Student journalists lose access to TikTok in states where the video sharing app is restricted, banned

The Prospector, the student newspaper of the University of Texas at El Paso, abandoned its TikTok account earlier this year after the state’s TIkTok ban began to take effect. 

In December 2022, Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott directed state agency leaders to immediately ban employees from downloading or using TikTok on any government-issued devices. That would not have directly impacted student journalists except the next month, the university banned TikTok on its WiFi networks.

“We are independent when it comes to our content, yet we are housed under the Division of Student Affairs so we must adhere to certain guidelines as well,” said Veronica Gonzalez, director of UTEP’s Student Media and Publications.

Photo by Solen Feyissa via Flickr

Although the Prospector had only started to use TikTok to engage with its audience, another Texan student newspaper,The Daily Texan at University of Texas at Austin, had been using the video sharing app extensively to cover the campus and to give people a behind-the-scenes look at its newsgathering. 

The student media outlet shared its last TikTok on Dec. 12, 2022.

It has been focusing on using TikTok’s marketing capabilities, said Chloe Moore, the Daily Texan’s social media editor.

“TikTok is how a lot of students find out about social issues and activism,” Moore said. “When you start banning it on campuses, you’re restricting knowledge and access… I hope that there is a way that we can talk about security breaches and fix them without banning [TikTok] entirely.”

TikTok has been scrutinized for years for its ties to the Chinese government, and conversations around banning it have been circulating for years. 

The federal government this year banned TikTok on government-issues devices, following states that also have restricted its use. As of June 2023, the app has been banned for use by federal employees and banned for use by state employees in 34 states.

Those bans do not directly impact student journalists who typically use their own devices to use social media. But it has nonetheless pushed some student newspapers at state colleges and universities off the platform. 

“The ban here in Texas on TikTok is more focused on governmental use of the platform and anyone that works at a governmental entity, including at a state university, is implicated in this,” said Samuel Woolley, the project director for propaganda research at the Center for Media Engagement at UT Austin. “If we’re going to ban TikTok use on government devices for government employees, we need more nuance because researchers need access to TikTok because we need to study it… student journalists and journalists need access to TikTok because a lot of news gets made there.”

The primary concern surrounding TikTok’s usage was the possibility of TikTok’s China-based corporation being made to give the Chinese government data gathered from American TikTok users, but some have voiced concerns about the validity of this line of reasoning.

“I think it’s a bait-and-switch operation, using xenophobia and nativism to channel legitimate concern about data privacy into useless and antagonistic policies that don’t make us safer, and limit scholars’ and journalists’ ability to research threats to data privacy,” Aram Sinnreich, a professor and chair of the Communication Studies division at American University, said. “It’s a band-aid remedy that won’t help fix the larger problems, namely the lack of data privacy regulations in the United States and the exploitation of those loose regulations by foreign adversaries who want to spy on and disinform Americans.”

Montana took the restrictions a step further and completely banned TikTok in May after first restricting it on government-issued devices and networks as Texas did. Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte claimed that the Chinese government is using TikTok to spy on American people and that banning it will protect the privacy of Montana’s citizens. The ban, which goes into effect in 2024, will almost certainly be challenged in court.

“There are serious First Amendment concerns related to the banning of platforms… At present the allegations about TikTok center around… whether or not the Chinese government has access to data,” Woolley said. “We know that other social media platforms sell their data, so given that, there should be broader concerns about the ways in which [free] speech may or may not be tamped down on social media.”

Advocates for student journalists are bracing for additional repercussions on campus media.

“If this becomes a bigger and bigger issue for student media, I think we all just need to find out a lot more about what the risks are,” Mike Hiestand, a senior legal consultant for Student Press Law Center said. “If there are genuine national security risks or security risks involved when using TikTok, I think we all need to kind of reevaluate how we’re using that tool. But a lot of it right now seems like hype.”

Despite all of these concerns, the precedent set by these two states is primed to encourage more banning of TikTok across America, drawing the platform’s viability into question.

“TikTok is very much in the crosshairs of politicians on both sides of the aisle in the United States,” Woolley said. “I think that TikTok and also TikTok users understand that its future is in jeopardy in the United States, and the bans like the ban in Montana could just be the beginning.”

Matthew Collier is an Austin-based journalist and student at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a Life & Arts reporter for The Daily Texan.

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