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Colorado’s TikTok creators worry about potential U.S. ban on the app

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TikTok creators living and working in Colorado fear their incomes – and online communities – are at risk if a potential U.S. ban on the social media app moves forward.

The popular Chinese-owned app, which features a seemingly never-ending stream of short videos, means more to creators than captured moments with adorable pets or trending dances for Generation Z, also known as zoomers. Owner ByteDance Ltd. committed to pouring around $285 million over three years to pay high-performing influencers through its Creator Fund – but the real money for content creators comes from partnerships with brands.

“This is a serious source of income for me, which sounds silly,” said 32-year-old Amanda Bittner. “But, when I look at my bank account at the end of the month, that is real money that I earned.”

“I consider it a job.”

The Denver resident posts her adventures around Colorado’s capital city and beyond to her account, @theamandabittner, cultivating a following of almost 34,000 users in the process. While Bittner only made about $200 total from the Creator Fund, she estimates that she earns a monthly average of $1,000 to $2,000 from corporate partnerships with Natural Grocers, Capital One, the Dunkin’ chain and more.

“I’ve put blood, sweat and tears into my content,” the Pittsburgh native said on March 28. “It would be such a shame to see it all go away.”

But that extra cash for creators – and TikTok’s future – is now up in the air, as federal and local governments crack down on the app. President Joe Biden signed a bill into law prohibiting the app from federal devices late last year. And in Colorado, the Aurora City Council banned TikTok from city devices at the end of March.

Lawmakers argue that the move is a matter of security to protect personal data that could fall into the hands of the Chinese government.

“The Biden administration is focused on the challenge of certain countries, including China, seeking to leverage digital technologies and Americans’ data in ways that present unacceptable national security risks,” said Principal Deputy Press Secretary Olivia Dalton in a Feb. 28 press gaggle.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23 about the app’s consumer privacy and data security practices. He pointed to more than 150 million Americans who hop on the app every month.

“We will keep safety — particularly for teenagers — a top priority for us,” Chew wrote in his testimony. “We will firewall … U.S. user data from unauthorized foreign access.”

Another critical commitment: “Tiktok will remain a platform for free expression and will not be manipulated by any government.”

Right now, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. is in the process of investigating TikTok. In the U.S. House of Representatives, a new bill, which would enable the Biden administration to ban TikTok, advanced at the committee level.

Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet is one Coloradan who’s raised security concerns on the federal level about TikTok and its collection of private data.

“Unlike any other platform, TikTok is subject to the dictates of the Chinese Communist Party,” he said in a statement on March 30. “If Beijing wants to access the private data of Coloradans collected through TikTok, all they have to do is ask.”

In the meantime, the app’s influencers fear they’ll lose a creative outlet, along with the massive followings they’ve nurtured since day one. Bittner said other creator friends are “super worried because, if this goes away, all of their audience and extra income goes away.”

For her part, she’s turned to building out her Instagram, so as not to “put all of my eggs in one basket.” On that app, she’s gained more than 73,000 followers.

“This whole industry of content creation and influencing is still so new,” Bittner said. “So many of us are just winging it.”

Earning money through TikTok

Julia Davila, 25, described herself as not entirely worried about the potential U.S. TikTok ban, but is preparing for the worst. Her account, @juliatakesahike, has garnered almost 33,000 followers, with her posts earning 1.3 million likes.

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“I kind of think it’s not going to happen at the federal level,” Davila said on March 28. “If it does, a lot of people will be surprised because it’s going to be such a violation of free speech and creativity.”

The California native moved to Lakewood about two years ago, and soon began posting her hiking and outdoor adventures on social media. Her primary audience of about 47,000 followers is on Instagram, but TikTok allowed her to start a women’s hiking group, building an in-person community in the process.

“It would just be really sad to have that taken away when you do spend time creating a personal brand on this app,” Davila said in a phone interview.

While she’s not a part of TikTok’s Creator Fund because “the payout is so low,” she’s recently collaborated with Vet’s Best, McDonald’s and other companies to create content.

“It would suck having that taken away because that’s a few thousand dollars a month that I wouldn’t be able to get,” Davila said.

Jade Rhodes’ introduction to TikTok started out innocuously. One day, she “jumped on the bandwagon, and downloaded it,” then documented funny moments with her husband and two children.

Now, the 33-year-old runs the TikTok account, @mommarhodey, with almost 70,000 followers and 2.9 million likes on her posts. She benefits from the app’s Creator Fund, receiving $300 monthly at most.

“Thankfully for me, that’s not our main source of income,” but the extra cash helps pad her wallet, Rhodes said. Her content creation “is just on my own fun time.”

Raised in Colorado Springs, Rhodes grew up in a military family, with a husband who’s also former military. The couple shares skepticism of the potential ban.

“Why are no other apps being banned?” Rhodes said, pointing to Facebook as an example. “It’s only purely because it is a foreign app, and it’s grown so exponentially that it’s something that they feel like they can’t control and that they want to have a handle on.”

The “generational divide” around TikTok

Patrick Garrett can picture himself earning money through TikTok soon – that is, if the U.S. ban doesn’t come to fruition.

Born and raised in Boulder, the 32-year-old Denverite creates Colorado-related content on his account, @patrickgarrett145, cracking jokes and highlighting his favorite places.

“Like a lot of people, I got on TikTok during the pandemic,” he said. Garrett eventually began posting, then gained a lot of attention with one video. From there, it snowballed to almost 7,000 followers.

“I’m not at the point where I’m a big-time creator, where I have a whole business plan,” he said on March 28, adding that he’s not yet eligible for the Creator Fund.

Garrett hopes that, over the next few months, he can hit 10,000 followers and start doing corporate sponsorships. He’s content with his day job, and foresees TikTok as a source of supplemental income.

“I would love to get to that point eventually,” he said. “It would be great to make some money.”

Outside of that, though, Garrett simply enjoys video creation as a hobby – one that lets him engage with his community.

He considers concerns about data privacy “fair,” but they should also expand to other social media networks, such as Twitter and Instagram.

As Garrett listens to lawmakers argue over TikTok, he recognizes a “huge generational divide.”

“I noticed a trend – that they always bring up the China Communist Party, how we can’t allow our data to fall into their hands,” he said. The point might appeal to older generations that experienced the Cold War, but “it doesn’t resonate as well with me and other people my age.”

Garrett supports addressing the problem if it constitutes a serious threat, but he’s yet to hear any specific details from government officials on what the dangers actually are.

“I would like to hear more about that from our lawmakers, rather than them throwing out the word ‘communist’ in order to scare folks into not liking TikTok,” he said.

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