How to prepare for a media landscape minus TikTok

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This article first appeared in the author’s LinkedIn newsletter, Social Media Portal, and is republished here with permission.

[***record scratch***] Wait, wait, wait, Zack. Didn’t we just cover this? It’s true. Wasn’t there TikTok ban legislation that stalled in the Senate? Yep. Have there been any changes in the way of addressing the constitutional red flags raised by the initial bill, particularly as it relates to the First Amendment? Nope. What about new guardrails that would effectively keep users’ data safe and secure? Nope. Well, surely new evidence has come to light that definitively shows that TikTok’s Chinese-based parent company, ByteDance, has shared U.S. user data with the Chinese government? Nope

What changed is that House Republicans made the decision to include TikTok as part of a larger $95 billion foreign aid package, a priority for President Biden with broad congressional support for Ukraine and Israel. And now here we are — perhaps less than 9 months away from 170 million Americans (and 7 million businesses) no longer being able to access the app that has undeniably revolutionized the way bite-sized video is shared and consumed digitally. Smash the nearest panic button? Let’s press pause, instead, and all take a collective breath.

For starters, we’d be remiss to gloss over the legislative fine print. The original standalone bill stipulated that ByteDance divest its stake within 180 days or lose access to app stores and web-hosting services in the U.S. The modified version now has a sale deadline of nine months, with a possible additional three months if a sale is in progress. While the Chinese government’s blessing of any American suitor is highly unlikely, particularly because of its first-in-class algorithm, it extends the earliest expiration date of the app to January 2025 and the amount of time brands and organizations can dedicate to mapping out a thoughtful exit strategy.

Regardless of the divestiture timeline, ByteDance is going to fight the bill in the courts with both First Amendment protections and recent precedent on its side. In November, a federal judge blocked a Montana law that sought to prohibit the use of TikTok across the state, saying that the legislation “oversteps state power” and “likely violates First Amendment rights.” In 2020, another federal judge put the kibosh on an executive order issued by then-President Trump to ban TikTok nationwide after the company sued on the grounds that the order violated free speech and due process rights.

When Northeastern University assistant professor of law and computer science Elettra Bietti joined the Portal last month, she was quick to point out that an ongoing NetChoice litigation case currently being reviewed in front of the Supreme Court may clarify the First Amendment protections of a social media platform like TikTok. That case centers around the constitutionality of state laws passed in Florida and Texas that limit the ability of social media companies such as Facebook, X (formerly known as Twitter) and YouTube to moderate content on their platforms. A decision is expected by late June.

Bietti: “[The Supreme Court] may rule that speech platforms are comparable to media publishers and thus have special autonomy and special protections against government interference under the First Amendment. This means that TikTok itself has First Amendment rights which it could claim the government breached by passing this bill.”

All of this — the lawsuits, the congressional hearings, the media attention and scrutiny — underscores a tectonic shift in a social media landscape that has largely been unregulated for the past two decades. Will it lead to the complete Ctrl+Alt+Delete of one of the era’s brightest supernovas? Impossible to say how the proverbial Magic 8 Ball will shake out. I don’t pretend to have that answer. But I think it’s very reasonable to expect that government oversight will undoubtedly impact the apps that you frequent both professionally and personally sooner rather than later. If we haven’t already entered Social 2.0, we are on the front steps and ringing the doorbell.

With that volatility and potential red tape in mind, be as ready as you can be for the moment:

  • TikTok’s future is in flux, but I’d be shocked if the short-form vertical video craze it ushered in is going to crater overnight. 1080×1920 is here to stay IMHO. Plan accordingly. Creating a scrappy video production workflow that allows you to quickly and easily repurpose SFVV across multiple platforms (IG and Facebook Reels, YouTube Shorts, etc.) both leverages the in-vogue content format algorithms and users are clamoring for and provides you with a bulletproof vest in the event of a doomsday RIP scenario.
  • Give your audience every opportunity to follow you on all platforms where you actively disseminate content. P.S. This doesn’t need to be a promotional tactic that you deploy on the eve of an app’s downfall or shutdown. Putting a newsletter subscribe link in your “link in bio” or prescheduling some posts encouraging newsletter signups can never hurt. The followers you’ve spent years building and engaging with don’t need to go the way of fairy dust if and when the clock strikes midnight on TikTok (or any platform, for that matter).
  • Brands and organizations should always be periodically reevaluating the time and resources they dedicate to every social media platform, TikTok included, based on data-driven insights. Take a look at the metrics and how they support your team’s goals and objectives (such as audience growth/reach, video viewership, engagement, etc.). If you’re consistently failing to reach and engage with an audience in one particular digital space, is it possible to reallocate a few eggs to another basket where you are seeing gains and wins?
  • Don’t stop experimenting. Lest we forget, it’s been less than six years since TikTok really put its imprint on the cultural zeitgeist and became the most downloaded app in the U.S. There’s no telling how quickly hundreds of millions of digital-savvy users might flock to another envelope-pushing app in the next half-decade. Here’s to hoping the quick-hitting, fast-paced video editing and creative storytelling chops that we have cultivated in order to make hay on TikTok will translate elsewhere, regardless of its ultimate fate. I, for one, am optimistic they will.
  • Reduce your exposure on the platform. Protect yourself by not giving TikTok access to your contacts and blocking TikTok’s ability to track you outside of its app. Export and save all of your video content, too!

I’m not a legal scholar nor a filmmaker but, in what is very clearly already a Netflix docuseries in the making, I have a feeling that we are much closer to the premiere than we are to the finale. More plot twists, character arc turns, and courtroom scenes are almost certainly in the queue. 

Zack Waldman is a Social Media Strategist at GBH in Boston. He oversees the station’s official social media channels and advises on the strategy behind and execution of various social media initiatives that originate from GBH’s local and national production and programming units. You can sign up for his newsletter here.

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