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‘TikTok is the language they use’: Baltimore-area teens rally around popular app amid criticism

Baltimore City College graduate Melia Scott and school librarian Jennifer Berg Gaither watch videos Aug. 19, 2020, on the popular TikTok app.
Baltimore City College graduate Melia Scott and school librarian Jennifer Berg Gaither watch videos Aug. 19, 2020, on the popular TikTok app. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

In candid moments, teens may concede they spend too many hours scrolling on TikTok, and acknowledge that the wildly popular app can feel frivolous.

But TikTok — a video sharing app for a generation that keeps little to itself — is inspiring ardent loyalty from users who say its dance videos and candid expressions of teen reality help them feel connected during the socially limiting coronavirus pandemic.

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President Donald Trump’s recent move to ban the app set off what Melia Scott, 18, of Baltimore, calls “a rebellion” among her age group.

“They are definitely fighting it,” said Scott, who attends Baltimore City Community College.

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There are “Save TikTok” and “Ban Trump” hashtags on the app, along with plenty of users showing off unflattering Trump impressions. Tens of thousands of people have signed any of a half-dozen online petitions to preserve TikTok, and some users say they would explore loopholes or hacks to try to get around a ban.

Jennifer Berg Gaither, the librarian at Baltimore City College, poses with one of her former students, Melia Scott, regarding the popular TikTok app. Students love the app and Berg Gaither uses it in her teaching.
Jennifer Berg Gaither, the librarian at Baltimore City College, poses with one of her former students, Melia Scott, regarding the popular TikTok app. Students love the app and Berg Gaither uses it in her teaching. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

“TikTok is the language they use,” Jennifer Berg Gaither, the librarian at Baltimore City College high school, said of her students. She makes TikTok videos — including some in which she dances with students — to heighten their interest in education. “I don’t think anyone wants TikTok to go away,” she said.

“We use TikTok during the pandemic to literally express how we feel,” said Nakiyan Johnson, 18, who graduated this year from City College. “I want to still be able to communicate with people.”

The app invites users to share videos up to 60 seconds. People lip-sync popular songs, dance, pull pranks on friends, show off stunts or athletic skills, provide cooking tips or open up about deeply personal issues such as depression or sexual orientation.

Millennials and post-millennials talk about body-image insecurities, breakups and the general awkwardness and tribulations of being a teenager or young adult. Analysts say the app is particularly good at finding users' comfort zones and feeding them videos of interest by theme or location.

TikTok says on its website that it collects “information contained in the messages you send through our platform and information from your phone book, if you grant us access to your phone book on your mobile device.”

Maryland teachers and parents say the app is exceedingly popular in the state. One TikTok star, Sarah Cooper, attended the University of Maryland before rising to fame — she recently hosted ABCs “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” — making videos lip-syncing Trump with comically exaggerated expressions and effects. Ellicott City native Bryce Hall has more than 13 million TikTok followers.

Baltimore “TikToks” include game highlights of Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, a primer on “how to catch a home run” at Camden Yards and a satirical review of the area’s private schools that has received nearly 10,000 “likes.”

TikTok claims 100 million American users. It has been downloaded more than 2 billion times globally, according to Sensor Tower, an analytics firm.

Trump’s executive order last month would bar Americans from “any transaction” with Bytedance Ltd., TikTok’s China-based parent company, as early as Sunday. The order said TikTok’s ability to capture information about users — including online activity, location data and search histories — “threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans' personal and proprietary information.”

Bytedance says the order would “destroy an online community” and has challenged the ban’s legality with a lawsuit in federal court in California.

Trump issued a related order last month giving Bytedance until Nov. 12 to sell its American assets. Bytedance is not fighting that order, and several firms expressed interest in buying those properties.

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On Sunday, the Associated Press reported that Bytedance has chosen Oracle over Microsoft as its preferred suitor to buy the app, according to a source familiar with the deal.

Microsoft announced Sunday that its bid to buy TikTok has been rejected. Walmart had planned to partner with Microsoft on the deal. It’s not clear whether Walmart is still interested. Oracle has declined to comment. TikTok also declined comment Sunday.

TikTok is also home to political action. Users learned on TikTok about making fake ticket requests for a Trump campaign rally in Oklahoma in June, seeking to inflate expected attendance estimates with a goal of embarrassing the president.

Like an infinity pool, TikTok — with its videos endlessly looping, one displaying after the next — creates the sensation of going on forever. Many have a goofy, irreverent quality.

In addition to the volume of time young people spend on TikTok, some parents worry the app creates a sexualized environment for kids, particularly girls.

“Parents are a little bit wary because they think about kids shaking their booty in crop tops,” said Leticia Barr, a Montgomery County middle school teacher who blogs about technology, education and parenting.

“Like any social platform, we need to be mindful of what our kids are using,” Barr said. “We can talk to our kids about being safe, but we’re never sure of what other kids who use that platform are putting out in the world.”

TikTok is the site in which Kyle Rittenouse — charged in the shooting of two protesters last month in Wisconsin — posted video of a Trump rally in January, BuzzFeed News reported.

Like other social media sites, TikTok includes content about conspiracy theories such as the baseless “Pizzagate” narrative that national Democrats were running a child sex-trafficking ring from a Washington, D.C., pizza shop.

In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission announced a $5.7 million fine as part of a settlement with an app called Musical.ly — now part of TikTok — over allegations that it illegally collected information, such as names, email addresses and locations from child users.

The FTC said Musical.ly operators “knew many children were using the app but they still failed to seek parental consent” before collecting personal information. Bytedance merged Musical.ly and TikTok in 2018.

TikTok says users must be at least 13. It offers a scaled-down experience for kids under 13 that doesn’t permit sharing personal information.

In its lawsuit against Trump, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and the Commerce Department, Bytedance said the administration was “impermissibly banning TikTok.” The company said it stores user data outside China and its security measures are “more than sufficient to address any conceivable U.S. government privacy or national security concerns.”

Gaither, the City College librarian who makes educational and dance TikToks, said she has reservations about the app, citing its ability to pull kids in for hours and its “overt sexuality.”

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But she said making appropriate TikToks helped her engage students. In one video, she uses text balloons and music to answer students' questions about an assignment.

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“The ninth and tenth graders came way more to the library when I started doing these TikToks,” she said. “It just made them realize they have a space.”

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