In a new court filing, TikTok leaders make clear just how much is at stake in a prolonged battle with the Trump administration: If TikTok were banned for two months, up to half of its users in America would never come back. If the ban persisted for six months, 90% of TikTok users would be gone forever, according to a top TikTok executive.
"We would not be able to make up for lost ground, because people who would have downloaded TikTok will have already turned to other competing platforms such as Byte, Triller, Zynn and the Reels feature on Instagram," Vanessa Pappas, TikTok's interim global head, wrote. Pappas' submission was part of a TikTok lawsuit urging a federal judge to halt a ban on the app from Trump from taking effect on Sunday.
President Trump's crusade to ban the popular video-sharing app in the U.S. has already cost TikTok millions of dollars in advertising revenue, made it more difficult to recruit new employees and, unless a federal court blocks Trump's ban from taking effect this weekend, TikTok is facing "catastrophic economic loss," Pappas said.
Just days ago, Trump indicated that a deal to keep TikTok alive had received his blessing. Under the terms, U.S. software company Oracle would gain control of TikTok's U.S. user data and, together with Walmart, a one-fifth ownership stake in the app.
But soon TikTok's Chinese parent company ByteDance, Oracle and Walmart released contradicting statements about key details of the deal, leading to confusion about the actual terms of the agreement and whether or not Trump will approve it.
But that order — which would make TikTok disappear from app stores and eventually cripple the app for those who already have it — is set to start now on midnight Sunday.
TikTok's lawyers are asking for an emergency hearing to prevent the prohibition on TikTok from beginning this weekend. The Justice Department opposes the hearing. In a response to the court, it says while the ban prevents downloads and updates of the app, it will "otherwise largely preserve the status quo" for TikTok users in the U.S.
There is a consensus among Washington lawmakers of both parties that China-based technology companies could pose a national security risk. In its economic trade war with China, the Trump administration has taken aim at a number of Chinese technology firms, but officials in the White House have not provided concrete evidence that TikTok constitutes a specific threat.
Nonetheless, Trump has said that any deal to save TikTok would have to mean that ByteDance, TikTok's corporate owner, has no power or control, a proposition the company does not appear willing to accept.
Lawyers for TikTok are asking a federal judge to block the order from taking effect, claiming, among other arguments, that Trump's action violates users' First Amendment rights.
The president ordered that Chinese-owned app WeChat be effectively shut down in the U.S. along with TikTok, but a federal judge recently blocked that ban over free speech concerns, saying such apps operate as a "a virtual public square."
In the Wednesday court filing, Pappas, for the first time, spelled out the damage Trump's clamp down already has caused.
A dozen brands have cancelled or delayed advertising on the app, costing TikTok $10 million in revenue in August alone, she said.
Hiring has become more difficult with a giant target from the White House on its back. Pappas said 52 candidates have declined offers to work at TikTok due to Trump's attacks against the app.
At the same time, TikTok, which has some 100 million monthly active users in the U.S., has seen explosive growth. Pappas said before rumors started to circulate in July of a looming Trump ban, TikTok had been adding 424,000 new daily users in the U.S. every day.
Regulators in Washington have been conducting a security review of TikTok for more than a year. But in its filing to the court, TikTok lawyers say Trump seemed to step up pressure on the app following a prank in which many TikTok users reserved tickets to the president's campaign kick-off rally in Tulsa, Okla, then failed to show up.
At any rate, TikTok's attorneys wrote on Wednesday, Trump "began targeting TikTok, shortly after it surfaced in public reporting that TikTok users had claimed they used the app to coordinate mass ticket reservations for the President's rally in Tulsa, resulting in an embarrassment for the President's campaign," according to lawyer John Hall, who is representing TikTok.
Shortly after, Hall writes, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed that the administration is "looking at" banning TikTok. Then the president's re-election campaign ran negative Facebook advertisements urging supporters to sign a petition to ban TikTok.
The Trump campaign has denied the impact of TikTok users on attendance at the Tulsa rally, pointing out that registration was never capped since it was a first-come, first-serve event. Fears over the coronavirus, the Trump campaign says, is what really depressed turnout.
Editor's note: TikTok helps fund NPR content that appears on the social media platform.
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