Self-described libertarian, Kentucky Senator, and messy yard dispute loser Rand Paul has broken with fellow Republicans and become possibly the sole GOP voice opposing a national TikTok ban. In his view, banning TikTok would violate Americans’ right to free speech and would make vindictive US lawmakers no different from their Chinese counterparts who’ve moved to ban US social media firms like Facebook and YouTube. Paul’s recent statements come just days after House lawmakers from both parties laid into TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew in a grueling five-hour hearing.
Paul made his case in a Wednesday Courier-Journal op-ed where he said he would oppose attempts to ban the app, even those coming from his own party, because doing so would impinge on user’s freedom of expression. Republicans, particularly those in the House, have made opposing perceived censorship one of their primary talking points this year. Paul said a TikTok ban would essentially amount to the exact same type of censorship these lawmakers claim to so vociferously oppose. For those averse to TikTok or other social media companies’ data collection policies, Rand had a simple response: “Don’t use them.”
“I hope saner minds will reflect on which is more dangerous: videos of teenagers dancing or the precedent of the U.S. government banning speech,” Paul wrote. “For me, it’s an easy answer, I will defend the Bill of Rights against all comers, even, if need be, from members of my own party.
Paul pushed back against accusations that TikTok is doing the “bidding” of the Chinese government by pointing to a wide variety of content on the app critical of the government. The senator went on to warn that banning TikTok could lead to a slippery slope where other US tech firms could potentially be subject to similar retaliation.
Paul calls the attempts to ban TikTok a, “national strategy to permanently lose elections for a generation.”
Politically, Paul said a TikTok ban would be a disaster for Republicans and would all but guarantee they lose the votes of younger voters who’ve grown accustomed to the app. Even though support for a ban is growing amongst Democrats, Paul said the blame and backlash for a ban “will stick to Republicans more.”
As of now, Paul looks like the sole voice on his side of the aisle who opposes a ban. Numerous Republican lawmakers, including Missouri Senator Josh Hawley and Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, have introduced legislation that would effectively ban TikTok nationally. Last week, newly minted Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy added his name to the ban brigade and revealed he would support legislation banning the app in the House of Representatives.
If there were still any doubt of his commitment, Paul proved his willingness to split with Republicans over the video-sharing app on Wednesday, when he reportedly blocked an effort to fast-track Hawley’s legislation from advancing in the Senate. Paul told lawmakers he believed TikTok had “bent over backwards” to work with the US government and assuage Chinese government surveillance concerns. Hawley’s bill, he added, would stifle free expression online and potentially run afoul of the First Amendment.
Paul was attacked for his TikTok defense by some Republicans, including Florida Sen. and former 2016 presidential candidate Marco Rubio.
“This is not a First Amendment issue, because we’re not trying to ban booty videos,” Rubio said according to The Hill. “This is not about the content of the videos that are online. It is about the dangers to the national security that are presented by the way that this company functions.”
TikTok is running out of supporters on both sides of Capitol Hill
Though Democrats were quick to oppose bans when they were being orchestrated by the Trump administration several years ago, few of those same voices appear compelled to stand up for the company now. A handful of Democratic representatives, including outspoken supporter New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman, joined a group of around 30 TikTok content creators to protest a possible ban last week. It was later learned by Gizmodo and others that those creators had their travel expenses paid by TikTok. One of Brown’s aides similarly told The New York Times TikTok helped orchestrate a meeting between the lawmaker and the influencer protestors.
“My question is: Why the hysteria and the panic and the targeting of TikTok?” Bowman, who has his own TikTok account with around 177,000 followers, said during the rally. “As we know, Republicans, in particular, have been sounding the alarm, creating a red scare around China.”
But Bowman isn’t the only Democrat opposing the ban. This week, fellow New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez threw her hat in the ring, proclaiming her bold support for TikTok in, you guessed it, a TikTok video.
“I think it’s important to discuss how unprecedented of a move this would be,” Ocasio-Cortez said in her first-ever TikTok video. “The United States has never before banned a social media company from existence, from operating in our borders. And this is an app that has over 150 million Americans on it”
The 33-year-old representative, who propelled herself to the House in 2019 thanks in no small part to savvy social media skills, said many of these data privacy issues attributed to TikTok also applied to US tech firms like Meta. The solution, therefore, isn’t a ban, but rather a push for meaningful federal data privacy laws.
The general US public, meanwhile, increasingly appears split over TikTok’s fate. A recent Washington Post poll shows 41% of US adults say they support a federal ban on the app. A slightly higher portion (49%) of adults in a recent SocialSphere poll similarly said they support a ban.
The bottom line is, whether it’s justified or not, the constant drumbeat of TikTok alarmism coming from D.C. appears to be having its desired effect of swaying public opinion. Paul, AOC, and others are hoping Tikok really is simply too important to users and essentially too big to ban.
Update, 3/30/23 9:05 AM EST: Added details of Paul blocking Hawley’s bill.