COMMENTARY: Is Donald Trump banning TikTok over threats to security or a fractured ego?

U.S. President Donald Trump has issued an executive order to ban the widely popular TikTok entertainment app from the United States.

Microsoft Corp has been given until Sept. 15 to strike a deal to purchase TikTok’s U.S. operations, otherwise, the clock will stop ticking for TikTok in America.

READ MORE: Here’s what you need to know about Trump’s orders on TikTok and WeChat

For the approximately 100 million active users across the U.S and the 800 million users worldwide who make or watch its bite-sized videos — mostly featuring dance or lip-syncing renditions largely created by Gen-Z youth and celebrities and often sprinkled with humour — this takedown seems like a bit of a joke. But there’s more to it.

Trump and other government officials have expressed national security concerns that TikTok, which is owned by Chinese internet company ByteDance, is sharing user data with the Chinese government. TikTok’s owners have reportedly been trying to quell the U.S. administration’s fears by pledging to sell the app’s U.S. operations.

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Microsoft was one of the companies whose name had surfaced in talks, and now with the executive order in place, it has 45 days for a deal to be made.

“We are shocked by the recent executive order, which was issued without any due process,” TikTok said in a statement on Friday.

But months prior, when perhaps Trump did not even know TikTok existed, the company had already taken steps to establish itself as an “American” brand, naming Disney’s former head of streaming Kevin Mayer as CEO. The company boasts it has many high-flying American investors and is itself invested in American jobs, with 1,000 employees hired across the U.S. and plans for an additional 10,000 hires.

Trump issues executive orders to ban TikTok, WeChat apps in 45 days

Trump issues executive orders to ban TikTok, WeChat apps in 45 days

So why the heavy-handed ban and why now?

The answer might be a lot less about national security concerns and a lot more about a bruised ego and personal vendetta by President Trump.

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Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Okla., was originally set for June 19, or Juneteenth. Considering the history of the carnage of Black Wall Street in Oklahoma, paired with the current political climate, the date proved problematic.

The administration agreed to push back the rally date, and days before the June 20 rally at the BOK Center in Tulsa, the Trump campaign boasted that nearly one million people had registered to attend. Yet come rally day, there were only 6,200 supporters in attendance — one-third of the venue capacity.

Media outlets broadcast the glaring sight of some 13,000 empty blue seats.

While the pandemic and protests happening in Tulsa at the time certainly could have accounted for a smaller turnout than anticipated, the biggest contributing factor came from a far less usual suspect — a TikTok campaign.

READ MORE: K-pop fans, TikTok users claim they sabotaged Trump’s Tulsa rally

The over-hyped rally was sabotaged by TikTok and Twitter users who devised an online campaign to register for tickets to the rally, with no actual intention of showing up.

K-Pop fans quickly spread the message far and wide and youth answered the call of action, providing false names, emails and phone numbers to register their attendance.

Clearly, there was no security verification required for registration, something the Trump administration has to take the blame for and has nothing to do with any app. The goal of the campaign was to give Trump a false ego boost of a “biggest crowd you’ve ever seen” scenario, only to then leave him standing surprised and humiliated by the overwhelming number of no-shows. And it worked. The commander in chief was duped by a group of Gen Zedders.

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Not long after the Trump administration learned of the scheme to sabotage the Tulsa rally, it began running anti-TikTok ads on Facebook.

Interestingly, when social media was blamed for its role in manipulating voters during the 2016 election, Trump was far from swift in his response, even with known Russian interference. And despite, or perhaps precisely because it is a medium which does very little to verify the truthfulness of its communication, it’s worthwhile to note that as of last November, the Trump campaign had outspent all other campaigns on social media.

Expert urges Canadians to be wary of TikTok app

Expert urges Canadians to be wary of TikTok app

For a man who has shown his obsession with public mockery and celebrity commentary, being trolled by a group of kids has not sat well with Trump.

However, these youth have also shown that they will be neither bullied nor silenced, even if their fun-loving app is banned. This is a tech-savvy group. When other platforms like Instagram or Snapchat have been banned in schools, kids have found ways to log in with VPN.

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TikTokers with millions of followers are already directing their fans to Byte and other platforms. There are quite literally hundreds, if not thousands, of apps that young people experiment with before someone like myself (I’m in my 40s) gets wind of them. By the time I usually do, the kids have already moved on to the next big thing. The president cannot shut down the entire social media network in this game of cat and mouse.

READ MORE: Facebook launches TikTok rival as Trump threatens to ban Chinese-owned app

But beyond fun and games, TikTok shows how apps like this are a hub for young activists. Many TikTokers feel that Trump’s threats to ban the app were a direct response to their campaign against him, and that has gotten them even more politically engaged. If they weren’t paying attention to the election before, they probably are now.

Last weekend, nine successful TikTok creators penned an open letter on Medium to Trump to suggest he focus on removing the app from the alleged control of the Chinese Communist Party.

“Our generation has grown up on the internet, but our vision of the internet is going to require more than two gatekeepers,” the letter said. “Why not use this as an opportunity to level the playing field? Remove the app from the CCP’s control while allowing it to remain a bastion of community in a world where we find ourselves so isolated.”

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Beyond the U.S. election, Gen Z users claim TikTok is a crucial outlet for education about climate change, systemic racism and the Black Lives Matter movement.

I personally may never have the guts or dancing skills to find myself lip-synching to Lizzo for the world to see, but for the sake of our youth, I hope we can #SaveTikTok.

Meera Estrada is a cultural commentator and co-host of kultur’D! on Global News Radio 640 Toronto.

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