US TikTok ban: how the looming restriction is affecting scientists on the app

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US TikTok ban: how the looming restriction is affecting scientists on the app


US President Joe Biden signed legislation last month that could trigger a nationwide ban of the popular social-media app TikTok within a year. Researchers who use the app to communicate science to curious followers, study social trends and earn money to support themselves are dismayed and frustrated.

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a firm based in Beijing, China — which, amid growing US–China tensions, has raised national-security concerns among US officials, related to the Chinese government’s access to user data. On 7 May, TikTok filed a lawsuit calling the legislation, which gives ByteDance nine months to a year to find a US-based buyer for the app, an “extraordinary intrusion on free speech rights”. If the ban goes into effect, users in the United States will no longer be able to add the app to their devices or install updated versions.

Morgan Johnston, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, worries that young people who use TikTok will lose an outlet to learn about science and find community. Sixty-three per cent of US teenagers aged 13 to 17 and 33% of US adults use the app, according to several surveys conducted last year by the Pew Research Center in Washington DC and market-research firm Ipsos in New York City. Although dance routines and pop-culture discussions are often trending on the app, many people use it to learn about science, says Johnston, who runs the account @askaneuroscientist. She posts videos about her research on the impact of stress on learning and answers questions from her 37,600 followers. “I love the interaction part of it,” she says.

Nature spoke to five scientists and communicators in the United States about what they will do if the ban goes into effect. Most of them acknowledge the data-security concerns, but say that the legislation would cut off a thriving platform for science education and outreach, especially among young people who are seeking information from trusted sources.

“We need stricter laws on what data can be collected and sold, but this legislation doesn’t do that,” says Johnston, who uses her channel to talk about her mental-health journey as she navigates graduate school as a first-generation PhD student from a rural area. “My following is young adults who are in the process of making their career decisions — and they’re really curious.”

Engaged audiences

The seismic growth of the app during lockdowns initiated because of the COVID-19 pandemic helped to make TikTok a “massive platform for outreach”, says Jamie Zaccaria, a media and outreach specialist at the Ocean Exploration Trust, a research-focused non-profit organization in New London, Connecticut. In 2022, the trust launched its TikTok account, @nautiluslive, which streams footage of deep-sea expeditions narrated in real time by excited researchers discovering striking marine creatures. The account has more than half a million followers, and some ask for educational resources or advice on how to pursue a career in ocean science.

Researchers with the Ocean Exploration Trust marvel at a mysterious deep-sea jellyfish in this video (shown here on YouTube, but also available on TikTok).

The Ocean Exploration Trust declined to comment on the legislation, but it has several successful social-media accounts, including on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, to which it could shift its focus if the ban goes into effect.

Some content creators with smaller online followings might not have that option. Michael Rhodes, a neuroscientist at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, started posting on his TikTok account, @rhodeslovesneuroscience, in 2020 to boost morale among undergraduate students in his classes. With their help and with help from researchers in his lab, Rhodes posts educational videos about anatomy, physiology and pharmacology, including dance routines that demonstrate the actions performed by specific muscle groups and skits that explain how drugs work. “I’ve become a better professor because it makes me take a step back and look at information differently,” he says.

Rhodes says that most of his roughly 189,000 followers are students or early-career health-care professionals. But with all his academic responsibilities, he isn’t sure that he will be able to pivot to a new platform if TikTok disappears in the United States. “If a third of the country is using TikTok, that should tell you something about its popularity,” he adds.

Secret sauce

One thing that makes TikTok different from other social-networking apps is how its algorithm curates content from across the platform — not just the accounts a user follows — to appeal to the specific interests of each user, says Matt Motta, a health-communications researcher at Boston University’s School of Public Health. “That becomes a way for scientists to have their messages transmitted to audiences that may not self-select into them,” he says.

TikTok’s critics say that this proprietary algorithm imbues the app with addictive properties that can drive the spread of misinformation and contribute to the US mental-health crisis. But, recognizing its reach, Motta and his colleagues are studying how TikTok could be harnessed for good by training mental-health content creators on the app to disseminate evidence-based information among their followers1.

“It’s important to remember that some scientists are working with TikTok to study social phenomena. And if TikTok were to go away, our ability to do that would be significantly hindered,” Motta says. At the same time, Motta and others acknowledge concerns about data security related to the use of social-media apps such as TikTok.

The TikTok creator and organic chemist known as Chem Thug explains why batteries bounce when they run out of juice (shown here on YouTube, also available on TikTok).

Digital privacy is part of the reason that the organic-chemistry PhD student behind the viral @chem.thug TikTok account does not share his real identity or the university that he attends. His conversational explainer videos put scientific concepts in a real-world context for more than 284,300 followers on TikTok and around 10,000 on YouTube. For example, in one of his popular clips about household chemicals, Chem Thug explains why zinc-based batteries become “bouncy” as they lose charge. “I think everybody’s life is enriched by a better, deeper understanding of chemistry,” he says. Like Johnston, Chem Thug has monetized his account as a supplemental line of income to support himself during graduate school.

Chem Thug is cautious about putting his personal information on the Internet, but says that he doesn’t “see Bytedance as being any more nefarious than any other large corporation with interest in making as much money as possible”.

Few sources who spoke to Nature anticipate that a ban will go into effect on the proposed timeline, especially considering that the lawsuit filed by TikTok will undoubtedly tie up the legislation in courts. But the spectre of the ban is sparking serious conversations among TikTok scientists, especially those who sought refuge on the app after billionaire Elon Musk bought the social-media platform Twitter (now X) and made many unpopular changes. “Where are we going to recreate this community?” Johnston asks. “There’s not really a consensus.”



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