Rep. Kat Cammack (R-Fla.) has reiterated her concern about the impact the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok is having on America’s youth, likening the app’s algorithm to a form of “digital fentanyl” that makes addicts of its users.
Speaking with “NTD News Today” on Monday, Ms. Cammack shared her concern about an algorithm she believes is designed to draw in users by tracking their behavior on the app before feeding them exactly the content that will keep them using the app for long durations.
“It really is a chemical alteration in your brain that happens,” Ms. Cammack said. “It’s kind of like digital fentanyl.”
The Florida congresswoman is one of several lawmakers who have referred to TikTok as “digital fentanyl.” Emphasizing the comparison, Mr. Cammack said TikTok’s algorithmic design is different from other social media apps like Facebook, because while Facebook curates content that connects a user with their social circle, TikTok curates content to reinforce a user’s reactions to the app.
“Facebook has a completely different algorithm that is based on your preferences, your likes, what your friends are seeing. That’s how they show you your newsfeed,” Ms. Cammack said. “It’s totally different with TikTok. They show you things based on your behavioral reaction to it. Now if you are on TikTok and you see something outrageous … your eyes are gonna be on the screen longer.”
Indeed, while the content a user sees on Facebook is largely determined by the people and brands that user follows, TikTok—which is designed for sharing short video content—can curate content for its users even if those users don’t follow anyone on the app.
Adding to her concern about the app, Ms. Cammack noted reports indicating TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, tracks the keyboard inputs of its users.
“Their entire goal is to show you more things to keep you on the screen, while on the back end of the app, they’re tracking your keystrokes, they’re getting access to sensitive information on your phone, who you’re talking to,” the Florida congresswoman said. “It is entirely designed to harvest Americans’ data and hold on to it for asymmetrical warfare purposes.”
ByteDance’s Content and Screen-Time Controls
Explaining her suspicion of the app, Ms. Cammack noted that ByteDance employs few content moderation and screen-time limits on TikTok’s non-Chinese users, keeping foreign users exposed to content the company wouldn’t normally direct at Chinese users.
TikTok is derived from a Chinese app operated by ByteDance called Douyin (which means “shaking sound” in Chinese). Douyin, a version of the short-video sharing app exclusive to China, employs screen-time limits for users under the age of 14. Younger users are allowed only 40 minutes on the app each day, and can’t use the app between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. TikTok, the version of the app that ByteDance markets to the rest of the world, does not employ such limits.
During a March 23 hearing before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, TikTok CEO Shou Chew noted ByteDance came up with a default 60-minute screen reminder that encourages TikTok users under the age of 18 to take a break, and claimed “we were the first to do it in our industry.” Lawmakers at the hearing expressed doubts that this 60-minute reminder would do much to dissuade continued use of the app, and suggested teens would simply opt out of that default timed reminder and continue using the app.
“That is an opt out. And I can tell you they’re gonna immediately opt out. It is addictive,” Rep. Kim Schrier (D-Wash.) said during the March hearing.
At the hearing, Mr. Chew noted that there are additional tools parents can use to set screen-time limits for their children, but Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.) raised concerns that these tools aren’t sufficient. While Douyin’s maximum screen time for Chinese users under 18 years of age is 40 minutes per day, Ms. Kuster said 40 minutes is the minimum time limit parents can set on TikTok.
Ms. Cammack also expressed concerns about the difference in content curated on ByteDance’s Chinese-market Douyin app, compared to its TikTok app. She said the content on Douyin is “educational in nature” and focuses on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
“That is not the case in the United States,” she said.
Throughout the March TikTok hearing, lawmakers shared their concerns with Mr. Chew about content on TikTok they believe promotes eating disorders, drug use, pornography, and dangerous clout-chasing challenges. Mr. Chew said content that glorifies eating disorders is considered a violation of TikTok’s policies, and maintained that the company is “trying to build models where that kind of content is not chained up for the younger users.”
NTD News reached out to TikTok for comment, but did not receive a response by the time this article was published.
Regulating TikTok Requires ‘Political Consideration’
Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle have come out in favor of a bill, dubbed the RESTRICT Act, that would give the president the authority to review and restrict apps and services deemed to pose a risk to U.S. data security. While the RESTRICT Act has seen support from Democrats and Republicans, the concept of regulating TikTok has also been the focus of pushback from both sides.
In March, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) decried what he described as “hysteria” and “panic” directed at TikTok.
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) also said a “xenophobic witch hunt” is motivating members of Congress to go after the Chinese app. Mr. Pocan said lawmakers should favor passing stronger data security laws rather than banning specific apps outright.
“Banning TikTok isn’t the answer. Making sure Americans’ data is safe is,” Mr. Pocan said.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has raised concerns that legislation like the RESTRICT Act would give a president too much power to curtail Americans’ First Amendment right to free speech.
“The RESTRICT Act eschews almost all notions of checks and balances by granting a vast amount of power to the Executive branch to intervene in all kinds of economic transactions. It would effectively allow the Secretary of Commerce to become the Commissar of Commerce,” Mr. Paul wrote in a May 5 op-ed for Townhall.
The Kentucky Republican warned that a U.S. president could leverage the RESTRICT Act to curtail the speech of a disfavored political actor by declaring a “national security” concern exists with their platform.
“There’s really a political consideration that people are making about this. And I don’t think that it’s fair to target one company over another. That should never be the government’s goal,” Ms. Cammack told “NTD News Today” on Monday.
She said lawmakers should take a similar regulatory approach to Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) as it does to TikTok.
“I think what we apply to one, we have to apply to all. We have to be ‘equal-opportunity offenders’ in that way. But we have to do something, because this is a real threat to Americans’ privacy and data and, in the long term, to our entire nation as a whole,” she said.
Chris Bob and Reuters contributed to this article.