This article has been updated.
It was two years ago when San Antonio resident Krystal Kay decided to download the video app TikTok to help pass the time at her “boring day job” working at a cellular phone store.
Kay’s first contribution posted on the popular platform for 15-second videos was about a customer who had been rude to her. Her rant about the customer went viral on the app, garnering thousands of views.
“[It] blew up,” Kay recalls. “So I kept doing it.” Under the handle @sweetsyn, Kay has posted more videos on topics ranging from her clothing style to her working day and has successfully used TikTok to promote the cartoon-style artwork she sells online. Having quit her job at the cell phone store, she now worries her new livelihood, driven by her more than 171,000 followers on the app, is in danger.
Popular among teens and college students, TikTok has drawn the attention of President Donald Trump, who last week threatened to ban the app in the U.S. because of its Chinese ownership.
News reports late Thursday said Trump, citing authority from the National Emergencies Act and the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, issued a pair of executive orders banning “any transaction” with TikTok’s owner, Beijing-based ByteDance, and Shenzhen, China-based Tencent, which owns the social media app WeChat. The reports said the orders would take effect in 45 days.
Trump had reiterated Monday he would enforce a ban of TikTok if the platform is not sold to U.S. buyers by Sept. 15. The president wants Microsoft to buy the company’s U.S. division, and for “a substantial portion of that price … to come into the Treasury of the United States.” Microsoft is negotiating with ByteDance to buy it. In the meantime, Facebook’s Instagram launched a competitor app called “Reels” this week as TikTok’s fate hangs in the balance.
Trump’s executive orders made no mention of the U.S. Treasury, according to news reports.
TikTok allows users to create and share short videos to overlaid soundtracks, and is often called “the lip-sync app.”
However, the app has been dogged by cybersecurity concerns since late last year. In December, the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) told all Department of Defense employees not to use TikTok. Earlier this month, the State Department warned U.S. users not to use the app, citing privacy and security concerns.
“Every bit of information posted online – publicly or not – increases someone’s risk profile,” said Amanda Lee Keammerer, vice president for cybersecurity for the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and director of CyberSecurity San Antonio. “Because TikTok is a Chinese company, and Chinese companies may be compelled to share their data with the Chinese government, imagine what kind of intelligence sharing could occur.”
U.S. troops, veterans and their family members have already been targeted by foreign adversaries on social media, Keammerer said.
“Do people read terms and services before downloading and using an app?” she said. “As long as users keep ignoring the origin and ownership of social media companies, as long as users keep accepting terms without reading them, adversaries will continue to use these engaging apps to entice users to freely grant them access to their data.”
ByteDance has denied that TikTok sends any user data to the Chinese government, a company spokesman told the New York Times recently.
Jasmine Fleming, a senior at the University of Texas at San Antonio known by her TikTok handle @itsjazziejas, said she’s not convinced that Trump is threatening to ban the app for national security reasons.
“I thought it was crazy that Trump even thought about trying to ban the app,” Fleming said. “He is focusing on the wrong problems at the moment, he should be more focused on pandemic versus social media.”
Fleming theorized that political considerations were driving Trump’s opposition to TikTok, because many use the platform to speak out against him. Earlier this summer, Trump and TikTok were in the headlines together when a group of teens said they used their influence on the app to get people to snatch up thousands of tickets to his Tulsa, Oklahoma, rally with no intention of attending. News coverage of the event showed hundreds of empty seats at the BOK Center.
If a U.S. TikTok ban is enforced, Fleming said she – and the 35,000 users who follow her vlog-style videos – would be upset. Fleming, a curbside delivery attendant at H-E-B, said she’d like to make TikTok her full-time gig someday. She’s already had some success in monetizing the platform through sponsorships from businesses she promotes on her videos, she said.
“I’d be devastated if it got banned,” Fleming said. “I hope it doesn’t.”
Another San Antonio TikTok creator is “Captain Mikayla” (@venxm.exe), who said she makes content on the app to keep her 224,300 followers happy and entertained.
“If the app was to get banned, I would lose a platform I’ve built and would lose a form of promotion for my other social media accounts,” she said.