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What Are Government Agencies Losing By Deleting TikTok?

A popular Oklahoma government TikTok account survived a statewide ban, highlighting what agencies lose when they leave the platform — a unique avenue for communicating with certain groups of constituents.

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Sarah Southerland, social media specialist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, maneuvers between three separate phones. One is a work phone, another is her personal device and a third is for an app blacklisted by her boss — TikTok.

In December, Gov. Kevin Stitt forbade state employees from downloading or using TikTok on government-issued devices capable of connecting to the Internet, citing cybersecurity risks.

The decision could have been devastating to the social media team at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. Since January 2022, the department’s TikTok account has amassed nearly 230,000 followers. Several of its videos have gone viral, gaining as many as 2 million views and attracting praise from national news outlets.

But the account survived the governor's ban.

Southerland explained to Government Technology that her department’s TikTok was rescued from impending deletion after it secured funding from a nonprofit for a separate smartphone to mitigate security issues and staff created a carefully crafted, data-driven proposal to prove that lighthearted and comical wildlife-centric videos were actually an asset to the state.

The department received an exemption from the state's TikTok ban and continues to pump out viral videos.

@okwildlifedept Everyday is an opportunity to go be a problem for Wade - and that’s not something we take for granted. #oklahoma #wildlife #outdoors #nature #funny #conservation #comedy #fishtok ♬ Love You So - The King Khan & BBQ Show


The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s plea to maintain a TikTok account was likely successful due to a nationwide goal of increasing diversity in the fish and wildlife conservation arena. In 2022, Martha Williams, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, asserted that government wildlife conservation was falling short of where it should be.

“We need to do better addressing diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility not just within our own workforce, but also in how we serve the American public,” Williams wrote in a blog post. “We need to make sure that our collective public lands and programs offer access to nature for everyone — regardless of their race or background.”

When Southerland created the department's TikTok account, she admitted she wasn’t sure what to expect, but hoped the messaging would get through to a crowd they hoped to expand communication with.

“The principle we leaned on the most is just do no harm to people or wildlife, keep that priority first, and then interact in an equitable way to attract people who maybe aren’t your typical hunters and anglers,” said Southerland, who added that a year-and-a-half later, a large portion of the account’s TikTok followers are female. “That is a win for us because that was one of our priorities.”

TikTok boasts 150 million active American users on its platform, a number the organization released shortly after multiple news agencies reported that TikTok leadership had been instructed by the Biden administration to sell the Chinese-owned company or risk facing a U.S. ban. The app doesn’t provide much information about the demographics of its users, but a March 2023 Quinnipiac University poll found a racial and age divide in how Americans feel about the threat of a nationwide TikTok ban.

Overall, 49 percent of respondents supported a national ban of foreign technology such as TikTok, compared to 42 percent opposed. However, a disconnect appeared when comparing the responses among racial demographics. While 54 percent of white respondents support a national ban, only 37 percent of Black respondents agreed. Hispanic respondents were evenly split.

An even larger divide appeared between age groups, as most respondents older than 50 supported a nationwide ban, while most respondents aged 49 and younger opposed it.

Those divides highlight the value Southerland feels TikTok provides to government: a way to connect with a younger and more diverse population.

Her department has used that to increase transparency comically; one video features a group of new game wardens being pepper sprayed as part of their training.

“It’s fun, out-there content that gets the point across that they’re not big, scary people. This is an approachable subject and topic,” Southerland said. “One of the bigger goals of this account is to show off the really cool people that are doing fish or wildlife conservation.”

@okwildlifedept Things got a little spicy 🌶️🔥 at the Oklahoma Game Warden Academy today 😭 #Oklahoma #funny #wildlife #conservation #gamewarden #lol #pepperspray #outdoors ♬ original sound - Oklahoma Dept. of Wildlife


The U.S. Department of Defense has issued national security concerns about TikTok, stating that the scale and scope of the platform are problematic due to China’s ability to use it to spread misinformation and collect data.

To counter security concerns and keep the state of Oklahoma’s biggest TikTok account running, the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Foundation offered to sponsor a separate phone that does not connect to state networks so the department account could run separate from state networks.

The wildlife department then created a proposal for the governor with its game plan and goals for the platform.

“We pulled analytics and our social media plan and highlighted how this accomplishes what we’re trying to do as a whole, as a team,” Southerland said. “It really does help to come in with those points of data, being like, ‘We’re actually doing something, we’re not just upset that we can’t play around online.’”

A separate device doesn’t necessarily quell all cybersecurity concerns — Richard Harknett at the Ohio Cyber Range Institute told Government Technology in April that TikTok used on devices not connected to government networks can still pose a risk due to its collection of behavioral data.

Jordan Gilgenbach, digital communications coordinator and social media officer for the city of Minneapolis, counters that the risk of sharing behavioral data may be worth what local governments stand to gain. He runs an official TikTok account for the city and says it’s been a vital tool in combating misinformation on the platform, especially during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

@cityminneapolis Positivity rates are still increasing 📈. Get vaccinated! #parksandrec #parksandrecreation ♬ Parks and Rec_complete buffoonery - Peacock

“I sort of accidentally positioned myself to be a public health authority on TikTok because there was such a lack of governments and public health agencies in that space,” he said. “It turned out to be really successful to push back on misinformation and try and correct it, but in a TikTok way.”


TikTok has recently increased its transparency about misinformation on the platform, sharing quarterly reports about what the organization calls "covert influence operations" it has detected and removed. According to TikTok, many of the accounts in these operations have a political or financial agenda, including thousands of profiles from Russia targeting European countries to amplify pro-Russia viewpoints about the war in Ukraine.

U.S. users aren’t immune from these attacks; TikTok detected a major influence campaign from Spain targeting audiences here in 2022. According to the report, those accounts amplified partisan U.S. civic content, posing as political parties and redirecting users to off-platform fundraising links. The 104 covert influence accounts gained a collective following of 1.7 million.

Minnesota does not have a state government TikTok ban, and Gilgenbach feels government agencies should consider it a tool to counteract and protect their constituents from misinformation, despite the security concerns the platform itself poses.

“There is so much data being collected everywhere, and there’s no protection from anyone,” he said. “I think it’s a little misguided to blame it all on one app. Should we be concerned and aware of what data we’re providing and what they’re doing with it? Absolutely, but they’re not the only problem.”

As the future of TikTok in America remains in limbo, both Southerland and Gilgenbach, who have devoted hours to the platform, feel strongly that their efforts won't be for nothing if the app is banned in the country.

“If it does get banned, we’ve learned how to develop short-form messaging in a video context to a targeted audience, that’s the takeaway from us and a huge win,” said Southerland, who added that she expects another platform will emerge eventually. “I think we can do it somewhere else. We’ve also learned that we can try something new, and it’d be okay.”
Nikki Davidson is a data reporter for Government Technology. She’s covered government and technology news as a video, newspaper, magazine and digital journalist for media outlets across the country. She’s based in Monterey, Calif.