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Potential U.S. ban of TikTok not stopping troops who use platform

A servicemember shows off a government-approved app.
Courtesy of Department of Defense
A servicemember shows off a government-approved app.

Mil-Tok is a band of creators from Hampton Roads and across the services who share their take on military life.

Vanessa Richards is a culinary specialist on Naval Station Norfolk. She’s also the mother of a small child.

On TikTok she’s known as @governmentownedmama.

“I feel like a lot of people don't understand what the Navy is and what it entails,” Richard said. On TikTok, she tries to clear up misconceptions about what it’s like to serve.

“Some people are like ‘I can never do it’… And I'm like, ‘No, it's not always like that.’”

Richards has over 600,000 likes, spread out over dozens of videos. She posts when she has a spare minute during breaks throughout the day while she is on duty. The posts cover makeup tips, being a working parent and life in the Navy.

“People ask me like, what hours do I work? How can they join? What are the requirements to join? And those are the kinds of questions that I can answer,” Richards said.

She is one of the creators that have formed the Mil-Tok community on TikTok, sharing what life is like from their respective branches. They soldier-on as the government takes steps to ban the app in the United States.

“Overall …I'm not super addicted to TikTok. I do enjoy it but it's not something I'm (going to) die without. I see a lot of people out here being really passionate about it,” Richards said.

Sailors and Marines from Hampton Roads regularly post about traffic backups at base entrances. Another popular topic is tips on the best (or worst) neighborhoods for troops relocating to Norfolk and Virginia Beach.

Meanwhile, Congress is concerned about the amount of personal data TikTok is collecting, said Caitlin Chin-Rothmann, who researches digital privacy at Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Lawmakers have also cited a concern that because TikTok’s parent company Bytedance is based in China, it can transfer sensitive personal information to the Chinese government, or the Chinese government could potentially control TikTok’s algorithm,” she said.

The U.S. government has attempted to ban TikTok since the Trump administration. The law just signed by President Biden gives the company nine months to find a new owner who is not linked to the Chinese government. The law is likely to be challenged in court, said Chin-Rothmann.

“I share the privacy and the security concerns about TikTok and other mobile apps,” she said. “However, I do think that targeting TikTok, and just TikTok, does raise legal concerns, especially since TikTok is a mobile app that approximately 170 million Americans use.”

Overall, the U.S. has very few laws governing online privacy, Chin-Rothmann said.

“The Chinese government doesn't actually need TikTok in order to collect personal information. Unfortunately, we have this very leaky data brokerage market where we have many mobile apps or many other types of companies collecting and sharing personal information,” she said.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Johnny Vargus posts to Instagram and YouTube, but he has a larger audience on TikTok as @VivalaVargus.

“A lot of my chain of command follows me. Because they liked the content. They think it's hilarious,” he said.

Stationed on Fort Cavazos, Texas, Vargus uses TikTok as a second income, and a possible second career as he thinks about transitioning out of the Army. He’s aware of the controversy but he continues to post, as long as it’s allowed.

“There's a couple of people that assume that just because I wear a uniform, I don't have the freedom of speech, or I don't have the right to an opinion and everyone does. The Bill of Rights is still the Bill of Rights no matter what you're wearing, as long as you're an American,” he said.

MilTok is been an outlet for serious discussions of military sexual assault, mold in the barracks and toxic leadership. Individual recruiters pop up, but most of the engagement comes from troops sharing their experience.

Vargus has had a post with more than a million views on military pay issues.

“Things that are controversial or unpopular will also get kind of big, but the stuff that kind of stays steady is just, honestly, your silly skits,” said Vargus, who also posts about how to qualify for VA loans.

The app has been a useful tool to demystify the military service for a generation of users. The official military commands were supposed to leave TikTok last year when it was banned from government phones, but it’s still valuable to the military, said Richards, the culinary specialist from Norfolk.

“I feel like it just appeals to the younger generation because now the younger generation’s on TikTok. Nobody's on, I think they call it X now,” Richards said. “I feel like nobody from the younger generation is on there anymore. Now it's TikTok reels and Instagram reels.”

In response to questions about the use of TikTok by troops, the Pentagon said that the app is not allowed on government phones or computers, but there is no policy prohibiting use of TikTok in a personal capacity - at least for now.

Steve joined WHRO in 2023 to cover military and veterans. Steve has extensive experience covering the military and working in public media, most recently at KPBS in San Diego, WYIN in Gary, Indiana and WBEZ in Chicago. In the early 2000s, he embedded with members of the Indiana National Guard in Kuwait and Iraq. Steve reports for NPR’s American Homefront Project, a national public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Steve is also on the board of Military Reporters & Editors.

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