The TikTok fight is a generational fight


There’s a quote from an anonymous PR executive that Barrett Swanson included in a terrific 2021 Harper article on “influencers” that stuck with me (and included in my recent book on tensions generations of America).

“You can be in Cleveland, Ohio, alone in your room, and you can get a million subscribers overnight,” the PR manager said. This development was “crazy,” the person added. “It was never possible.”

It’s true. Social media and TikTok in particular offer a way to speak truth to power directly, immediately and loudly. It’s not something that was available to older Americans when they were young. It’s no coincidence that the “OK boomer” meme has emerged on TikTok; the crisp, searing response was simple to add to the grumpy content of older users. Perhaps not truth in power, necessarily, but not far from it.

After all, it is still true that older Americans wield disproportionate political and economic power, if not cultural power. This colors the current debate over the potential banning of TikTok in a dramatic way. It’s not just a fight over what TikTok does and a chasm in the perceived threat posed by the platform. It is also a reflection of the fact that political power is wielded by a group that does not typically use the platform.

It’s a microcosm of so many other struggles: the future of the nation will affect young Americans more than older Americans, but it’s older Americans who make the decisions that will determine what that future will look like.

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On Wednesday, The Washington Post released new polling data showing that opinions on a possible ban on TikTok correlate strongly with actual usage of the platform. If you use TikTok a lot, you probably don’t want to see it banned. If you never use it, you probably do.

But our survey also made it clear that use of the tool is disproportionately skewed by young people. Most adults under 35 use it; almost none of those of retirement age do so.

Unsurprisingly, then: a plurality of young Americans oppose a ban. A plurality of older Americans support a ban.

A recent survey conducted by YouGov for The Economist reflects our findings. TikTok usage is much higher among younger Americans than older ones, for example. Facebook usage is more consistent, although Instagram usage, a Facebook-branded company that has implemented a TikTok-like video feed, also has a wide age gap. (Adults under 30 are about three times more likely to use Instagram than those 65 and older.)

Interestingly, YouGov’s poll also found that opinions of TikTok as a national security threat — one of the top ostensible reasons why a ban is warranted — align less clearly with age divides. But then again, older Americans were more likely to say they thought the app posed a threat to national security.

It is unquestionably linked to China’s vision. TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, which is driving much of the concern over the app’s rollout in the United States. Young Americans are less inclined towards China than older Americans.

In The Post’s poll, we specifically asked if respondents were concerned about TikTok’s parent company being in China. Among young Americans, opinions were divided, although a majority expressed concern. Among older Americans, responses were skewed in favor of worry.

There is politics intertwined here, of course. Older Americans are more likely to get their news from cable TV, and Fox News, the favorite station for older Republican viewers, has talked about TikTok significantly more than its competitors.

A justification is not difficult to understand. Attacking TikTok as somehow serving as an arm of the Chinese state (a theoretical claim denied by the company) allows the right to view President Biden and Democrats as unwilling to protect national security. When Donald Trump attacked TikTok as president, one of his central goals was similar: he wanted to make China an adversary to demonstrate his strength.

Thus, opinions on TikTok and opinions on China are inextricable. Older Americans see China negatively and see TikTok the same way. (The graph below compares responses from YouGov allies or foes with a separate question indicating whether respondents view TikTok favorably or unfavorably.) Young Americans view both more positively.

And, of course, younger people are more likely to use TikTok in the first place.

It is not, of course, that young Americans are demanding that TikTok remain available or that they are taking to the streets to oppose a ban. Our poll found that 40% of adults under 35 oppose a ban, but nearly 3 in 10 support one, with a third of this group unsure. It is not clear that a ban would cause a significant political reaction; it might just push creators and users to use Instagram more.

Instead, the fact is that decisions about TikTok’s future are overwhelmingly made by people who don’t use the platform — the older Americans who still make up the bulk of Congress. TikTok is a microcosm of a larger pattern of American power: Young Americans see decisions about their future made by older generations who have different lived experiences than their own.


Not all news on the site expresses the point of view of the site, but we transmit this news automatically and translate it through programmatic technology on the site and not from a human editor.


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