South Dakota tourism agency kills its TikTok account

South Dakota State University also figuring out what to do after Noem's ban

Makenzie Huber and John Hult, South Dakota Searchlight
Posted 12/2/22

The South Dakota Department of Tourism deleted its TikTok account Tuesday, abandoning the 61,200 followers and 1.7 million likes the state agency cultivated on the popular social media app.

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South Dakota tourism agency kills its TikTok account

South Dakota State University also figuring out what to do after Noem's ban


The South Dakota Department of Tourism deleted its TikTok account Tuesday, abandoning the 61,200 followers and 1.7 million likes the state agency cultivated on the popular social media app.

And South Dakota State University is meeting with its general counsel on how to handle its 9,000-follower TikTok account — all after Gov. Kristi Noem banned the video-sharing app for state government agencies, employees and contractors using state devices in an executive order Tuesday.

The order raises questions for South Dakota’s six public universities, many of which have official TikTok accounts, athletic department accounts, other departmental accounts and student media accounts.

South Dakota universities use the platform to recruit potential students, said Mike Lockrem, director of SDSU marketing and communications.

“We do use TikTok quite a bit,” Lockrem said. “We’ll work with our general counsel in the next couple days to understand what this means before we make any decisions.”

Tourism, other offices affected

The state Department of Tourism has partnered with influencers on TikTok to visit the state and recently celebrated TikTok star “Corn Kid” in September, inviting him to the World’s Only Corn Palace in Mitchell where Gov. Noem declared him South Dakota’s official “Corn-bassador.”

“We have removed our TikTok account pursuant to the governor’s executive order today,” said Katlyn Svendsen, Department of Tourism public relations director, in an emailed statement. “We have an endless supply of other safe tools and productive resources to reach audiences to tell South Dakota’s story.”

Executive Order 2022-10 prohibits downloading or using the TikTok app or visiting the TikTok website on state-owned or state-leased electronic devices, such as cellphones, computers or any device capable of connecting to the internet. 

Another affected state agency is South Dakota Public Broadcasting, which uses TikTok to reach new audiences with its content.

“We’re just going to take direction and figure something else out,” said Cara Hetland, SDPB director of radio and journalism content. “If my staff wants to use their personal devices to continue the TikTok account, maybe they can, but they can’t use the state network. … All of state government is on the state network. I’m going to respect that decision.”

The ban takes effect immediately.

Most SDSU employees managing the university’s TikTok account log in through their personal phones, rather than a state-owned or leased device, Lockrem said. The state reimburses employees a portion of their monthly personal phone bill if they use it for work. Lockrem does not know if the ban extends to personal phones that get such a reimbursement.

The South Dakota Board of Regents said that it is currently working through Noem's executive order and its implications for the state's campuses. The board is scheduled to convene Dec. 7-8 in Rapid City at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and is expected to address the ban at that time.

Security concerns

TikTok has been a source of national security concerns for years, with the head of the FBI recently warning that the Chinese government could potentially use the video-sharing app to influence American users or control their devices.

TikTok is owned by Chinese firm ByteDance, which denies that it can use location information to track U.S. users.

“South Dakota will have no part in the intelligence gathering operations of nations who hate us,” Noem said in a news release. “The Chinese Communist Party uses information that it gathers on TikTok to manipulate the American people, and they gather data off the devices that access the platform.”

TikTok hit 1 billion monthly active users in September 2021. After launching in 2017, the app is one of the fastest-growing in the world and surpassed Google as the most visited website on the internet in 2021. The app is widely popular among younger generations, such as Gen Z and younger Millennials.

Noem is not the first governor to ban the app on state devices, nor is she the first politician to label it a security threat. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts issued a similar executive order in 2020. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher proposed a national ban in early November, and Missouri Rep. Josh Hawley has pushed to ban TikTok on government devices.

U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-South Dakota, introduced legislation in September that would prohibit TikTok from accessing user data on U.S. citizens from China. Like Hawley’s bill, it would also ban the use of TikTok on federal government devices. 

Former President Donald Trump, meanwhile, famously threatened to ban the app as a national security threat in 2020.

State Sen. Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls, said he’s never used TikTok because of his concerns about security, and he’s generally supportive of moves to protect state information.

The state spends “a considerable amount of money” to protect its IT infrastructure, he said, so a TikTok ban is “a good idea.”

“It would be better if it were a part of a comprehensive IT policy for all state employees,” Nesiba said. “This, to me, feels like we’re picking off one thing, when we should be having a broader conversation with legislators, members of the executive branch and judicial branch to figure out how do we use IT? How do we protect all of our systems?”

Political implications

Northern State University Professor of Political Science Jon Schaff agrees that TikTok stands apart from other social media apps for its connections to the Chinese Communist Party. The enforcement of such a ban, however, is an open question.

Could Schaff show a TikTok video to his students, for example? What might happen to him if he did?

Most of the activism to ban or restrict TikTok has come from Republicans, and Schaff said it’s clear that Noem has an interest in being a conservative voice on the national stage, so “it’s hard to divorce anything Kristi Noem does at this point from national politics.”

“I don’t know what the practical impact might be,” Schaff said. “To the extent that it can’t be enforced, it becomes a kind of window dressing and it becomes Noem positioning herself.” 

Noem spokesman Ian Fury did not immediately respond to requests for comment on how the ban will be enforced, whether state agencies or universities can operate TikTok accounts using personal devices, or whether the Governor’s Office tallied the number of state-run TikTok accounts prior to issuing the order.

About South Dakota Searchlight: We use our journalistic searchlight to illuminate critical issues facing South Dakota, dissect the decisions made by state leaders, and explain the consequences of their policies and the role of politics on South Dakotans. South Dakota Searchlight launched in 2022. We’re an affiliate of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The staff of the Searchlight retains full editorial independence.