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Montana Attorney-General Austin Knudsen has been a strong defender of Donald Trump. He supported the former president’s fight to keep his name on the ballot. His office met with Mike Lindell, the pillow salesman who has been an outspoken denier of the 2020 election results.

But Mr. Knudsen has also led a pioneering state effort to ban TikTok, and says he has no intention to back down from attempts to rid Montana – and the country – of a social-media service that Mr. Trump says he wants to keep.

“This thing horrifies me. So I’m fine with an outcome where it goes away,” Mr. Knudsen said in an interview. Mr. Trump’s advocacy for TikTok is “not going to change” his efforts.

“Very clearly this is a spying tool,” Mr. Knudsen said.

His stance is a sign of the deep political fissures that are forming despite a bipartisan effort in Congress to approve legislation that would demand the sale or banishment of the Chinese-owned app. The bill passed the House of Representatives last week with a rapid 352 to 65 vote, although it’s unclear how the Senate will respond to the furor that erupted afterward.

Mr. Trump, too, once threatened to banish TikTok. Now, however, he describes it as a necessary counterbalance to American-owned social platforms.

That argument builds on a defence of the app that has been marshalled by free-speech advocates, TikTok influencers and the company itself, which has sought to enlist its enormous user base in the United States to support its cause.

Explainer: The arguments for and against banning TikTok

The playbook began to take shape in Montana, which last year passed legislation banning TikTok in the state unless it is sold to a company “that is not incorporated in any other country designated as a foreign adversary.”

A judge blocked the legislation from taking effect this January after the company and five of its influencers sued Mr. Knudsen, who has appealed.

TikTok commissioned research last year by Oxford Economics that calculated US$15-billion in total revenue for small and medium-sized businesses that used the app for marketing or advertising. “TikTok has become an integral part of the social fabric of the U.S.,” the report concluded.

Among those influencers in Montana is Samantha Alario, a Missoula resident who has built a swimwear business largely through digital content. She doesn’t pay for ads, relying instead on fans who follow her on Meta sites (such as Facebook and Instagram) and the TikTok algorithm to extend her reach.

“I sell bikinis in the middle of Montana, and my business is extremely successful – and it’s all thanks to social-media marketing,” she said in an interview. “The ability to get in front of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people only happens in a very few places. One of them happens to be TikTok.”

Ms. Alario, who has not been a fan of the former president, is pleased that Mr. Trump has come out in favour of TikTok. “Donald Trump, man, he sees the potential. I’m going to give it to him.”

Several prominent conservatives also back the former president, including broadcaster Tucker Carlson, who last week called the congressional TikTok legislation “the most far-reaching act of censorship in the history of the United States.”

Several former members of his administration remain outspoken adversaries of TikTok, however. Steve Bannon, who was once an influential White House adviser, has accused Mr. Trump of supporting TikTok because of his ties to Jeff Yass, a wealthy Republican donor who owns 15 per cent of ByteDance, the Chinese company that operates the social-media network.

TikTok is a “spy balloon in our pockets,” said Michelle Giuda, chief executive of the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue. She became undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs in 2018 under Mr. Trump, and left the State Department in 2020.

In Montana, too, the fault lines have also not fallen in expected places. Heather DiRocco is a former sergeant in the U.S. Marines. She is now a TikTok personality, crediting the app for nearly a third of her income. But she is not persuaded by the argument that it poses a national-security threat.

She is, instead, furious and baffled by the efforts to ban it. “I’m just sitting here going, since when do we cancel companies and institutions in this country? We don’t.”

Ms. DiRocco suspects something else is at play. Perhaps it is an effort to protect Meta, a U.S. company with a robust program of political donations. Perhaps it’s anti-Chinese racism.

TikTok declined comment, pointing instead to previous statements that said no evidence has emerged that data have been shared with China. It also said TikTok is not available in China, where the ByteDance Douyin app shares a nearly identical logo. ByteDance has acknowledged that four employees, including two based in China, accessed TikTok data on U.S. journalists. It said those employees were fired.

TikTok says its collection of data is in line with its peers, and that U.S. user data are stored in the U.S.

Mr. Knudsen is unswayed by those assurances, saying he is uncomfortable with the amount of personal information gathered by the app and not convinced it can divorce itself from the Communist Party that rules its corporate home country.

“If the Communist Chinese Party goes to ByteDance and says, ‘You will turn over all this data’ – I don’t care what ByteDance says to the Congress here in the U.S., they’re going to turn that data over,” he said. “That has to be a consideration here.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the dates Michelle Giuda became undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, and when she left the State Department.

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