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Older Influencers Search for the Next TikTok

App with Chinese ties has transformed U.S. lives, livelihoods, but faces concerns about data privacy

spinner image tiktok user patriotic kenny and other activists demonstrate to support the social media platform in washington dc
Kenny Jary, 81, of St. Paul, Minnesota, is front and center at a protest and press conference of TikTok influencers as Congress convened a hearing March 23, 2023, on the future of the social media platform.

Kenny Jary finds it devastating that lawmakers are seriously contemplating a U.S. ban on TikTok.

He says he’s praying that it won’t happen. In just a year and a half, the 81-year-old St. Paul, Minnesota, TikTok creator has amassed 2.6 million followers on the wildly popular but politically radioactive short-form video-sharing social platform.

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When Jary’s scooter broke down, TikTok users rallied around him and donated money to replace it. This led to the establishment of the nonprofit Patriotic Kenny Foundation, which gives away mobility scooters to veterans for free. Jary’s TikTok handle is @patriotickenny.

“Taking away TikTok would completely change Kenny’s life,” says neighbor Amanda Kline, 37, who records, edits and posts Jary’s videos. “His health was declining, he was really isolated and alone, and through TikTok he was able to get mobility, freedom, … connect with the world and build a community and love.”

Dan Salinger (@dsalnorcal), 55, who posts videos about caring for Ed, his 91-year-old dad with advanced dementia, is also concerned about a potential ban. It would leave a “terrible void for literally tens of millions of Americans” who have become dependent on TikTok to find companionship, friends, support and unity.

TikTok still among the most downloaded apps

TikTok’s global reach is massive. Dismantling it, were that to happen, would be an enormous lift. More than 150 million active users are on TikTok monthly in the U.S alone, with more than 1 billion around the world.

This week it is the third most popular app in the Apple App Store behind two others with Chinese roots, bargain-shopping app Temu and video editor CapCut. It’s the second most popular in Google Play after Temu.

“I do believe they’re going to find a way to avoid banning an app that is used by half the country,” Salinger says. (The U.S. population as of midyear 2022 was 333.3 million, according to the Census Bureau, but nearly 19 million were younger than 5.)

Yet the clock may be ticking on TikTok in the United States. Since the Trump administration, TikTok has been in the U.S. government’s crosshairs because of national security concerns surrounding the ties of parent company ByteDance to China’s Communist government.

At least three countries — Afghanistan, India and Pakistan — have banned the app nationwide, but only India cited privacy and security worries, according to the Associated Press. Almost three dozen countries, including the United States, are prohibiting the app on government-owned devices.

On March 23, members of Congress from both parties grilled TikTok’s Singapore-born chief executive Shou Zi Chew on Capitol Hill. TikTok began in China, ByteDance is headquartered in Beijing and a representative of China’s Communist Party has one of three seats on the board of a ByteDance subsidiary that is the Chinese version of TikTok.

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American lawmakers aren’t convinced by Chew's argument that all U.S. user data will eventually be stored in the United States on servers that U.S.-based Oracle controls and thus be shielded from unauthorized foreign access. Chew conceded that ByteDance employees may currently have access to some U.S. data.

Nearly two months after the congressional hearings, Montana became the first U.S. state to ban TikTok, raising the likelihood of court challenges. The law, which doesn’t go into effect until 2024, prohibits app stores in the state from letting users download the TikTok app. It remains to be seen how effective enforcement will be.

“Montana’s TikTok ban is laughably unconstitutional, but it’s also comically difficult to enforce,” said Evan Greer, director of the Boston advocacy group Fight For The Future. “The ban serves no purpose beyond political posturing. It does less than nothing to address valid concerns with TikTok's surveillance practices.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana is also opposed. 

“With this ban, Governor [Greg] Gianforte and the Montana legislature have trampled on the free speech of hundreds of thousands of Montanans who use the app to express themselves, gather information and run their small business in the name of anti-Chinese sentiment,” Keegan Medrano, policy director at the ACLU of Montana, said in a statement. “We will never trade our First Amendment rights for cheap political points.”

7 in 10 worry about TikTok’s China ties

In recent days, 41 percent of American adults indicated support for a federal ban on TikTok, compared to 25 percent who oppose it, according to a Washington Post poll. More than 7 in 10 expressed concerns over TikTok’s Chinese ownership.

But the numbers are reversed among people who actually use TikTok daily. They oppose the ban 54 percent to 17 percent.

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TikTok’s early reputation was as a platform for kids and teens to record funky dance videos. But people flock to it now for other reasons: to learn, be entertained, find recipes, socialize and promote causes and businesses. Celebrities along with large and small enterprises, including AARP, have embraced it.

To be sure, TikTok’s user base still skews young, but older adults and so-called grandfluencers are well represented. In 2021, 14 percent of those who had used TikTok in the U.S. were 50 to 64 and 4 percent were 65 and older, according to Pew Research.

Creators say TikTok’s formula is a winner

The prospect that TikTok could shut down in the United States is leaving some older adults scrambling for an alternative. Older TikTok creators that AARP interviewed said TikTok would be a hard act to follow.

@mollybmcpherson #answer to @Andrew Holland It’s no secret that TikTok is a powerful social media app, but the clock is ticking on the app based on the lack of support with lawmakers in today’s hearing. How is CEO Shou Zi Chew faring during the hearings? #tiktok #tiktokhearings #fyp #shouzichew #congress #communication ♬ original sound - Molly McPherson | PR

TikTok doesn’t pay Helen Polise, 62, directly. She now has 767,000 followers under her @themuthership handle. But she makes money charging for videos that teach people the nuts and bolts of producing videos on TikTok and other apps.

She’s already hedging her bets. Beyond TikTok, she posts on YouTube, Instagram and a small emerging alternative called Clapper.

spinner image michael jamin in a gray t-shirt and brown blazer
Michael Jamin of Los Angeles says he wants to diversify platforms but has more than 400,000 followers on TikTok.

“I haven’t put all of my eggs in one basket,” she says. “I always realized that my TikTok audience was only my audience … as long as TikTok was around. … I’ve always [embraced] whatever the newest fad was.”

Boston-area public relations and crisis management professional Molly McPherson (@mollybmcpherson), 53, also has spread her social media presence across all the major outlets. TikTok doesn’t pay her directly either, but she has generated a lot of business from clients who have found her videos on the app. She posts on TikTok about five times a week and has 196,000 followers.

TikTok is “the only platform that has found the sweet spot between video, engagement and time viewing,” she says. McPherson doesn’t see Facebook as a viable alternative: “That ship has sailed.” She also notes that “I have 17,000 followers on Twitter. I can get 17,000 in a week on TikTok.”

McPherson has a regular dialogue with fellow creators of a similar age about ways “to drive people to newsletters and our other sites to support our business, just in case TikTok goes away.” One of those creators is Los Angeles television writer Michael Jamin (@michaeljaminwriter), 52. He posts writing and screenwriting tips on TikTok to build an audience for a book he’s writing and a tour he’s preparing.

Jamin has written for a long list of shows, including Beavis & Butthead and King of the Hill. He has 421,000 TikTok followers and says more than 7 million people saw one of his posts.

As with others interviewed, Jamin says he doesn’t want to be at the mercy of any single platform. But TikTok’s demise “would definitely hurt me … and be a shame.”

He isn’t certain where he or other creators might gravitate to next and admits it could be an outlet that doesn’t exist yet. What happens to TikTok has become a trending subject for the site’s creators, he says.

“You got to go wherever the fish are,” Jamin explains. “Wherever people start flooding to, that’s where you’ll go.”

This story, originally published March 24, 2023, has been updated with the news of Montana's TikTok ban.

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