How Donald Trump Lost the War on TikTok

How Donald Trump Lost the War on TikTok

By  |  January 19, 2021  |  Uncategorized  |  No Comments

“Please follow us on Instagram before TikTok is gone,” begged Self Defense Online, a mixed martial arts TikTok user, on Aug. 1. “Go follow me on IG so we don’t lose touch when TikTok is deleted and can continue the fun together!” dance instructor Julie Haneline pleaded that same day. 

These videos were ubiquitous for a brief moment this summer, and for good reason. As far as many TikTok creators knew, the app they had grown to love, which had given them a platform and occupied their days and nights in quarantine, was about to vanish.

But that doomsday scenario didn’t happen. As president, Donald Trump’s reasons for targeting TikTok—concerns about national security, data privacy or personal vendetta—never crystallized into a coherent strategy. In fact, none of the two executive orders and various measures the administration took to banish, reorganize or otherwise inconvenience TikTok came to fruition. With his presidency ending on Wednesday, TikTok won a somehow unlikely battle, in part because the law was on its side but also because Trump seemed to have lost interest by the end of his term.

The result is optimal for TikTok, its parent company ByteDance, and the ecosystem of users, creators and marketers who rely on the app. Unless Joe Biden chooses to pursue the case further, which experts told Adweek is exceedingly unlikely, TikTok is here to stay.

In fact, it’s thriving. TikTok continues to grow since Trump’s regulatory blitz, doubling its active user base in 2020. In November, it counted 48 million active adult U.S. users, according to Comscore. That number is up from 45 million in August, when the executive orders were signed, and up from 22 million users as of last January.

The next shiny object

“What we’re seeing here is a lack of prioritization and focus on behalf of the Trump administration,” said Alec Stapp, head of tech policy at the liberal Progressive Policy Institute. “If Trump weren’t spending his time on the phone with Georgia’s secretary of state trying to overturn the election, maybe he could actually task his administration and people who work for him to actually focus on this issue.”

Stapp said the whole ordeal with TikTok was probably just dropped when Trump “moved on to the next shiny object,” and recently he’s been “obsessed, really monomaniacally so” with Section 230, a key liability law for internet companies. 

Other experts agreed that while most of Trump’s recent political will was focused on getting Section 230 repealed through the defense authorization bill—an effort that ultimately failed—Trump could have much more easily nudged the Committee on Foreign Investment (CFIUS) to get the TikTok deal done in that time.

The administration brokered a deal with Oracle and Walmart, two Trump-friendly American companies, in which they would purchase a combined fifth of a new company, called TikTok Global, and Trump gave the deal his informal “blessing” in September.

While the Oracle-Walmart deal would not have done much at all to address data privacy issues, ByteDance did agree to it. Then, the Trump administration let the company blow past every deadline for getting the deal done.

Spokespeople for TikTok and Oracle did not immediately respond to a request for comment, while a spokesperson for Walmart declined to comment.

In recent interviews, tech policy experts said Biden will likely brush aside the divestment order and stop any Justice Department litigation of the Commerce order, which is still technically being appealed in the federal court system.

About the Author: Scott Nover

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