Much of Donald Trump’s presidency has seemingly been spent giving institutions a hard shove to see whether they’ll bend or break. Now he’s pushing on something that may be too big even for him: a politically active — or at least interested — loose coalition of teenagers, some of them on roller skates, who stan Jungkook.
The president had threatened to ban the social media platform TikTok on Friday; on Monday, he said its U.S. operations would need to be sold to Microsoft (or another American company) within 45 days or the company would have to cease operating in the U.S. The ultimatum isn’t completely without warning: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News commentator (and enthusiastic Trump apologist) Laura Ingraham on July 6 that Americans should be cautious using the service because of the possibility it might put their personal information “in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”
Persistent suspicion about foreign surveillance has dogged the app since its inception. TikTok is the international version of an app by parent company ByteDance; TikTok is banned in China, so ByteDance operates an identical app there called Douyin, which presumably stores its data in the country. The data of the company’s 800 million or so international users, ByteDance says, are stored in the U.S. and Singapore, outside the purview of the Chinese government.
Still, there are a few reasons Trump might want TikTok banned, beyond a sudden and unprecedented concern for the data security of his fellow Americans. (Recall that, as a candidate, he actively — he says jokingly — encouraged hackers to intercept the communications of his opponent, praised WikiLeaks for publishing them, used the services of the data-mining company Cambridge Analytica, which trafficked in Americans’ ill-gotten user data, and rejected U.S. intelligence reports that Russians interfered in the U.S. elections.)
The first is spite: When Trump held his apparently lethal mid-pandemic rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 20, the whole internet made fun of him for his lousy attendance figures, especially because Trump underboss Brad Parscale had bragged that the campaign had received more than a million RSVPs (the arena seats 19,000 people; 6,200 attended). Trump hasn’t forgotten or forgiven anyone involved in the fiasco: He demoted Parscale on July 15.
But Parscale’s overconfidence may have been encouraged by power users on TikTok, especially K-pop lovers, who said they flooded the campaign with ticket requests to inflate expectations and depress attendance. Trump is unpopular on the service, where his misfortunes are myriad: He recently and tragically failed a vibe check, a comedian who lip-syncs his speeches on it has rocketed to off-platform fame; and presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway’s daughter has made headlines for mocking him on it. It would certainly be in keeping with Trump’s character to try to take the service away from his detractors.
But why would Trump want the company sold to Microsoft? It’s one of a few companies the president has bear-hugged recently: A Pentagon contract for the JEDI “war cloud” software went to the company, despite protestations and then a lawsuit from Amazon, which called the bidding process anti-competitive. And Trump has said that part of the sale price should go to the Treasury; given how all of Trump’s in-office dealings — up to and including stimulus payments to businesses endangered by the pandemic — seem to line his own pockets, it’s reasonable to suspect that any money headed to the Treasury would be expected to make some expensive stops on the way there.
Banning the app — or sparking a radically different version of it that users don’t like as much — would also help the love of Donald Trump’s life: Donald Trump. As news of his threat spread across the app, some of its hundreds of millions of users have set about packing their metaphorical bags for another service. Many TikTokers use the app as a source of income, receiving sponsorships and other forms of monetization. To keep their livelihoods, many now end their videos with their Instagram handles, encouraging users to follow them if and when they have to migrate to the Facebook-owned picture and video platform, which historically has been friendly to brands and influencers.
And Facebook, of course, has a long history of cooperation with Trump. The company has been under constant scrutiny after foreign intelligence services misused it during the 2016 election, and it has responded to the scrutiny primarily by currying favor with whoever has the most power — specifically the administration of the president it helped to elect.
But Instagram has been far less controversial, in part because its structure and lack of transparency make it harder for researchers to examine for viral disinformation, incitement to violence and conspiracy theories. But those problems are assuredly there, too: The anti-vaxxer movement has long had a foothold on Instagram, and the service is now (since it has been limited on other social media sites, like Twitter) a primary vector for QAnon conspiracy theorists, who may be responsible for at least one murder.
QAnoners are also unwavering in their love for the president — and lately, he’s made it very clear that he loves them right back. So if the big TikTok accounts migrate to Instagram, it would boost a platform that has gone all in on Trump without having gone all in on cleaning out the worst of the internet. And roller skates or no, the more people who use a platform Trump is getting his claws into, the better it is for Trump.