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Sell TikTok to the US says lawmaker: Would China’s ByteDance sell - and who might buy?

By Jenny McCall

12:08, 3 January 2023

A image of TikTok on a smartphone with the US flag in the background
Republican congressman, Mike Gallagher has spread concerns that TikTok is like "digital fentanyl." - Photo: Getty Images

From accusations of being the "digital fentanyl" to concerns that its a national threat to security, the social media site TikTok has come under the radar of US Republican congressman Mike Gallagher, who wants TikTok’s Chinese owners to sell the app to a US company.

But who might possibly buy TikTok and what is its current ownership structure?

Social media platform TikTok, which is known for creating, sharing and discovering short videos and is mostly used by young Generation Z’s looking for an outlet to express themselves, is facing fresh scrutiny right now from Republicans in the US.

TikTok is owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance and has become a popular platform over recent years, but it has also generated a lot of suspicion from the US, especially Republican congressman Mike Gallagher, who has spread concerns that TikTok is like "digital fentanyl."

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Could META  (META) or Elon Musk take over TikTok?

With Gallagher calling for TikTok to be sold to a US entity, who are the possible contenders to purchase the company?

Well, experts believe that known tech giants like Meta (META), Alphabet (GOOG), billionaire Elon Musk - owner of Tesla (TSLA) and fellow media site Twitter, could all be in the running to possibly takeover the social media app – if ByteDance is forced to sell.

“Such a tasty morsel would undoubtedly draw the attention of tech behemoths like Meta (META), Alphabet (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT) and even Elon Musk might conclude the app would be a great companion for Twitter,” Danni Hewson, financial analyst at AJ Bell told Capital.com.

“Whilst recession is taking a bite out of advertising revenue, this is one business that’s been pretty well insulated, the big question would be around competition and any sales process would come under intense scrutiny from regulators,” Hewson added.

In 2020, former US President Donald Trump dubbed the platform a national threat to security, and he tried to force ByteDance to sell or spin-off its US TikTok operations.

In an executive order issued by Trump at the time, he said: “There is credible evidence that leads me to believe that ByteDance ... might take action that threatens to impair the national security of the United States.”

Experts believe ByteDance will sell - if forced to and Apple (AAPL), alongside others may look to buy TikTok. 

"They almost did in 2020, after an executive order from then President Trump. ByteDance had been in talks to sell a minority stake to Oracle (ORCL) and Walmart (WMT), and distribute its other shares to existing shareholders, before that fell through," Matthew Kennedy, a Senior IPO Market Strategist at Renaissance Capital, a provider of pre-IPO research and IPO-focused ETFs, told Capital.com. 

"Microsoft (MSFT) was also interested at one point. Disney (DIS) and Apple (AAPL) have both made major pushes into digital media, so those names might be in the mix. A US IPO would then also allow the company to diversify its investor base with more US shareholders."

Kennedy adds that TikTok would be a massive acquisition, so there's only a handful of acquirers that would be big enough to buy it, while at the same time not triggering antitrust concerns (e.g. Meta). 

Trump’s ambition to force ByteDance to sell its US TikTok division failed.

But now Wisconsin Representative, Gallagher has called for a nationwide ban of the app during an interview on Fox News on Sunday.

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"It's digital fentanyl in the sense that as you allude to, it ultimately goes back to the Chinese Communist Party. TikTok is owned by ByteDance. ByteDance is effectively controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). So, we must ask whether we want the CCP to control what is on the cusp of becoming the most powerful media company in America," the congressman said.

But analysts are concerned with Gallaghers comments. Due to global popularity, banning TikTok could prove detrimental.

“TikTok is massively popular particularly with younger users and is fast becoming an incredibly successful place for big corporations to display their wares. Banning Americans from using the app after it has become so ingrained in popular culture would be controversial and tricky to implement,” Hewson said. 

Gallagher, a stiff critic of China has also said that the only way to avoid the app being banned in the US is for TikTok’s owners, ByteDance to sell the social site to a US company.

Alphabet (GOOG) share price chart

Who currently has a stake in TikTok? 

Gallagher states that TikTok is owned by the CCP,  but it also has other investors. 

Currently, the social platform has a complicated structure. Yes, it is managed and governed by Chinese company ByteDance, which was founded by internet entrepreneur Zhang Yiming, who stepped down in 2021.

One company that has joined the TikTok frenzy is tech organisation Oracle (ORCL). Unlike most tech companies, ORCL had a relatively small drop in its stock price in 2022 of 6%. In 2020, news was released that ORCL had acquired a 12.5% stake in TikTok and would run its cloud services and security for the app – the deal was commended by Trump - who was US president at the time, and said it was helping to make TikTok a company owned and controlled by Americans.

Tiktok also struck a deal with Walmart (WMT), who have a 7.5% stake in the social media site.

Oracle’s Executive Vice President Ken Glueck released a statement saying: “Upon creation of TikTok Global, Oracle/Walmart will make their investment, and the TikTok Global shares will be distributed to their owners. Americans will be the majority and ByteDance will have no ownership in TikTok Global.”

But ByteDance responded by saying that it will own an 80% stake in TikTok Global.

Oracle (ORCL) share price chart

SoftBank (SFTBY) has a stake in ByteDance

With that said, there are other investors, such as SoftBank Group (SFTBY), which is said to have a 3% stake in ByteDance and the CCP, which acquired a 1% stake and a seat on the ByteDance board in 2021.  

“There remain concerns about user data and a sell off to an American company would likely be a preferred option for lawmakers and if push comes to shove, ByteDance may find it has no other options but to put its US operation up for sale,” Hewson said.

Despite TikTok’s popularity it has caused quite a bit of controversy and the US is watching the social media site like a hawk. 

TikTok is a Chinese company and China is a fierce competitor of the US. It would seem the Americans are keen to have a slice of this glorious pie. Whether it succeeds in its mission - remains to be seen.

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