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Jun 23, 2024, 7:57pm EDT
mediapoliticstech

TikTok in denial as US ‘ban’ approaches

Solen Feyissa/Unsplash
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The Scoop

CANNES, France — At the advertising conference in Cannes last week, TikTok occupied its customary, lavish space in the back of the Carlton — a space that felt infinitely distant from the heated Washington conversation over the future of the Chinese-owned social app.

Here, TikTok is the beating heart of youth culture. It’s also a messy but powerful ad platform that has more cultural relevance with young consumers, if less-precise marketing tools, than its main rivals, Meta’s Reels and YouTube’s Shorts.

Like everyone else here, TikTok wanted to show off its new AI products. At a press conference, a top executive from its parent company, ByteDance, rolled out a fascinating and unsettling new feature that allows users to create realistic AI avatars that can say and do… pretty much anything in any language.

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Blake Chandlee, the president of global business solutions at ByteDance, spoke about TikTok for nearly 45 minutes without mentioning the fact that President Joe Biden had signed a law in April threatening to ban it. It came up only when Max asked him about it point blank: Were the advertisers that TikTok hoped would continue to invest and build strategies around the platform spooked that it could all go away next year?

“It’s the obvious question, and something I’ve been asked while I’ve been here the last couple of days,” he said. “The advertising community has been really supportive of us. We’ve spent the last five years building really strong controls, building trust, building privacy-first capabilities for them.”

“This week, the conversations are more around what are we doing for the future, what are the next product innovations that we’re doing,” he added. “The ban is not a subject we’ve been talking about a lot.”

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His press team concluded the event after the question.

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Know More

Just a month ago, at the annual advertising NewFronts conference in New York in spring, TikTok was in battle mode.

Two weeks after Biden signed a bill requiring ByteDance to sell TikTok to an American owner or face a ban, Chandlee blasted the decision in remarks to advertisers, saying the demand is “unconstitutional” and promising the company will not back down.

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Since then, however, GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, once a TikTok critic himself, has derided the anti-TikTok push and joined the app — two factors that appear to give marketers confidence that there’s nothing to worry about.

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Ben’s view

The complacency over TikTok at Cannes was a shocking contrast with the seriousness in Washington about killing or forcing the sale of the app. The congressional vote earlier this year was a rare display of bipartisanship, aided by a remarkably ham-handed public pressure campaign by the company that blew up in its face. TikTok now has few friends in the US capital.

The idea that all will be well seems to rest on a pair of shaky assumptions. First, that Trump will win in November. And second, that when he does, he’ll then intervene to save the app.

But betting your business on a US election is a fool’s game.

And staking it on your expectations of Trump’s actions is, if anything, riskier. Trump may have criticized the US law — he said he would “never ban” TikTok — but as president, nobody would be asking him to ban it. The ban-or-forced-sale ultimatum is already in place. Rather, he would have to intervene actively to protect the company, if it doesn’t sell to a US government-friendly buyer first.

And Trump’s economic confrontation with China would be expected to go “much further” than it did in his first term, our colleague Morgan Chalfant recently reported.

In fact, former Trump national security adviser Robert O’Brien told Morgan that the legislation would go forward in a Trump presidency. Trump, he said, “has been very clear on Chinese espionage against the US and Chinese propaganda and influence operations against the US.”

The best hope for TikTok is that, ultimately, Trump is truly hard to predict. Matt Pottinger, another former top Trump aide who played a central role in China policy, said he is uncertain on the future of TikTok.

“The law is the law. I think the law will survive the court rulings. But I’m not sure where Trump will be on this if he wins,” he said.

That’s pretty cold comfort, but nobody wanted to hear it in Cannes.

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Room for Disagreement

Some of TikTok’s most vocal defenders are among US free speech advocates.

“Restricting citizens’ access to media from abroad is a practice that has long been associated with repressive regimes, so it’s sad and alarming to see our own government going down this road,” said Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Center at Columbia University.

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Notable

  • TikTok’s Washington lobbyists didn’t see the legislation coming — and then infuriated legislators with a pressure campaign, The Wall Street Journal reported.
  • A set of Chinese companies that sought to become American brands are learning that may be impossible, Zeyi Yang wrote in the MIT Technology Review: “Concealing their Chinese associations doesn’t work — and it may make them look even worse if it leaves users and regulators feeling deceived.”
  • Banning TikTok may not do much to protect Americans’ data in the absence of broader privacy laws, Lauren Leffer argued in Scientific American: The legislation “is a form of security theater,” said Calli Schroeder of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “You could get rid of TikTok today, and China would not lose any significant [amount] of personal information on Americans.”
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