This Texas rancher says TikTok's the reason he has a child. Now he's fighting moves to ban the app (2024)

With his oversized straw hat and bushranger beard, Brian Firebaugh is perhaps the least likely person you'd expect to be a TikTok sensation.

The first-generation longhorn cattle rancher was catapulted to internet stardom from the paddocks of his property in central Texas.

"Howdy y'all, my name's Cattle Guy," Brian shouts in his southern twang, greeting his half a million followers before launching into another lesson on life on the land.

His account takes users to the cattle yards of the southern US, where he explains everything from snake spit to hay prices to city folk who may never set foot in the country.

But Brian stands to lose a lot more than his global following should the US government's attempt to ban the booming app go ahead and lock out America's 170 million users.

This Texas rancher says TikTok's the reason he has a child. Now he's fighting moves to ban the app (1)

The 42-year-old credits TikTok with delivering him a new source of livelihood, a powerful marketing tool, a winning place on a Netflix reality TV series and, incredibly, his adopted son.

"This app has been monstrous for us … it's drastically changed my life," he said.

"People look at my videos and say, 'Hey, I really like that cow, is she for sale?' … So the success of our business is driven off TikTok.

"To do it away, man you're taking food off my table and I have a problem with that."

This Texas rancher says TikTok's the reason he has a child. Now he's fighting moves to ban the app (2)

Now he and seven other TikTok creators are suing the US government over its attempt to ban the app from US devices — a move Brian describes as an "egregious" violation of First Amendment rights to free speech.

"If you ever have politicians that want to take your rights away under the cloak of national security, and they do it so swiftly that they don't give you time to fight it, that should raise everyone's eyebrows," he said.

America's ultimatum: sell or be banned

This Texas rancher says TikTok's the reason he has a child. Now he's fighting moves to ban the app (3)

Once written off as a corner-of-the-internet home to dancing teens, TikTok has evolved into one of the most popular, distrusted, geopolitically complex juggernauts to enter the mainstream.

The app's explosive ascent has reshaped popular culture and modern life, and deepened tensions between the world's two biggest superpowers. A report by Oxford Economics, commissioned by TikTok, says it also contributed $US24.2 billion to the American economy last year.

And now, it's triggered a set of complex legal battles that will pit Americans' fiercely protected right to free speech against concerns for national security.

Legislation to ban the world's most popular social media app was featured as a footnote in a multi-billion-dollar foreign aid package passed by members of Congress in April.

Its passing signalled a rare feat for an institution chronically unable to agree on the most basic of legislation.

This Texas rancher says TikTok's the reason he has a child. Now he's fighting moves to ban the app (4)

Concerns for national security have cast a shadow of distrust over the Chinese social media app, owned by tech giant ByteDance — a private company based in Beijing with numerous global investors.

Many US politicians view the app as a potential vehicle for mass surveillance and covert propaganda by its global adversary — a Trojan horse for Chinese influence.

While evidence of these claims has been scant, a 2023 study found sensitive political subjects that the Chinese government might seek to suppress, such as Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen Square, were largely missing from TikTok compared to apps like Instagram.

TikTok argues such analysis is misleading and that the app is much newer compared to other social media platforms.

But a former ByteDance executive has also alleged the company's Beijing offices have a special unit of Chinese Community Party members tasked with guiding "how the company advanced core Communist values".

This Texas rancher says TikTok's the reason he has a child. Now he's fighting moves to ban the app (5)

President Joe Biden, who has an account on TikTok, signed the law into effect earlier this year, sparking outrage among users who account for roughly half the American population and the app's biggest global market.

By signing the bill, the president issued TikTok an ultimatum: sell the app to a US competitor by January 2025, or watch it disappear from app stores on millions of devices across the country.

The move marked a significant shift in decades of policy that favoured an open, free and interoperable internet, said Tim Edgar, a Harvard University law lecturer and professor of computer science with Brown University.

"The golden age of US tech where US tech companies dominated the globe is starting to come to an end," he said.

"Here we have Congress not regulating the tech industry to protect privacy, but instead singling out a single company and basically saying, 'We don't like you because you're Chinese'."

Bytedance bites back

TikTok's dominance is staggering. A 2024 study found TikTok usage has now eclipsed all other social platforms, with the average American user spending at least an hour per day on the app.

And it's no wonder. TikTok's secret sauce lies in its sophisticated algorithm that can gobble up hours of attention among even the most disciplined users.

This Texas rancher says TikTok's the reason he has a child. Now he's fighting moves to ban the app (6)

As Americans' trust for mainstream news has been in steady decline, TikTok's role as a news source has climbed.

Today the app stands as the number one news source for young Americans — many of whom will be headed to the polls to vote in November's presidential election.

This has not gone unnoticed by the Biden and Trump campaign teams, who have both sought to use TikTok to bridge the divide between young Americans and the two geriatric candidates.

While Biden's administration has been busy courting social media influencers, his TikTok account features posts of an apparently agile aviator-wearing president.

And despite his own attempts to axe the platform while in office, Trump's recent debut on TikTok depicts a strongman arriving to rapturous applause at a boxing match.

In April, ByteDance bit back when it released a statement that made clear it had no intention of selling the app or its algorithm.

"Foreign media reports of ByteDance selling TikTok are not true. ByteDance doesn't have any plan to sell TikTok," the company said.

Instead, the social media giant has launched legal action against the US government for what its CEO Shou Chew has described as an "obviously unconstitutional" ban.

Testifying before Congress in March, Mr Chew stressed that ByteDance "is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government" and does not share its data with the Chinese Communist Party.

This Texas rancher says TikTok's the reason he has a child. Now he's fighting moves to ban the app (7)

The five-hour grilling before a US House committee hearing saw the Singaporean-based CEO interrogated over his suspected links to China as some senators invited ridicule after referring to TikTok as Tic Tac — a brand of breath mints.

Mr Chew pointed to an initiative known as Project Texas, which TikTok implemented to ensure data collected from American users was stored by a US company on US soil.

But the $US1.5billion project wasn't enough to assuage US officials' concerns for privacy and child safety.

TikTok has also since disclosed that, in 2022, the company offered the US government the power to shut down the platform's US operations via a "kill switch" in a further attempt to address national security concerns.

Baby Rooster on the ranch

Back on the ranch and miles from Congress, Brian Firebaugh has been busy preparing for a brutal summer. He credits TikTok with keeping his cattle business afloat during years of punishing drought.

Having served in the US Marines, Brian said he was diagnosed with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury which led him to homelessness and severe alcohol addiction.

He eventually sought treatment and saved enough money to buy a small ranch where he began making TikToks.

This Texas rancher says TikTok's the reason he has a child. Now he's fighting moves to ban the app (8)

His videos grew so popular he became eligible for the TikTok rewards program which sees US creators paid as much as $US1,000 per million views on high-performing content.

His online presence caught the attention of a Netflix producer who enquired about Brian appearing on a TV series named The Trust — a reality game show set at a seaside mansion.

"At first I said I have no interest in being on a reality TV show — I run a ranch," he said. But then he learned about the "life-changing sums of money" at stake.

He and his wife April had long wanted to adopt their first child but had not been eligible due to Brian's unreliable income as a rancher amid years of volatile climate conditions.

"I went on there so I could win that thing so we could adopt this little baby boy," he said.

Brian won the Netflix reality series in March, taking home tens of thousands in prize money.

This Texas rancher says TikTok's the reason he has a child. Now he's fighting moves to ban the app (9)

With the additional cash, Brian said adoption authorities approved him and his wife to adopt a child. By April, they were introduced to their new little boy, nicknamed "Baby Rooster".

"He was three pounds with fiery red hair sticking up in a mohawk," Brian recalled with a grin. "He owns my smile now."

A community 'decimated' and a deluge of calls

This Texas rancher says TikTok's the reason he has a child. Now he's fighting moves to ban the app (10)

Talia Cadet is another TikToker who joined the legal action to stop a ban that she said would "decimate" the online community, which follows her for book reviews and recommendations in the nation's capital.

"We're talking about people's livelihoods, and people's ability to connect with others that look and live like them, to find people they see themselves in. People who are otherwise silenced," she said.

Talia said the government had not provided any concrete evidence to substantiate its claims of national security concerns, and until that happened, she would not be satisfied.

"If data and privacy is such a concern, let's see sweeping legislation for all current and future apps to abide by," she said.

Members of Congress heard similar grievances firsthand from angry TikTokers when the app prompted them to contact their local representatives over the matter — inundating congressional offices with a deluge of calls.

But, Professor Edgar said, this "clumsy" display of advocacy ultimately backfired as it supported the view that TikTok wields too much power over domestic politics.

Who would buy TikTok and how would a ban work?

This Texas rancher says TikTok's the reason he has a child. Now he's fighting moves to ban the app (11)

In an effort to reframe the situation, the White House has told reporters the law is "not about a ban, it's about divestment".

If it were to sell, the app's non-Chinese investors are rumoured to have expressed interest in buying the app, which is valued in excess of $US100 billion by some estimates.

Professor Edgar anticipates the Chinese government could block the sale of the app, should it come to that.

If it were to be banned, the app wouldn't disappear from phones straight away, but would instead be removed from app stores on US devices. This would result in the departure of investors and advertisers, along with a gradual decline in user experience.

Until then, legal cases will be fought in the court system with ByteDance expected to lean heavily on the constitution's First Amendment.

"Any law that impacts a fundamental right, like freedom of expression, must serve a compelling governmental interest and it has to be narrowly tailored to serve that interest," Professor Edgar said.

"That means [the government must prove] there aren't other less restrictive ways of achieving the government's goals. And I think they may have trouble with both of those."

The US Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in ByteDance's legal challenge against the US legislation in September with a ruling expected by early December. The challenge has been consolidated with the action brought by TikTok users.

If the court upholds the law, ByteDance has until January 19 to divest or be banned.

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This Texas rancher says TikTok's the reason he has a child. Now he's fighting moves to ban the app (2024)
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