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After the House Vote, What's Next for TikTok?

The Arbiter, Vol 1., No. 8

Should advertisers be worried about a TikTok ban?

In a word, No. In two words: Not yet.  

But it needs to be said: While we don’t think advertisers should be worried, TikTok absolutely should.  

In an election year, it’s rare that our two parties publicly agree on anything. Which is why Wednesday’s landmark vote — a bipartisan victory in the House of Representatives for a bill that would ban TikTok in the US if ByteDance refuses to sell — should be a five-alarm warning to TikTok that its platform is at risk. Even if this bill is ultimately defeated in the Senate—and it’s far from clear that it will be—a rubicon has been crossed: For the first time in US history, a chamber of Congress has come to agreement on legislation that could shut down a social media platform.  

Up until now, the conventional wisdom has been that regardless of House action, the bill was unlikely to ultimately pass. As recently as Tuesday, when it became clear the full House would overwhelmingly approve the TikTok bill, the Washington Post reported the legislation “faces a minefield” of opposition in the Senate. Yet just minutes after the House passed the bill by a 352-65 vote, the ranking Democrat and Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee—Mark Warner and Marco Rubio—announced they were “united in our concern” about the TikTok as a national security threat, and that they “look forward to working together to get this bill passed.” 

If you were the CEO of TikTok—knowing that President Joe Biden has promised to sign the bill if it reaches his desk—this would be your “break glass in case of emergency” moment. And that means something more serious than flooding the “For You” feed with “Call Your Senator” CTAs. When concerns surfaced last year about a similar bill, TikTok reached out to re-assure advertisers that the platform was safe, unveiling its Project Texas, which Ad Age described as “a $1.5 billion program by TikTok to disentangle US data and operations from China.” Back then, the message from TikTok was essentially: Keep calm and carry on. That may not work this time.

The TikTok bill reveals a larger shift underway in American views on social media: A new consensus is slowly taking shape, and it’s unclear where it will settle.

Our many constituencies often disagree on whether specific platforms harbor political or cultural bias—and we also disagree about which groups the platforms are biased against. But it’s important to understand that the TikTok bill is ideological and financial, not political: Democrats and Republicans support the bill for the same reasons (concerns about national security and privacy), and they also oppose the bill for largely the same reasons (concerns about the bill infringing on First Amendment rights). Former President Donald Trump supported a TikTok ban while in office but now opposes it. The bill was opposed by progressive lawmakers like Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and Senator Elizabeth Warren, who are concerned about privacy but oppose a bill that targets only TikTok. The day of the vote, the most stirring opposition to the bill on First Amendment grounds came from North Carolina Republican Dan Bishop, who noted that even foreign propaganda is protected speech under the Constitution. 

As late as last week, marketers surveyed by Digiday were still unfazed by the prospect of a ban—seeing the latest legislative scare as more ado about something unlikely to happen. After Wednesday’s vote, Ad Age suggested the tide was beginning to turn in favor of measured concern. But anyone looking to take the temperature of the moment should pay more attention to how TikTok creators are reacting: And by all accounts, they’ve been taking the threat seriously

It’s not hard to see why. Whether or not the bill passes, TikTok is encountering new headwinds after a period of unrestrained growth. In 2024, advertisers should see TikTok as the canary in the coal mine: It’s the first indication that First Amendment claims will not be enough to stave off popular and political demands for platforms to get their ships in order when it comes to concerns about privacy, safety, and propaganda. Furthermore, if the TikTok bill manages to become law, legislators may very well be emboldened to seek new bipartisan alliances in order to impose additional restrictions and guidelines on a wider group of social media platforms. 

What do you think?  Join the conversation.

A TikTok Bill Reading List: 

The Arbiter is a series of informed opinions, strategic outlooks, analytics-backed predictions, and tactical briefings from Gupta Media. Subscribe via email, Substack, or LinkedIn


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