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Last week, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., brought a bill to the Senate floor that would ban TikTok from the United States. The bill didn't get very far, but it was an important symbolic first step on the long road to booting the Chinese-owned app from American app stores. Such a ban would certainly win the praise of many military leaders -- and for good cause (just look at all the data that users relinquish to China) -- but some in recruitment circles may not be so thrilled.
With lagging recruitment numbers and an estimated 64 million monthly TikTok users between the ages of 16 and 34, how could such an opportunity be ignored?
As of this writing, the hashtag #militarylife has more than 6.7 billion views on TikTok. Some of the more popular military-focused accounts boast six- and seven-figure follower accounts, and their well-curated content capitalizes on all the latest memes and trends. Some recruiters have even publicly stated that half of their recruits come from TikTok alone.
But for years now, the use of TikTok in the military has been the subject of sharp criticism from Democrats, Republicans and scores of individual privacy experts. Just a couple weeks ago, Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., who represents the district that houses Fort Bragg, told TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew that he had "serious concerns about the opportunities TikTok gives the Chinese Communist Party to access the non-public sensitive data of our men and women in uniform."
"This personal data and location information can be harvested and could be used for blackmail to conduct espionage and to possibly even reveal troop movements," he added.
Hudson's warnings are not hyperbole. Geolocation data and misuse of open-source cell signals have had dire effects on recent Russian military operations. It's been so bad that the Russian Ministry of Defense made an uncharacteristic honest admission in the wake of a strike that killed dozens of their troops in the occupied city of Makiivka: that mobile phone activity enabled Ukraine to "track and determine the coordinates of the soldiers' locations."
In December 2019, the U.S. Navy and Army banned TikTok from official devices, and in December last year, the Biden administration expanded the ban to apply to all government devices. But no such ban applies to TikTok on personal devices, even though the military does discourage it for recruiting.
"Recruiters are only allowed to conduct official business using government devices, so at this time, they should not be using TikTok for recruiting purposes either from their government or personal devices," Kelli Bland, the Army Recruiting Command's director of public affairs, said in a 2021 interview with Defense One.
Another aspect of TikTok that cannot be ignored is its powerful reach. In February 2021, a Marine Corps sergeant posted a video on her personal TikTok channel recounting the harrowing fallout that stemmed from her reporting a coworker for sexual misconduct. The video went viral, rising even to the attention of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who called it "deeply disturbing" and has used his tenure to take unprecedented levels of action to address sexual assault in the military.
If posted on another platform, does a video gain so much traction that it reaches the defense secretary within a matter of hours? I'm not sure that it does, and our leaders may never have heard that Marine's important story.
So what must be done to mitigate the risks?
In an ideal world, American social media companies -- particularly Meta, Snap and Google -- would rise to the opportunity being presented here. Platforms like Instagram Stories and YouTube Shorts offer a reasonable alternative from a user experience, but their parent companies should step up their work directly with commanders and recruiters to pull service members away from a Chinese-owned company that has every incentive imageable to keep harvesting the data of our troops.
Although I can't see it actually happening, maybe a total ban on TikTok in the United States is what it will take for these homegrown companies to finally win the game that they invented: mastering the algorithm. It'd be a shame if it had to come to that, though -- not because extracting a company like TikTok would be bad (it would be great) -- but because you'd like to think U.S. companies would be able to figure out how to simply be better than TikTok.
-- Andy Oare is the former director of digital media for the Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs, and currently the head of federal marketing and public affairs for Shift5, a technology company that unlocks the fleet data of weapons systems and military vehicles.