TikTok's Creator Economy Stares Into the Abyss

The US Senate passed a bill late Tuesday that allows the government to ban TikTok within a year if it doesn’t make meaningful progress toward separating from its China-based owner, ByteDance. President Joe Biden said in a statement after the vote that he would sign it in law on Wednesday.

The version of TikTok impacted by the legislation is not the same platform that then-president President Donald Trump first tried to abolish back in 2020, citing national security concerns about its links to China. TikTok, its user base, and the ecosystem of creators making a living from the platform have grown, transformed, and matured since then. And the potential consequences of the app disappearing have become more significant.

TikTok’s US user base is much older than it was a few years ago, there are more alternative places to post short-form videos, and many long-time influencers say they feel jaded after spending so long trying to fight the app’s critics in Washington. But the number of Americans who are financially dependent on TikTok has also grown, including a new class of creators with smaller followings who make a living from e-commerce-focused videos.

Speaking hours before the Senate passed the bill targeting TikTok late on Tuesday, creators and others who work in the influencer industry told WIRED its approval would threaten the income of at least tens of thousands of people in the US and leave them feeling outraged.

“This is my livelihood, this is how I am going to feed my child, this is how many people are feeding their children,” a Pennsylvania-based TikTok creator named Aubrey who posts under the handle Makeupfresh said. Aubrey, who asked to use only her first name for privacy reasons, said she and other creators she knows are planning to vote against lawmakers who backed the TikTok ban in the general election this November.

James Nord, founder of the influencer marketing platform Fohr, said that TikTok disappearing would be an “extinction level event” for many creators. “Most of them do not have sustainable followings on other platforms,” he said. “And they’re not going to be able to migrate their following to Instagram.”

Tuesday’s vote was teed up by House lawmakers over the weekend, when they overwhelmingly approved a $95 billion foreign aid package that also includes the measures addressing TikTok. The bill provides funding for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan and was fast-tracked after Iran’s retaliatory attack against Israel last week. It passed the Senate on Tuesday with bipartisan support, 79 to 18, but is likely to face significant legal challenges—including from TikTok, according to reporting from The Information.

TikTok did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement to Reuters on Saturday, the company accused elected officials of “using the cover of important foreign and humanitarian assistance to once again jam through a ban bill that would trample the free speech rights of 170 million Americans.”

Prasuna Cheruku, founder of the influencer management agency Diversifi Talent, said said that some of the veteran creators she works with didn’t think the ban would actually pass, but that the political drama and TikTok’s evolution have caused some of them to become disillusioned with the app.

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