US activists worry about ‘losing major asset’ TikTok as potential ban looms

Recent decisions by US gov’t and platforms have made organising on TikTok and Instagram much harder for activists.

TikTok supporters in front of the Capitol Hill
TikTok is fighting against a ban that US President Joe Biden signed into law and that requires owner ByteDance to completely spin off TikTok for the US audience or the platform will be banned [File: J Scott Applewhite/AP Photo]

Michael Mezzatesta is a climate educator based in Los Angeles, California. For the last two years, he’s used TikTok and Instagram as a means to spread the word about climate marches and real-life ways people can get involved and fight to take on climate change.

In September 2023, he helped generate interest in the climate march in New York.

“We were expecting maybe 5,000 to 10,000 people there. I’m pretty sure more than 50,000 people showed up,” Mezzatesta told Al Jazeera.

He says that is largely thanks to TikTok.

“I had folks coming up to me that I didn’t even know during the march that said I saw your video and that’s why I’m here,” he added.

But Mezzatesta’s ability to use social media platforms like TikTok to organise is coming increasingly under threat.

A slew of recent decisions from Washington and from social media giants like X, Meta (owner of Facebook and Instagram), and ByteDance (owner of Tiktok) has made organising on key social and political issues much more difficult before a consequential election cycle in the United States.

TikTok is fighting against a ban that President Joe Biden, citing data privacy concerns, signed into law. It requires ByteDance to completely spin off TikTok for the US audience or the platform will be banned. It could be at least a year before the ban ultimately takes effect pending legal challenges. The social media platform has filed a lawsuit against the US government amid allegations that the legislation violates the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which protects the right to free speech.

But the dispute between the federal government and ByteDance leaves activists like Mezzatesta in a tough spot as they explore the future of organising protests and demonstrations for the masses.

That sentiment is echoed by organisations like Gen-Z for Change — a collective of young activists.

“Rather than trying to impose universal data privacy legislation to protect Americans from the very real data privacy crisis that we have in this country, Congress has chosen to ban an app that has been one of the most powerful platforms for youth organising,” founder Aidan Kohn-Murphy told Al Jazeera.

People display signs as they participate in the 'March to End Fossil Fuels' in NYC, US
Michael Mezzatesta has used apps like TikTok and Instagram to spread the word about climate-related activism that took place in New York City in September 2023 [File: Justin Lane/EPA]

This is in addition to some state level challenges. Earlier this year, a federal judge struck down the state of Montana’s bill that banned the app. The state appealed the decision and the case is continuing. 

This month, two Native American tribes joined in the fight to bar the state from banning the app, claiming that the move oversteps tribal sovereignty and that states should instead work on closing the digital divide on Native American lands.

The federal ban, if ultimately not stopped by the courts, will not take effect until after the November elections. But the implications could be immediate.

“TikTok may be incentivised to change some of its moderation practices in an attempt to appease some elected leaders that are behind the ban,” Kate Ruane, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology, told Al Jazeera.

Accusations of manipulation

While TikTok is a powerful tool for organising, there are accusations that the social media app is itself putting a thumb on the scale – and that it has been manipulating public discourse on a myriad of social issues and political matters in recent years.

TikTok has been blamed for suppressing notable creators who promoted Hindu-Muslim unity in India (TikTok has been banned in India since 2020), some views on women’s reproductive health, and content about China’s oppression of Uighur Muslims. It has even been accused of suppressing content from people it deemed “ugly”.

Conversely, it has been accused of promoting and pushing users towards disinformation in the early days of the war between Russia and Ukraine. Recently, the app was charged with promoting pro-Palestine content more frequently than pro-Israel content.

“There’s a lot of speculation about what is or isn’t being promoted on the platform. But the truth is, we often don’t really know. There is a strong need for transparency,” Ruane said.

US legislators overwhelmingly called the decision to ban TikTok a national security issue having to do with how the company uses customer data. But this has been a wide-ranging problem for years and is far from limited to TikTok. Infamously, in the 2016 election, digital analytics firm Cambridge Analytica used personal Facebook data to create voter profiles which it then sold to campaigns.

However, social media has long played an important role in social mobilisation, such as Twitter and Facebook during the first Arab Spring uprisings in early 2011 — because the platforms became key tools to get the word out about protests that took place in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen. The movement ultimately led to the downfall of several leaders including Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

The use of TikTok for grassroots organising and access to information in the last four years has been similar.

FILE - Black Lives Matter protesters march through Portland, Ore. after rallying at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020
Social media has long played a role in social protests like the ones for Black Lives Matter [File: Noah Berger/AP Photo]

During the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 by Minneapolis police officers, 94 percent of TikTok users believe that the app “generated meaningful action” for the social justice movement, according to a study from the Reach3 Insights — a consumer insight consultancy. That’s largely driven by protest turnout. The same report found that 26 percent of TikTok users attended a BLM protest – double that of their peers who were not on TikTok at the time.

“TikTok plays an especially important and outsized role for minority communities seeking to foster solidarity online and to highlight issues vital to them,” Patrick Toomey, deputy director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told Al Jazeera.

“Many of the calls to completely ban TikTok in the United States are about scoring political points and rooted in anti-China sentiment,” Toomey claimed, adding that the government had yet to produce evidence that many of its concerns about TikTok were justified.

TikTok did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment by press time.

Limits on Meta and X

The US government’s move against TikTok is not the only recently erected hurdle in the social media landscape that is making organising much more challenging for activists.

Meta’s Instagram has a history of not only failing to combat misinformation on the platform, but of suppressing content about certain hot-button subjects.

In 2020, Instagram was accused of blocking posts about the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2021, it was blamed for recommending misinformation about COVID-19, and in 2022, for restricting some content pertaining to women’s reproductive rights. Late last year, Human Rights Watch charged Meta with censoring Pro-Palestinian voices.

In February, Instagram rolled out a change to its platform limiting access to political content.

“This change does not impact posts from accounts people choose to follow; it impacts what the system recommends. We have been working for years to show people less political content based on what they told us they want, and what posts they told us are political. And now, people are going to be able to control whether they would like to have these types of posts recommended to them,” a spokesperson for Meta said in a statement to Al Jazeera, providing no data that showed whether or not users wanted more or less political content and not specifying what the company defines as “political content”.

Instagram broadly refers to political content as posts that may mention “laws, elections, or social topics” that affect a group of people and/or society at large.

Ruane said “That in and of itself is a concern to me because that could include all kinds of content like that related to the LGBTQ community, for example. Is content related to reproductive rights, politics? There are a lot of really important issues that relate to elections that aren’t necessarily about a particular candidate.”

Not long after the change took effect, hundreds of activists and journalists penned an open letter urging the social media giant to backtrack on the move. For now, users are pushing back in outrage against Instagram’s move and have posted videos across social media platforms that show how to circumnavigate the change.

Meta also said that it would introduce a similar feature that would limit political content on Facebook, but did not specify when or give any further details.

Changes at X, too, have proven a problem. Since it was bought by Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk — who claimed to be a free speech absolutist – people who do not share Musk’s worldview or stance on particular issues have struggled with the app.

In the last year, Musk— who is increasingly aligning himself with far-right talking points — banned left-leaning activists, and allegedly shadow-banned journalists critical of him like then Intercept reporter Ken Klippenstein amid his reporting of problems with Tesla’s self-driving feature. At the same time, he has also reinstated right-wing conspiracy theorists and white nationalists, such as Nick Fuentes.

“What you see with Twitter is that ownership of a particular platform matters … It has become harder for many activists and many journalists to engage on the platform,” Ruane said.

When Al Jazeera reached out for comment from Twitter or X, we received the auto-reply “Busy now, please check back later”. Since Musk’s takeover, the platform has generally declined to respond to press queries and relied upon dismissive auto-reply messages.

Twitter had been a bastion of political organising. In 2011, counterculture magazine Adbusters used the platform as a way to organise one of the biggest sit-ins in modern American history – Occupy Wall Street – which inspired tens of thousands to take part in the non-violent movement. That later spurred comparable movements around the globe including the recent sit-ins on college campuses in response to the continuing conflict between Israel and Gaza, climate protests, women’s reproductive rights marches, among other movements in the last several years.

Musk’s moves to limit freedom of expression for those who he disagrees with is the antithesis of Twitter’s previous role as the global public square.

However, it is especially the limits for TikTok and Instagram that are driving the most concerns for organisers.

“There are all sorts of ways to message people, but I’d say when it comes to pure reach, Instagram and TikTok are impossible to beat,” said Mezzatesta, the climate educator. “They’re the top two. Those are major assets that we’re losing.”

Source: Al Jazeera