TikTok Users Pranked Tulsa Rally, But Social Media Activists Should Be More Concerned About Surveillance And Privacy

President Trump was back on the campaign trail on Saturday, supported by a large crowd at his rally in Tulsa. The crowd, however, was significantly smaller than expected. In the days before the event, the president boasted that his rallies never had empty seats. He went on to tweet that almost a million people had requested tickets. 

In reality, the stadium did not even come close to meeting the 19,000 person capacity. The reasons for the unexpectedly low attendance vary. Controversy surrounded the event for weeks, as people criticized the campaign for ignoring coronavirus guidelines and being disconnected from the Black Lives Matter movement. However, reports also claim that young people on TikTok are at least partially responsible.

Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted that the low numbers were because of  “radical protestors, fueled by a week of apocalyptic media coverage.” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded, saying “Actually you just got ROCKED by teens on TikTok who flooded the Trump campaign w/fake ticket reservations & tricked you into believing a million people wanted your white supremacist open mic enough to pack an arena during COVID.”

It is impossible to say how many people participated in the harmless prank, but it does raise questions about activism on social media. TikTok has been scrutinized by top officials in the United States, who worry about threats to privacy and national security. The fiasco surrounding the events in Tulsa brings up new questions about the social media platform. Are social and political activists safe to speak freely? Could algorithms and censorship remove or manipulate meaningful posts? These questions are urgent as the United States approaches a major election, but especially because Tik Tok users are mainly children and adults are extremely concerned about their privacy. 

American officials within both the military and in Congress are very wary of TikTok. In December, Department of Defense employees were warned against using the app. The memo explains their concern over “the app’s popularity with Western users including armed forces personnel, and its ability to convey location, image and biometric data to its Chinese parent company, which is legally unable to refuse to share data to the Chinese government.” 

NBC news reported that the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism held a hearing called “How Corporations and Big Tech Leave Our Data Exposed to Criminals, China, and Other Bad Actors.” TikTok declined to attend but informed the committee that “We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content, and we would not do so if asked.” There is no way to know if this is true.

Many have praised the young people who falsely registered for the rally, but the circumstances should be reigniting these concerns about the company. An opinion piece for the New York Times by Yale’s Nick Frisch compares the domestic Chinese version of the app, Douyin, to the international version. 

In China, the Uighur users of Douyin are particularly vulnerable to censorship and privacy breaches. Members of the Muslim community have been “detained, interrogated, and beaten because of their religion,” as said by PBS. At least one million have been sent to detention camps. Those who post videos featuring traditional music on Douyin are flagged by the algorithm and can expect a visit from the police. They also can expect the data to be collected as part of an effort from the Chinese Communist Party to collect Uighur DNA. The details are described in a separate NY Times report.

Frisch goes on to explain why this should worry Americans. American companies like Facebook have been similarly questioned, but they are accountable to government laws on privacy. China has no such restrictions. “The brazen lying that is normalized in China’s corporate and political culture, and the meaninglessness of written rules, mean that published regulations, or guarantees by private firms and government officials, are simply not credible.” 

Americans do not seem to be concerned about the surveillance. The fact that they willingly opt-in to a service they know to be subject to the whims of a foreign government should be concerning. The actions of the DoD suggest that the American government believes the threat to privacy viable, but the control they have over service-members does not extend to the general public. To ban TikTok in the U.S. would just be censorship from the other direction.

Last week, it was announced and reported by Bloomberg that the European Union established a task force to investigate the data processing activities and privacy practices of the company within the EU. This appears to be the biggest hope to protecting data and privacy. A very public and international effort to raise awareness and establish new data protection laws may encourage people to stop using the app. 2020 has been a year of education and activism for many, and TikTok has been an important part of that. But when does the price become too high?