Emmanuel Jean-Pierre is an aspiring writer who’s planning to release his first novel for young adults later this year. And, at least for now, he’s a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service who’s hungry for a regular creative outlet.
And for that he turns to TikTok, where he’s known as Manny the Mailman and is a budding star in the online community known as #mailtok, a hashtag with 24.5 million views.
Jean-Pierre, who’s from Morristown, New Jersey, has attracted 215,500 followers on the video app where most days he posts from his mail truck during his lunch break. The videos cover subjects ranging from how to spot junk mail to the time a colleague had to deliver a package of live snakes.
“There are a lot of people who don’t know anything about the post office besides that we deliver mail,” he said. “This kind of becomes something different that shakes up my schedule.”
It’s also something that Congress is making increasingly difficult, as government workers like Jean-Pierre are caught in the middle of a geopolitical fight between the United States and China over digital surveillance and foreign control of the media that now reaches millions of people daily.
People who see TikTok as a national security threat have worked for years to limit the reach of the China-owned video app over its handling of Americans’ data and concerns about who in China has a say over the content. The U.S. military has banned TikTok on government-owned devices and urged troops to erase it even from personal phones. As of last month, all federal workers are banned from having TikTok on their work phones.
But a few searches on TikTok turn up a different reality: Some government employees really like posting there, and they haven’t stopped.
Army pilots put up videos from inside the helicopters they fly. Park rangers talk about the wonders of nature. An air traffic controller dissects a near-collision on an airport runway. And foreign service officers recruit future diplomats from underrepresented groups.
Their use of TikTok indicates how difficult it may be to enforce the latest restrictions on the app or any new restrictions that politicians may come up with.
“TikTok is a good audience for climate change,” said Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab who emphasized he was speaking for himself, not the agency.
He has amassed 253,800 followers on TikTok after posting only 22 videos. He started his account last year after he was arrested in an act of civil disobedience outside a Chase Bank office over its investments in fossil fuels. His first video has received 1.3 million views.
Kalmus, like Jean-Pierre, uses a personal phone to post and doesn’t claim to speak for his agency, but the trajectory of federal restrictions has left federal workers and contractors like him wondering how long they’ll be able to continue using TikTok without consequences.
In some places, using a personal device isn’t enough to get around TikTok restrictions. Students at some public universities are banned from using the app on campus networks, a result of orders from state governors.
Kalmus said it would be a shame if the restrictions spread.
“It’s exactly the audience that needs to hear about climate change,” he said. “They’re more primed to hear about climate change than the Twitter audience. They’re younger. It doesn’t feel as polarized.”
He said he is concerned about TikTok’s Chinese ownership but doesn’t think he has anything on his personal phone he’d be embarrassed about. And he said there’s a trade-off.
“It still seems possibly worth the risk to reach the audience about the climate,” he said.
The fight over TikTok’s future has pitted its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, and its American investors against foreign policy hawks who criticize its ties to China. The app is in talks with the Biden administration over new security measures, but so far there’s no deal and media investigations of TikTok have continued to turn up examples of privacy missteps.
Stuck in the middle are government workers who, more than others, live by the whims of lawmakers. Federal employees have also been prime targets for hacking attempts, including a massive data breach disclosed in 2015 that officials attributed to China.
It’s not clear if any federal agencies are enforcing the latest ban related to government-owned devices. The No TikTok on Government Devices Act gave the White House Office of Management and Budget 60 days to come up with guidelines, and it has about a month before that deadline. The office declined to comment.
The office of Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who sponsored the new law, did not respond to a request for comment on how it will be enforced. This week, he revived legislation proposing a complete national ban on TikTok.
There’s no telling precisely how many federal workers use TikTok, but certain hashtags show the breadth of its popularity. In addition to #mailtok, there’s #rangertok, #foreignserviceofficer, #borderpatrolagents and others for different jobs and agencies.
John Sullivan said he had never posted on TikTok until last summer when he worked for the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado’s Arapaho National Recreation Area.
“I’m 35, so I don’t know anything about TikTok,” he said. (TikTok doesn’t release exact data about the ages of users, but it has long skewed young.)
Then, one slow day, a 22-year-old colleague suggested they shoot a video, and together they created an educational message about the dangers of toxic algae found in Colorado. Sullivan used a cucumber as a pointing device and started calling himself the Cucumber Ranger.
“Whenever we had some down time, we would drive around, I would put on the uniform and the hat, and we would just go out and make a video. Our job was recreation, and a lot of that was informing the public,” he said.
Sullivan said they used their personal phones and were careful not to use hashtags that would imply Forest Service endorsement. But the hashtag #rangertok shows he has a lot of company among federal employees. (The hashtag has 40 million views on TikTok, though many of those are for videos posted by state and local park rangers.)
The government has a lot of practice at banning technology when it comes to hardware, such as telecom components made by the Chinese company Huawei, or software if it’s highly specialized, as with the aerospace industry.
But banning a social media app is a different project, especially when it’s available on a web browser.
Many videos by government workers are informational where they provide expertise outside of the usual channels — for example, a letter carrier explaining why a house might be skipped on a delivery route if a vehicle is obstructing a mailbox. Others offer advice about applying for federal jobs that are difficult to get, including in the Foreign Service.
The public relations staff at some federal agencies said they had no plans to interfere with what federal workers did on their own.
“Those TikTok users are speaking in their personal capacity,” said Emma Duncan, a spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration, which employs air traffic controllers.
Sullivan, who worked at the Forest Service, said he enjoyed using TikTok and might use it again in future government jobs, but he said it wouldn’t be a big loss for him if he faced restrictions. He said he remembers the heyday of MySpace.
“In the beginning, it would be a loss, but the way I see social media working, within a few months a new social media app would kind of take its place,” he said.