BUFFALO, N.Y. — When the U.S. Department of Commerce takes action Sunday to make TiKTok and WeChat unavailable for new downloads, social media expert Jason Mollica said it will be making history.
"The government taking this sort of action against a specific social media network or networks is very unprecedented," he said.
Mollica, a professor at American University, believes the action sets a dangerous precedent for a relatively new but still important form of free speech.
"They've set the precedent for saying, okay, we don't like something that's going on say Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, YouTube, anything, to say, well, we're just going to stop the downloads from the app stores or allowing people to use them the way they would like to use them," he said.
The Trump administration has expressed concern about the Chinese-owned social media applications being an easy target for the Chinese government to collect information on U.S. citizens. However, Mollica said based on the data he's looked at, he doesn't believe they are more dangerous than any other app where people share personal information.
"Any foreign government can try to get access to any social media application," he said. "TikTok is not any different than any other one out there. I don't think there's any more risk with TikTok than there are with the other popular, more popular apps that are out there today."
He said TikTok has become more than just a place for teens to make silly videos and dance. It's also become an outlet for people to organize politically, often against the president, and for causes like Black Lives Matter.
"This is where people are," Mollica said. "They're using social media at times to amplify their voices. We can't necessarily protest or speak up in a positive way for things in person so we're using networks like TikTok, like Snapchat to amplify and get the message out to as many people as possible."
The president has pressured TikTok's Chinese ownership to sell its U.S. operation to a domestic company and the government is reviewing a deal with California tech-giant Oracle. A full U.S. shutdown of the app on November 12 may depend on the progress of that deal, but Mollica believes the outcome of the November 3 election may also have an impact.
"This is a political game, no doubt about it," he said. "So whatever party continues past the Election Day, we'll see where this goes."