State’s TikTok Ban Affects Agencies, Students Alike

by Amy Martinez Reynolds

You’ve seen the dances, saw the lip-syncs, even shown your most recent edit, but maybe we’ll have to say bye to all of it.

TikTok, the popular short-video social media app, was recently banned in Montana, and several other state legislatures continue to consider similar statewide bans.

Earlier this year, Oklahoma officials blocked the app from all state networks and devices, which hit home for Epic students because the app is most popular with young people.

But perhaps the more important question is, what will this mean for Hernando?

Ban affects all state agencies

Hernando is a raccoon in a boat holding a paddle and he sits at the central office near the licensing counter at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Hernando’s first TikTok video, posted Feb. 14, 2022, with sound from the Disney movie “Encanto,” hit 14,300 views.

In it, ODWC social media coordinator Sarah Southerland lip-syncs to the sound and writes “All my emotional support is done by Hernando.” When she asks who Hernando is, Hernando moves across the screen as the sound says “I’m Hernando and I’m scared of nothing!”

Hernando the raccoon is a popular recurring guest in one of the most popular TikTok accounts in Oklahoma. The ODWC runs a wildly popular social media mini-empire that often sees posts go viral.

“I started looking at him closer, and I noticed he was balding a little bit … he’s old,” Southerland said.

When Gov. Kevin Stitt issued the ban, it meant a big change for Southerland. She runs a TikTok account with 226,100 followers (@okwildlifedept), a Twitter account with 202,300 followers (@okwildlifedept), and Facebook page with 195,000 followers (OKWildlifedept).

“We really love TikTok, but so do a lot of people, so we’re not alone in these kinds of bans,” Southerland said.

She now carries around three phones to keep up with TikTok while complying with the state ban.

“They’re all different colors, and they all have different cases. I do things like that to make sure when I pick up a phone, I kind of mentally know which one I have.”

The ODWC’s social media channels are fun, but they are also informative. A recent theme on all their channels has seen the department using humor to help warn anglers about invasive fish species.

Ban includes all state schools

Epic homeschooled students use state-owned devices, which means that they’re being supervised by the school to make sure they’re using the devices as intended. These are considered government-issued devices, meaning the ban included student TikTok access.

In an email to its families, Epic administrators wrote, “Based on Governor Stitt’s order, all Epic employees and Epic students will be prohibited from using the TikTok application or visiting the TikTok website on the Epic network or any Epic-issued computer, laptop, cell phone, MiFi, or other Epic devices.”

“It’s slightly frustrating, from a marketing communications standpoint, to not be able to leverage a powerful social media platform like TikTok for the benefit of Epic and its students, but we understand the cybersecurity concerns surrounding the decision and support state leadership in that,” said Rob Crissinger, executive director of communications for Epic.

“We made the move to pull the platform from Epic devices following consultation with our legal team,” he said, “and don’t feel like it has had a negative impact for Epic, outside of limiting our options available for communicating with younger Oklahomans who might not be using the more traditional social media options like Facebook and Instagram.”

Dangers for students

Fifth graders at Epperly Heights Elementary, a Mid-Del school, started a TikTok account where they talked about the drama in the school and/or did dances. When the vice principal and principal looked into the account’s followers, they asked students who certain people were. The students were able to identify accounts as their classmates, but there was a handful of accounts they didn’t know anything about.

“They had let all these strangers in, which to me is scary – you’ve got to be smarter than that. And of course, you talk to kids about that…but they don’t know how savvy these people are,” said Katherine Kirk, vice principal at Epperly Heights.

Dangers for everyone

TikTok is owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance with over one billion global users, including more than 150 million in America; this worries Congress that ByteDance is capable of gaining control of user data.

“There are more than 150 million Americans on TikTok…this includes 5 million businesses that use TikTok to reach their customers,” Shou Zi Chew, CEO of TikTok, said in a TikTok before the congressional committee tasked with investigating the app.

Even after Shou Zi Chew stated that TikTok was a private company, Congress is still worried about the security threats TikTok may pose to America.

“TikTok collects nearly every data point imaginable. From people’s location to what they type and copy, who they talk to, biometric data and more.” committee’s chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers said in her opening statement during the congressional hearing.

For politicians who support an outright ban, it isn’t necessarily the user content that is the concern, but rather the ability of algorithms to shape the thoughts and actions of TikTok users.

“ByteDance is headquartered in China and Chinese national security laws compel companies operating in China to share their data with the government upon request,” Stitt wrote in his executive order.

“Maintaining the cybersecurity of state government is necessary to continue to serve and protect Oklahoma citizens, and we will not participate in helping the Chinese Communist Party gain access to government information,” he said in a statement about the executive order.

The show goes on

However, Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s head of public policy for the Americas, told CBS News in December that the concern was being overstated, but “makes for good politics.” He said TikTok collects less data than other social media apps, and is working to move user data to servers in the U.S., out of the reach of China’s government.

So does the Chinese government really care about Hernando the raccoon and his ODWC amigos?

Either way, “it’s all about adjusting and being flexible when these things come up,” Southerland said.

In other words, the show will go on. People will find a way to continue inspiring others and expressing themselves, even if it means they have to work harder to do so.

Above: Department of Wildlife Conservation mascot Hernando prepares to post his own TikTok video (ODWC photo).

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