avatarAllison Wiltz



How Black Free Speech is Limited on Social Media Platforms Like TikTok

Some report facing racial discrimination of being suppressed

AI-generated image of a Black woman using her computer | created by the author using CANVA

Our society is shifting in the sense that social media platforms have progressively replaced the watercooler conversations of our society, a digital space where people can share their views on a number of topics. While many casually pop in and out, others make their living by engaging with others on social media. And just as racism impacts people in brick-and-mortar businesses, it also impacts Black people in these online spaces. Indeed, the anonymity afforded by these platforms often creates a safe space for racist ideas to ferment and spread. TikTok, a platform that attracts over a hundred million actively monthly users in the United States is certainly no exception to that rule.

Even a company like TikTok, which pledged to support the black community, must work to mitigate the racism exhibited on and by its platform. In 2020, the company noted they “acknowledge and apologize to our Black creators and community who have felt unsafe, unsupported, or suppressed. We don’t ever want anyone to feel that way. We welcome the voices of the Black community wholeheartedly.” And yet, the experience of Black content creators contradicts this rosy image TikTok painted in public statements. Indeed, two Black former ByteDance employees filed a formal complaint with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last September, claiming they experienced racial discrimination while working for the company, as well as retaliation for reporting their experiences. Their suit suggested TikTok does not ensure Black employees are treated equally.

On the day before Black History Month began, TikTok credited Black creators with inspiring “mainstream culture and continuing to define what’s next — from creating viral moments and pioneering new spaces in fashion and music to advocating for others and organizing for a better future, they have always been at the forefront of innovation.” And yet, Black creators have shared their experiences with racism on the platform, from selective amplification of their content, having their content flagged as dangerous when it is benign, or efforts to suppress their activism. TikTok became a popular platform during the “racial reckoning” because of the efforts of Black content creators. Yet, there seems to be a schism between the company's purported values and the experiences of Black creators who regularly use the platform. When discrimination is rampant on a platform, the free speech of some groups is limited while others are elevated.

Currently, TikTok is a social media platform used by approximately 102.3 million active monthly users in the United States and is projected to continue to grow in popularity in the coming years. Perhaps the only factor that could change that would be federal intervention. For instance, the House of Representatives passed the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, which has been commonly referred to as the TikTok ban. If approved by the Senate and by the president, this legislation would prohibit Americans’ access to TikTok if it retains its current ownership, ByteDance, a privately owned Chinese company. President Biden has signaled his willingness to support the legislation. The fear, for some representatives, is that Americans’ reliance on a foreign-owned social media company could open the door for election interference. However, there are some assumptions at play here.

For starters, the supporters of this legislation seem to assume that only foreign-owned companies pose a threat to consumers. However, at least a dozen states have filed lawsuits against Meta, accusing them of causing harm to children and teenagers on their platforms. Many parents are concerned the endless scroll feature common across platforms may facilitate addiction. YouTube, a video-based platform owned by Google, had to pay $170 million to settle a lawsuit claiming it illegally took data from minors, users under the age of 13. This suggests that American social media companies are not effectively protecting consumers. So, more broadly, protecting social media consumers is a problem no company has perfectly mastered, not just for those owned by foreigners.

Secondly, there’s an assumption that Americans will move on, unaffected by a TikTok ban. Despite the problems with the platform, which faces allegations of racial discrimination, many Black content creators have become successful on the platform. Currently, TikTok is the fourth most popular social media platform, ranking below Facebook and YouTube and almost running neck to neck with Instagram. The platform is no longer seen as the new kid on the block or only as a space to share new dance moves. Some use TikTok for personal confessions, others for tutorials, to promote their talents and businesses, or to provide persona, social, or political commentary. Activism is a strong element on the platform.

Years ago, when social media on platforms like MySpace were the most popular, a law designed to dismantle the platform would have been perhaps inconsequential to the average person who doesn’t own stock in the company. After all, many millennials had an account on MySpace, but I couldn’t point to any Black person who could say that they lost money when they stopped using the platform. We’ve crossed the Rubicon. There’s no turning back to a time before so many people began earning money from social media platforms. As a result, banning a platform like TikTok not only penalizes the owners but also those who use the platform to make money. Is this something that Congress is considering?

If TikTok is banned, Black content creators and others who make their money using the platform will be cut off due to no fault of their own. This is particularly true for those who use TikTok to post skits and appeal to a wider audience based on their comedic ability or other talents. Khaby Lame, a Black man, makes approximately $750K a post from his content. Tabitha Brown, an actress, turned her 5 million followers into a global empire. In previous generations, black talent was often filtered through the lens of White approval. While financial success in the past would require some sort of buy-in from White people, TikTok, and other platforms with thriving creator programs cut out the middle man and instead allow consumers to access videos, photos, and text created by Black people, even if no White person would deem them worthy. The platform is imperfect, given the accusations of racism lodged by employees and comments from those who use it. And yet, the end of TikTok may cause many content creators to lose their access to the audience they've created over the years.

What Black TikTok creators want is an equal opportunity to have their content reach a wide audience and make money on par with their white counterparts. Sadly, it seems more likely that the government would ban the platform that advocate for reforms—there certainly seems to be more political momentum to that end. That’s not to say that none of the concerns raised about TikTok are valid, as House and Congressional leaders have access to national security information kept away from the public. However, it’s also true that, during an election year, banning the fourth largest social media platform may have a marginalizing effect on Black people and people of color who use TikTok to stay connected and tap in.

Only time will tell what the future of TikTok will look like, whether it will continue to grow in popularity in America or be banned and become a distant memory. Nevertheless, even if the platform can escape from the latest round of congressional criticism unscathed, there is a problem with platforms that limit the free speech of Black consumers or deprive them of equal opportunities. As society becomes increasingly digitalized, we should consider how online social platforms mimic social problems present in the real world. Unless we challenge racist beliefs, the suppression of Black voices will be replicated online. As is above, so is below.

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