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Clemson University recently became the latest university to ban the use of TikTok on its campus network. The underlying reason, say university administrators, had to do with “security concerns.” TikTok, after all, is a Chinese social media app, and the concern is that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) might somehow be snooping on students or using backdoor access to TikTok accounts to gain access to sensitive information stored on university servers.
But are these security concerns really justified? It’s one thing for the Pentagon to ban the use of TikTok on its networks, or for the U.S. federal government to ban the use of TikTok on its networks. But do universities have the same justification?
The politicization of TikTok
What is so concerning about university bans on TikTok is that they seem to be as motivated by politics as they are by real, fundamental security concerns. Tell me which state you live in, and I can almost guess how you feel about college TikTok bans. If you live in a “red” state, you’re more likely to be in favor of a TikTok ban, while if you live in a “blue” state, you’re more likely to be against any type of outright ban.
If you look at where all the TikTok bans are taking place, you have to admit that there seems to be at least a loose correlation between the political leaning of the state, and its approach toward TikTok bans. Montana, for example, has a state-wide ban on TikTok on any device, anywhere. That’s a hardliner approach, and you guessed it, Montana is a red state. The same goes for Florida, where all public universities and colleges are banned from offering TikTok on their campus networks.
In some ways, the stated reason for banning TikTok on college campuses seems almost based on a cartoonish view of reality: the Chinese government is so evil, that they are going to snoop on TikTok videos of innocent 18-year-old college kids in order to corrupt or compromise them later. The CCP will pump TikTok so full of Chinese government propaganda, the thinking goes, that young, impressionable college kids won’t be able to make sense of the world. And evil Chinese hackers will create vast, intricate backdoor programs to access the deepest, most sensitive files of university administrators.
Are TikTok bans ever acceptable?
Now, this is not to say that social media bans are never acceptable. For example, let’s again take the example of Clemson University, which has some really high-powered sports teams. In the past, Clemson has made headlines with in-season social media bans for its college athletes, including a high-profile ban for its football team:
The logic here actually makes a lot of practical sense: top college athletes shouldn’t have a lot of distractions if they are trying to win national championships. For just a few months of the year, why shouldn’t they agree to lock up their social media platforms?
This is the type of “ban” that makes a lot of sense. It’s not rooted in security concerns, or in trying to score political points. These types of in-season social media bans for athletes are really in the same category as parents setting curfews for their kids, or parents forbidding the use of mobile phones after a certain hour. It’s just common sense: if kids want to do well in school, they probably shouldn’t be checking their Instagram at all hours of the night.
Will other universities follow the lead of Clemson?
Due to the politicization of just about everything these days – from what beer you drink to what store you shop at – it’s easy to see how the concept of TikTok bans on college campuses could gain a lot of political momentum. There are already TikTok bans of some kind in 10 states, so more could be coming soon.
The crazy part about all this is that these social media bans might do very little to solve the underlying security problem, if one really exists. As just about anyone will point out, the bans only apply to “campus networks.” Thus, as long as you’re using your mobile phone (or other device) on another network, you’re still going to be able to use TikTok at universities. Any college undergraduate who’s been using TikTok for years even before setting foot on campus is not going to suddenly abandon this social media platform. In fact, if anything, it might make them want to use TikTok even more. What’s forbidden is always most attractive, especially to teens and young adults.