one Democratic consultant said. “If we’re going to turn out young voters…we’ve got to have things they actually like and do…”

Banning TikTok ahead of the next election cycle, the consultant added, would be “politically insane.”

Mr. Biden’s Commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo, acknowledged the political risk of a ban in a recent interview with Bloomberg.

“The politician in me thinks you’re gonna literally lose every voter under 35, forever,” she said.

Ms. Raimondo’s comment drew a rebuke from Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), who says he believes that the Chinese-owned app could be forced by Beijing to share data on its users or influence the content shown to users.

“A lot of Democrat candidates, a lot of Democrat officeholders have TikTok accounts,” Mr. Rubio said on Fox Radio’s “Brian Kilmeade Show.” “Democratic political operatives believed that TikTok is politically advantageous for them. And so they kind of want to look tough on China, but they don’t want to crack down on this website.”

John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, declined to comment on Ms. Raimondo’s observations.

TikTok, owned by Beijing’s ByteDance Ltd., said: “In addition to being a beloved entertainment platform, TikTok has emerged as a source of useful information for millions of Americans who come to learn about the world, connect with small businesses and build communities in support of causes they care about. We hope that Congress will consider the very serious First Amendment implications and the harmful precedent of any government action that jeopardizes the free exchange of ideas.”

The company has repeatedly said it wouldn’t share data with Beijing or be influenced by its government and has offered to undertake costly security measures to address U.S. concerns.

In Congress, some Republicans are pushing for a ban. Other Republicans have joined Democrats in supporting a bill by Sens. Mark Warner (D., Va.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and John Thune (R., S.D.), the Senate Republican whip.

The Warner-Thune bill would require the Commerce Department to set up procedures to mitigate risks and potentially ban foreign technology. That could lead to a ban in appropriate circumstances for a specific platform or service.

It isn’t clear that the process would necessarily lead to a ban in the case of TikTok.

The bill’s unveiling was followed quickly by statements of support from top administration officials, including Ms. Raimondo and Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to say if Mr. Biden would ban TikTok if the bill passed and gave him the authority to do so but acknowledged the White House had “concerns with this particular app.”

“We want to make sure that the digital products and services Americans use every day are safe and secure,” Ms. Jean-Pierre told reporters Wednesday.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R., Texas), has sponsored legislation that directs the president to sanction any entity including TikTok that operates an app that is subject to Chinese influence or might facilitate Chinese surveillance or propaganda.

“It’s deeply discouraging that some Democrats in D.C. are opting for inaction that is further undermining the country’s national security,” Mr. McCaul said.

Ultimately, some other Republicans in Congress might have their own political reasons for opting for inaction. As partisan battle lines quietly emerge over TikTok, GOP lawmakers might worry that leading a charge to ban the popular platform could carry a political cost.

“It would be the most unpopular thing Congress has done in decades to somehow ban TikTok,” said GOP strategist Eric Wilson. “I don’t think given the average age of members of Congress that they understand how engaging TikTok is as a news source.”

The median age of House lawmakers is nearly 58 years old, and in the Senate the median tops 65 years old, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.

About 62% of TikTok’s U.S. users are under 30, and 78% are under 40, according to Wallaroo Media, a digital-marketing firm.

Former President Donald Trump sought to force a sale of TikTok’s U.S. operations on grounds that it was a security risk. TikTok lobbyists pointed out to the Trump campaign the downsides to a ban, and Mr. Trump eventually fell silent on the issue after court setbacks. A representative of Mr. Trump didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Mira Ricardel, who served as Mr. Trump’s deputy national security adviser in 2018, said the climate in Washington has shifted considerably since the former president grappled with the same question.

“When the Trump administration first took this issue on, there might have been more skepticism” of the security risk, she said. “There is now essentially a unanimous bipartisan view that something must be done. And that’s different.”

Adam Kovacevich, chief executive of the tech industry-backed group Chamber of Progress, said he believes a sale of TikTok to put control under Western owners might ultimately be the solution and said he considered that more likely than a ban.

“A big reason why the administration hasn’t acted yet, and maybe some Democrats have been reluctant to support aggressive action, is a concern about annoying millions of young voters,” Mr. Kovacevich said. “I think that’s only because they are thinking about the solutions as binary—ban or no ban.”

TikTok declined to comment on the possibility of a sale.

—Sabrina Siddiqui contributed to this article.

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