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Gen Z activists worry that university TikTok bans could hurt their ability to organize

TikTok’s CEO is set to testify in front of Congress to discuss the app’s security measures and privacy concerns.Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

When Sloan Duvall, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, posted a video to the school’s Young Democrats TikTok account, she wasn’t expecting to go viral.

But the five-second clip, which featured Duvall holding a sign outside of a polling place in November that read “Real Heels vote Carolina blue,” resonated with viewers across the country, reaching an audience far beyond the classrooms of Chapel Hill.

But Duvall and other students across the country may soon be unable to post TikToks — at least using their campus Wi-Fi. In December, President Biden banned the app on all federally owned devices, based on cybersecurity concerns related to owner Bytedance’s data collection process and potential obligation to share information with the Chinese government. In March, TikTok’s CEO is set to testify in front of Congress to discuss the app’s security measures and privacy concerns.


In the wake of Biden’s ban, dozens of states have also barred use of the app on government-owned devices and networks, while others, including Massachusetts, have bans proposed in their legislatures. And in some cases, the impact is trickling down to state schools and their student-facing Wi-Fi networks, since public universities are government-funded entities.

Though students like Duvall would still be able to access the app on personal devices and networks, some say the restriction could end up reducing usage, as students who spend substantial time on campuses would have to tap into data plans or other Wi-Fi networks to gain access. Pivoting to another platform would mean the loss of carefully constructed networks, leaving organizers to start from scratch on a new social ecosystem that, in many cases, could have fewer users.

That would mean the nearly 600,000 views and 75,000 likes that Duvall received on one TikTok wouldn’t be possible, and some fear the political conversations it sparked for students, alumni, and fans, both in person and online, would disappear.


“I had friends at colleges thousands of miles away sending it to me, saying it was on their ‘For You’ page,” Duvall said. “I had, actually, two different UNC students come up to me and tell me that their mom had sent it to them.”

The University of Texas Austin, one of the largest universities in the country, was one of the latest to announce a TikTok ban that included its Wi-Fi network, joining schools like Auburn University, Oklahoma University, and the 16 members of the Montana University system. TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.

With over a billion monthly users, TikTok is one of the top social media platforms in the world, and its trademark “For You Page” allows users to potentially encounter content from any user on the app. But students involved in political organizing worry that the TikTok bans that target school networks could derail their efforts in future elections.

In November, voters younger than 30 helped slow a projected “red wave” by turning out in large numbers, often for Democrats, according to the Brookings Institution — and multiple organizers ascribed that turnout, in part, to organizing and education efforts on social media, especially through TikTok. The app has seen massive growth in recent years, with the Pew Research Center finding that 26 percent of US adults under 30 said they regularly learned about news through the app in 2022, a rate that has nearly tripled since 2020.


Jessica Maddox, an assistant professor of digital media at the University of Alabama, said TikTok is “essential” to the political landscape for millennials — and even more so for Gen Z. The November midterms were one of the first chances for that dynamic to play out, she said, and the results clearly pointed to the evolving role of social media as a tool for political messaging and connection.

“With the broader Internet, students can still have their worldview expanded,” Maddox said. “But TikTok has definitely made it easier, a little bit more organic, in terms of what they can be exposed to that they might not have been exposed to otherwise.”

For organizers like Muneeb Aslam, a second-year graduate student at the University of Texas Austin, platforms like TikTok have become invaluable.

“One of the big tenets of organizing is to meet people where they are, and a lot of young people are on social media,” Aslam said. “That’s where they get their information from, for better or for worse.”

And for now, large portions of Gen Z are on TikTok. Aslam has been organizing for years, and said he’s seen the prominence of the app steadily growing across the past two election cycles. When his university banned TikTok last week, he said, many young organizers were concerned about the implications.

A spokesperson for the University of Texas Austin declined to comment on the potential impact on campus political debates, instead referring the Globe to the university’s initial statement announcing the ban, in which it attributed the implementation to the statewide directive.


In a state like Texas, which has made headlines in recent years for controversial legislation targeting abortion access, gun regulations, and transgender people, TikTok has been used as a forum for young organizers to discuss policies that would impact their day-to-day lives.

Olivia Julianna, a 20-year-old activist and Texas native, has over 620,000 followers on the app. She saw her following grow as she started posting progressive content with a focus on Texas politics and access to women’s health care.

Her activism has taken her from the state capitol in Austin to the halls of the White House, but she received perhaps the most attention yet last year after Representative Matt Gaetz publicly body-shamed her to over a million followers when she responded to comments he made about pro-choice organizers.

Julianna’s followers soon spiked and she used her newfound audience to raise money for abortion funds. The end result: over $2 million in donations.

Julianna said that without access to TikTok on campus, it becomes harder for organizers to reach young people.

“When I started, I was legitimately just a 17-year-old high school student who was living in rural Texas, who was told that my voice and my vote did not matter, and that my state did not matter,” Julianna said. “And because of Tiktok, I was able to talk about why these issues affecting people across the country matter and why other people my age should be as involved and as informed as I am.”


In North Carolina, TikTok is only banned on government-owned devices. But Duvall, the UNC Chapel Hill student, said she is wary of future restrictions that could severely limit the reach of her organization’s campus-centric audience.

“We can have a huge impact in national and statewide elections in this one county, and we saw huge levels of young people voting specifically in Orange County,” Duvall said. “If that messaging tool was taken away, it would really shrink our audience.”

Julianna doesn’t expect the university bans will drive Gen Z from TikTok, but said that if the social media landscape does end up drastically changing, young organizers will continue to adapt.

“I highly doubt that young people are just going to not find the next big thing,” Julianna said. “Before it was TikTok, it was Instagram. Before it was Instagram, it was Twitter. Before it was Twitter, it was Facebook. There’s always going to be a new app.”

Jacob Fulton can be reached at Follow him @jacobnfulton.