How much should TikTok fear a resurgent Donald Trump?

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Ulike war Correspondents and economic columnists do not risk their lives to shed light. But they sometimes make sacrifices for the sake of their readers. Schumpeter's most recent confiscation involved crawling TikTok for videos about Donald Trump. In truth, the subject is more amusing than you might think. Mr. Trump is made for gangsta rap (“D.A.“This is stupid/My photo is worth a billion/I sold products and made a milli,” intones an artificial intelligence version of his voice on the app). It warms the hearts of pro-racket Latino rappers (“Made tell me when they hit you with the RICOnow the whole neighborhood is shouting “Free Trump”That'”). The dangers are obvious, however, when your columnist returns to his normal TikTok feed. The algorithm has already polluted him with anti-woke jokes and so much Vivek Ramaswamy that he can't swipe fast enough.

The sympathy for Mr. Trump on TikTok is interesting. After all, in 2020 it sought to ban it, pressed ByteDance, its Beijing-based parent company, to sell it to an American company, and accused China of spying on its users' data and spreading propaganda (TikTok claims to have never shared data with the Chinese government). It is such a scarecrow for senior Republicans that it provoked one of the most ridiculous moments of the primary debates: when Nikki Haley, a presidential candidate, mocked Mr. Ramaswamy, a rival, for for using the app, then called him “scum” for his audacity. to suggest that his daughter does too.

Now that Mr. Trump is set to beat Ms. Haley for the nomination and is a coin toss for the presidency, should TikTok be worried about its future again? So far, the former president hasn't attacked him during the campaign, but it may only be a matter of time. TikTok's ability to stay above the fray depends on three things: political opportunism, the courts, and its efforts to distance itself from China. None of these are entirely within his control.

Mr. Trump relishes his grudges and the one against TikTok is undoubtedly acute. But before deciding whether he will renew his crusade against the platform, he must make a political calculation: how much would he gain from reviving the specter of a ban versus what he could lose from alienating users? In 2020, he may have felt that jeopardizing their support was a small price to pay. Many TikTokers, like K-Pop fans clamoring for tickets to his rally for not showing up were a thorn in the side. But TikTok is different now. On January 31, Shou Zi Chew, its chief executive, told a congressional hearing that 170 million Americans used it each month. That's up from about 100 million when Mr. Trump left office. TikTokers aren't just teenagers lip-syncing anymore. Their average age in the United States is over 30. Given that they make up more than half the population, it makes sense that many vote Republican. Although Mr. Trump does not use the site, he is there by proxy. The hashtag #donaldtrump2024 has 445 million views on TikTok, compared to 22 million for #joebiden2024. This does not reflect support. TikTokers can hashtag Mr. Trump even if they hate him. But it suggests that his presence is more kinetic than that of his rival. He might like it.

Legal hurdles are another reason why taking on TikTok should give it pause. Almost all attempts to ban the app have failed in court. Two federal courts ruled in 2020 that Mr. Trump's use of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to effectively ban TikTok in America exceeded his authority. Late last year, a judge blocked Montana from imposing the app's first statewide ban, saying it violated its users' free speech rights . A separate punitive measure launched by Mr. Trump, using the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to force the sale of TikTok for national security reasons, also weighed on the platform under the Biden administration. But Mr. Biden has his own supporters on TikTok to think about. He is unlikely to risk antagonizing them in an election year by using CFIUS to decapitate their favorite pastime.

TikTok's main line of defense is its own efforts to protect users against Chinese interference. As part of his so-called Project Texas, he created an entity in America that he claims is closed to ByteDance, staffed by Americans and storing user data and sensitive technologies, such as algorithms and content moderation systems, in a cloud. managed by Oracle, a Texas software company. However, this approach is voluntary and may not be foolproof; on January 30, Wall Street Journal reported that employees say they sometimes share data with ByteDance. (Mr Chew said “much in the article” was “inaccurate.”) Moreover, the most important guarantee: reaching an agreement with the government to create an independent board to oversee data protection and of national security, with vetted and approved members. by CFIUS-remains elusive. A deal is unlikely to be reached this year. During an election period, the Biden administration would not dare take the risk of appearing soft on China.

China remains TikTok's Achilles heel. Lawmakers grill Mr Chew (alongside four other techies) CEOs), on its platform's response to online child exploitation, could not resist concern about the threat TikTok poses to national security. The concern is bipartisan. Under the Biden administration, the use of TikTok was banned on federal government devices. Congress is considering attempts to strengthen the president's authority to ban it. If anti-China rhetoric increases during the presidential campaign, TikTok almost risks being caught in the crossfire.

If you can't ban them, join them

Rhetoric is one thing. Getting a ban is another. Despite all the anti-TikTok tirades, the app continues to thrive – as a platform, an advertising medium and, in its early days, as a place to shop. Additionally, prominent spokespersons for Mr. Trump, like Tucker Carlson, a television host, are avid TikTokers. Ben Shapiro, a pro-Trump pundit, used it this week to promote a hit anti-woke rap song he stars in (“If you want my pronouns, I'm the man/I'm the man who don't do it). respect yourself”). Perhaps Mr. Trump, potential gangsta-rapper-in-chief, should bury the hatchet and join them.

Learn more about Schumpeter, our global trade columnist:
Can MSCI bring private markets out of the shadows? (January 25)
Why BlackRock is betting billions on infrastructure (January 18)
AI can transform education for the better (January 11)

Also: If you would like to write to Schumpeter directly, email him at [email protected]. And here's an explanation of how Schumpeter's Column got its name.

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