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Content creators worry about poor education in a world without TikTok

LOS ANGELES: It was December 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when “Ms. James,” a public school teacher in a small rural Southern town, realized that her virtual students didn’t watch the grammar lessons she gave them. That is, until she posted them on TikTok.

Everything changed when she discovered the social media platform and created her profile as @iamthatenglishteacher.

“In one day I had a thousand subscribers, in a week I had ten thousand and in six weeks I had a hundred thousand subscribers,” she told Reuters.

“In six months, I had a million and a half,” added the 15-year-old teacher, who asked not to use her full name for confidentiality reasons.

She now has 5.8 million followers on TikTok, but her educational content is now under threat.

The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill last week that will give TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, about six months to divest the short-video app’s U.S. assets or face a ban. This is the biggest threat since the Trump administration to the app and to the content creators who reach large audiences and often make a living off it.

“When you talk about a ban, you’re talking about taking away access to high-quality educational videos from people who have used them to improve their education,” Ms James said.

Although her TikTok courses are used by students ranging from elementary school to middle school, most of her followers are English as a Second Language (ESL) students from the Philippines as well as homeschooled students.

From videos on subject-verb agreement to vocabulary, Ms James believes her legacy is helping the world through education and fears a ban could be harmful.

“I think TikTok is a wealth of knowledge,” NaomiHearts, a content creator known to her 1.1 million followers for her TikTok videos on fatphobia and trans Chicana identity, told Reuters.

She also fears that the ban will silence various news content, including her own.

However, Karen North, a professor at the University of Southern California, warns her students that personal data is at risk on TikTok.

“My concerns about TikTok are less about the information being provided or manipulated or whether it is biased toward one message or another,” North, founder and former director of the USC Annenberg Digital Social Media Program, told Reuters.

“It’s more about what kind of personal information are people voluntarily giving up to an entity that doesn’t have the same privacy standards as us (the United States). That’s the big problem with TikTok,” she added.

North, a former White House staffer for the Clinton administration on Capitol Hill, worries that the Chinese company’s use of features like facial recognition and location tracking could create threats that outweigh the attractive benefits of application, including in academia.

Content creator Dr. Anthony Youn, known for his educational TikTok videos exploring his profession as a plastic surgeon, believes the ban would have significant downsides in terms of accessibility to information.

“There’s a huge segment of TikTok where you get your news, so it’s about being educated,” Dr Youn, who has 8.4 million followers, told Reuters.

Similarly, NaomiHearts believes the ban is less about protecting data, as other apps also collect personal information, and more about denying consumers informational content.

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