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TikTok content creators weigh in on lawmakers' calls to ban the app amid security concerns

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

After taking down that balloon, lawmakers and officials are increasingly setting their sights on another Chinese product, TikTok. The app has already been banned on federal government devices and Wi-Fi networks over concerns that the China-based social media company could share or be forced to share data from its 1 billion users with the Chinese government.

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LISA MONACO: I don't use TikTok, and I would not advise anybody to do so because of these concerns.

RASCOE: That's Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco speaking last week at an event called Disruptive Technologies by Nation States and Malign Cyber Actors. The company that owns TikTok, Bytedance, says it doesn't share user data. But that possibility is causing more and more state governments and college campuses to enact bans of their own. All this uproar over TikTok made us wonder what does all this talk about bans mean for content creators who rely on the site for community, for creativity or even for money? So we've invited two TikTokers we know to talk about all of this, Rosie Grant and Oliver James. Thank you for joining us.

ROSIE GRANT: Thank you.

OLIVER JAMES: Thank you for having us.

RASCOE: So, I mean, you've both been on NPR before, but let's really quickly remind people of what kind of content you create. Oliver, let's start with you. You're a BookTok influencer, right?

JAMES: Yes.

RASCOE: So what does that mean (laughter)?

JAMES: You know what? To tell you the truth, I'm still trying to figure out what it means. It's a community of people who support people with reading struggles or to just help people connect with people who like to read. So it's kind of like a reading platform.

RASCOE: So it's the part of TikTok that talks about books.

JAMES: Yup.

RASCOE: And Rosie, I would say that you fall into the cooking category, but it's a bit more involved than just cooking. Like, tell us what you do on TikTok.

GRANT: I cook recipes that I find on gravestones. So it's, like, a mix of GraveTok talk and, like, cooking TikTok.

RASCOE: OK.

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RASCOE: I can see why we've had both of you on before.

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RASCOE: But that's not the focus for today. You both live in California, where there has been a lot of talk about a TikTok ban. Rosie, I want to ask you because you work at a state university. In the state of Georgia, when their ban was passed, it also effectively banned TikTok at state schools because they have state Wi-Fi networks. Is this something you've been thinking about - that you could just wake up one morning and find that there's a ban?

GRANT: Yeah, it's unfortunately very present that it could just disappear. For that reason, I've started backing up my TikToks just in case to prepare for the worst. I hope that won't happen, but yeah, you never know.

RASCOE: And, Oliver, how about you? Are you taking any precautions, like, in the event that the app is somehow banned nationally?

JAMES: Not completely. I kind of just was told about this. But I've heard people kind of mentioning it, but I don't really think about it at all. So I'll just do the regular, maybe back up a video or tell my followers, go follow me somewhere else if they can. That's probably it.

RASCOE: I mean, so, Rosie, I know you've been talking to some other content creators about this. Like, are people feeling nervous? Like, I mean, I would think, you know, if you're making money off of TikTok and it's a part of your income, that it might be a little bit concerning to hear talk about banning it.

GRANT: Yeah, I mean, it is something that I truly hope doesn't happen. Like, I mean, as far - if you take a step back and you look at, like, the privacy concerns, I think the privacy concerns are very real. Like, you know, data is collected on TikTok. That being said, data is also collected on Facebook and Instagram and your smartphone. And, you know, for me, I don't know if necessarily, I'm more worried about one platform over another. Like, I've allowed my data to be shared as I'm on it. And yeah, so I think for myself, like, a community would be lost that I've really gotten a lot from and, you know, still would like to connect with. So that's a bit scary. I have friends in LA who - this is, like, a big source of income. So for them, if that just disappeared overnight, it is a little bit scary to think about.

RASCOE: I mean, Oliver - and I guess for both of you, like, if there was some type of restrictions put in place, would you try to, like, do a workaround?

JAMES: I want to tell you straight up. I don't care what they do with it. If they ban it, it is what it is. Like, I don't base my life and my happiness or anything I got going on in my life off of TikTok. I enjoy it, but I know it can be taken from me. So whatever. You take it; I'll be somewhere else. Come follow me there.

GRANT: I mean, there's something about having just alternative forms of social media. Like, I was thankful when TikTok came out because, like, when there's too few choices, I feel like the platforms really suffer. And then when TikTok came out, it made everything else get better. Even if I wasn't creating on TikTok, I think I still enjoy the algorithm more. I enjoy the content more. I feel better being on the app. So yeah, I guess we would wait and see, but I would definitely miss just, like, the content on it. Really, as a consumer, it's just so good.

JAMES: I kind of look at it, like, you know, TikTok has really been - I guess you can say, like, a second family to people who lost a lot or are going through a lot or just looking to find a lot. And what I think we're all trying to figure out is, is this, like, a platform for social media, or is this, like, a new world for connecting to people? And I think that's what we're kind of, like, wondering. For me, like, I'm like, man, I connected with a lot of people, kind of like a lot of friends. And I'm like, I don't remember the last time I've done that in my adulthood. So to me, I'm looking at it, and I'm like, no other platform I have connects me with people like friends. And I'm like, that would suck to lose that. But that just goes to show, like, you know, we need to focus on the people.

RASCOE: That's Rosie Grant and Oliver James, known as @ghostlyarchive and @oliverspeaks1 on TikTok. Thanks to both of you for joining us today. Really appreciate it.

JAMES: Thank you.

GRANT: Thanks so much for your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.