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Rep. Mike Gallagher calls his bill “surgery to remove the cancer at the heart of TikTok.” (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The Man Leading the Charge Against TikTok

Mike Gallagher talks to The Free Press about Trump’s flip-flop and the war in Washington over the Chinese-owned app.

Should a company under the control of the Chinese Communist Party be allowed to own the primary source of news for young Americans? The House of Representatives is expected to answer that question with a resounding “no” tomorrow, when it votes on legislation that would force the Chinese tech company ByteDance to sell TikTok or face a ban on the app in the United States. 

The politics on this issue ought to be straightforward and bipartisan, but like everything in Washington these days, it’s not quite so simple. Let me explain. 

When, in 2020, the Trump administration issued an executive order banning TikTok, it faced legal challenge and caused many to wonder if outrage at the move would lead to a surge in youth turnout that November. The measure was quickly ditched when Biden came into office. 

Fast-forward to 2024. Now, Biden is in favor of forcing ByteDance to sell—he has said if the bill passes, he will sign it into law. And Trump? Trump is passionately and suddenly opposed. “If you get rid of TikTok, Facebook and Zuckerschmuck will double their business. I don’t want Facebook, who cheated in the last Election, doing better. They are a true Enemy of the People!,” said Trump in a post on Truth Social last week. (That isn’t right: the bill gives ByteDance 165 days to sell TikTok before banning it from app stores.)

In this, Trump is part of a strange coalition that includes libertarian right-wingers like Senator Rand Paul and Rep. Thomas Massie, Squad members like Ilhan Omar and AOC, Tucker Carlson, the Cato Institute, and the ACLU.  

What gives? 

To discuss the upside-down politics of this debate—and its substance—I called up Rep. Mike Gallagher, the Wisconsin Republican Chair of the House Select Committee on China and the force behind the bill. Gallagher has a broad coalition on his side: he introduced the bill with Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat, and the legislation made it out of committee with a 50–0 vote. In other words, House Republicans are poised to do something increasingly rare: vote contrary to Trump.

Why, I asked him, had Trump reversed course?

“Trump started the whole forced sale idea, so I don’t know what to make of this statement, especially since the bill aims for a sale, not a shutdown,” he said. “Trump rightly saw the threat posed by CCP control of TikTok when he was president, and he rightly tried to take action to fix it. And he was wrongly criticized by the media.”

Gallagher refused to speculate, insisting that “my sole interest is in getting this bill passed. What’s at stake here is foreign adversary control of our news, our data, our election integrity, and the epistemological sanity of our kids.”

But some smell a rat, noting that Trump’s new, soft-on-TikTok stance came just after he sat down with Republican megadonor Jeff Yass and the Yass-backed Club for Growth and alleging that Trump’s China policy is for sale to the highest bidder. Yass has a $21 billion stake in ByteDance. The position makes up the majority of his estimated $28 billion net worth. Yass was also a major backer of Vivek Ramaswamy’s presidential bid; Ramaswamy was also once anti-TikTok but changed his tune after Yass started writing him checks. 

Does Gallagher think Yass explains Trump’s about-face? “I don’t know. I don’t know what conversations he’s had. I suspect it is what it looks like, which is that there is no love lost between Trump and Facebook. He feels like Facebook is responsible for his loss in 2020. So I do believe that is the dominant factor here. Whether it’s related to Yass’s advocacy against the bill, I have no evidence to suggest that and I have no idea what his relationship with the president is like.

“It’s hard for me to fully develop a hypothesis that explains the change,” added Gallagher.

With the fate of his bill front of mind, Gallagher downplayed the gap between his own position and the former president’s. “He’s saying we shouldn’t get rid of TikTok, and thereby force everybody onto Facebook. I agree, I think that would be a bad outcome, which is why the bill allows for a forced divestiture.” 

Gallagher described his bill as “surgery to remove the cancer at the heart of TikTok,” namely “CCP control of an opaque algorithm that can be used for propaganda purposes.” 

When I asked Gallagher why there was so much bipartisan momentum behind the bill he had a simple answer: October 7.

“That’s when I felt the momentum shift back in our direction,” he explained. “I can’t tell you how many Democratic colleagues I had coming up to me and saying they had seen the antisemitism on the platform, they had seen the whole Osama bin Laden “Letter to America” thing, and asking ‘Hey, where are we on this? We’ve got to do something.’ ” 

Back in November, Gallagher wrote an essay for The Free Press on the way in which TikTok was boosting pro-Hamas propaganda and suppressing pro-Israel posts. In December, analysis from the National Contagion Research Institute found that TikTok’s algorithm boosts content that is sympathetic with Beijing’s geopolitical objectives. 

Ever since Gallagher and his colleagues unveiled the legislation, TikTok has been on a no-holds-barred lobbying push, even prompting all its U.S.-based users to call their representative and oppose the bill. 

“Look at what happened last week with this pop-up notification that was a total lie,” says Gallagher, referring to a message TikTok users received inviting them to “speak up” about the bill. “We just got a preview of how the platform can be weaponized. While the data concerns are very real, the primary concern has always been propaganda. We know that Xi’s goal is to dominate discourse power and wage ideological warfare against the West.”

If anything, this push seems to have stiffened lawmakers’ resolve to take action. “TikTok’s tactics prove the point that we cannot allow this platform, a dominant news platform for Americans under 30, to remain controlled by the Chinese Communist Party,” said Gallagher. “The risk is just too great.” 

For a different point of view on regulating TikTok, here is Reason’s Robby Soave arguing “Banning TikTok Is a Power the Federal Government Doesn’t Deserve.”

Oliver Wiseman is a writer and editor at The Free Press. Follow him on X @ollywiseman.

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