As nationwide momentum ramps up among American lawmakers to do something, anything, about the purported menace posed by the megapopular Chinese video app TikTok, local governments are pushing ahead with their own measures. On Wednesday, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a bill that would ban TikTok from operating within state borders by Jan. 1. Though TikTok users themselves wouldn’t be targeted for activity, Apple and Google would be held liable for up to $10,000 a day if their app stores allow Montanans to download TikTok at any point from 2024 onward.
This would be not only the first-ever all-out TikTok ban in the U.S., but the first such full-on ban of any app by any state. No one is quite sure how it would work. Tech companies don’t have much ability to geofence their apps on a state-by-state basis, and it’s not even clear that the law will withstand legal scrutiny, especially if opponents bring a free-speech lawsuit. Nevertheless, the bill has passed, and Montana Republicans are beating their chests as they take a shot at China: “Montana takes the most decisive action of any state to protect Montanans’ private data and sensitive personal information from being harvested by the Chinese Communist Party,” Gianforte declared in a statement. “We will defend the State of Montana and its people against threats to our security, privacy, and way of life.”
How do TikTok users in Montana feel about all this? I asked one enthusiast of the app there—who, ironically, used TikTok back in February to bring attention to the Chinese balloon that floated above the state—about what he’ll do if the ban stands. Christian W. Poole, aka @swellcchrissyp, is a 20-year-old who brands himself “the Unofficial Ambassador for the State of Montana.” Poole is a lifelong Montanan, from the college town of Bozeman, who’s found an eager 420,000-strong following on TikTok with videos that delightfully skewer everyday life in the Treasure State. When I called him Thursday, he said he’d been on the phone with news outlets all day, and he certainly had thoughts. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Nitish Pahwa: Montana’s TikTok ban has been in the works for a while. When did you start hearing about it?
Christian W. Poole: I had been down in Texas, off the internet, and when I came back home in April, I was looking through my phone and getting all these updates where our representatives were making it very clear that they wanted to ban TikTok. And I was like, “Oh, this is a nice welcome-home party.” That first day, I was pretty afraid, but then I did some more research, looked into the congressional hearing with TikTok’s executive on whether China was using TikTok to gather our data, and it didn’t seem like they had a strong foothold for their case.
I have no idea, not a clue in my mind, what China would do with information gathered from people who live in Montana. Being an unofficial ambassador, and having been a Montana native for 20 years, born and raised here, there’s nothing that goes on. Like, they can look up and gather Montanans’ interests, hobbies, dislikes, and they can use that, I guess—sure. But what does the Chinese government care about what brand of firearm Montanans prefer? Or about what’s the prime month for hunting? The only concern I can genuinely see is Malmstrom Air Force Base, since Montana’s known for having a bunch of nuclear silos. Nobody wants a member of the Air Force making a dance video in front of some launch codes. That is totally understandable. And there are a lot of places where you shouldn’t have your cellular device anyway, for security reasons.
So, sure, if you need to ban it in those locations, totally understandable. I’m not gonna step on any shoes there. But when it comes to the average person—like me, my sister, my friends—none of us matter. None of us are such big key players, even in the worst-case scenario that China is farming every ounce of our data from just TikTok. Montana is historically a private, pretty anti-government state—we don’t want our data being put out there. But the United States government’s already doing it! No matter how far away you get from the government, no matter how secluded, you still are gonna have some government presence in your everyday life, in everything you do. And that government is still gathering our data to a far greater extent than China ever potentially could through one app that’s mainly used by the younger generation.
Have you had much interaction with any of your local representatives in city or state government?
I haven’t had any interactions with the government. I’ve had a bunch of interactions with local radio stations because the content I make is funny, you know? People see that and are like, “Oh, hey, this guy’s poking fun at this part of Montana, and it’s totally true. Let’s talk about it.” But that’s it, because I don’t make my account super political. This alone is the most political I’ve gotten.
TikTok is such a great publicist no matter where you are in the country. You’d think the government would want that sort of platform to showcase the area.
Well, nobody here likes anybody from outside of the state. I’m not saying that, because you aren’t in Montana, that means I have a personal hatred for you. But we don’t like advertising our state because we have such an issue with people from other states moving here and causing problems and disrupting the state. That’s one thing I really liked about my account: that I never used it to advertise Montana as a place where you should move. I made a bunch of videos that were like, “I’ll be honest: As a Montana native, this place kinda blows.” And then viewers would be like, “Yeah, get ’em!”
Montanans have a very set way of life. When we get a bunch of people from California coming in here and jacking up the taxes and property rates, taking our housing, making our cities more urbanized—it becomes an issue because it’s pushing out those comfort bubbles of every Montana local. What I like doing is using my broadcast to be like, “You should probably go somewhere else if you’re looking to move—like, the Dakotas are really pretty this time of year.”
Your account is quite funny, and you have a pretty unique take on your subject. Has your TikTok presence gotten you many business opportunities inside or outside the state, beyond the local radio stations?
Nothing outside of our state borders. Actually, I was bored yesterday, so I Googled my TikTok username and found one international article that is about me, on a video I made a while ago about working at McDonald’s and how weird it is to make chicken nuggets. The U.K. got ahold of that and they’re like, This guy talks about how weird chicken nuggets are made. But that’s the extent of it.
Do you prefer not having a huge online presence?
Honestly, it’s pretty cool to tune in to the radio station I listen to every morning and hear the hosts start talking about me, and listening to my voice on the radio was super cool. It was also great reading the article in the Billings Mix about how I talked about all the dangers of Billings, how it’s like a war zone. That’s a half-truth. Like, Billings is a town that’s kinda well known in Montana for being really dangerous, and after the article, even people in Billings were like, “Oh yeah, it’s true.” It’s super fun to see all these inside jokes that we have with Montanans, getting a laugh from people outside of my friend group.
I’m sure it would be cool to get outside traction. But the content I make is generally just about Montana. So, I totally understand why it’s just resonating in the state.
Do you have any sort of community or relationship with other TikTokkers in Montana? Is there a remote hype house that’s more of a cabin?
Man, there are very few. I’ve been told by every single interviewer today—and I’ll probably be told by the next few—that there are no content creators from Montana. It’s tough because Montana’s a huge state in terms of space. We’re the fourth biggest in the nation, and we have so few people. There are mutuals I have on TikTok, like the Bearded Bard—he lives in Lewistown, and he has over a million followers. But I would have to drive all the way from Bozeman just to go say hi to him, and what’s the point of driving all those miles just to say hi when you can reach them through TikTok, right?
It isn’t a huge community, but we’re all connected. I think I’m probably getting interviewed the most from the state because I mainly make content about Montana. This ban will probably bring us together because we’re gonna have to rally behind a cause here—it wouldn’t be great to have to fight this separately.
For that reason, I suppose there wasn’t some sort of unified TikTok lobby that could go and protest the proposed ban, unlike how so many creators with huge followings went to the White House to lobby against a nationwide ban.
I mean, the TikTokker in Montana who has the most followers is probably Hank Green, but he just happens to live here. He does all his science stuff, all his educational stuff, but he’s not really Montana-driven. People who focus purely on Montana like I do, the amount of followers I could get from that is 1 million at the most, because that’s our population. Even then, there’s a very small fraction of that population that uses TikTok, and an even smaller portion of them who agree with my videos. There are definitely a few folks that aren’t the biggest fan of that, that somebody from Bozeman of all places is our unofficial representative. Bozeman gets a bunch of flak for being the most Californian town—and, like, yeah, those critics are right. But it’s tough because we don’t have any big national voices that we can really work with. So, I think all of us creators getting together would really help.
Right. I remember looking through the Montana TikTok scene back in February, when the Chinese balloon was flying overhead, but when I went back through those today, a lot of those videos have been taken down. I saw that there was also a verified Visit Montana account that went inactive in December—
That account did not sit well with most Montanans.
Because of the words Visit Montana?
Yeah. Our state slogan is “Get Lost.” If I keep driving, like, 15 minutes in this direction, I will literally pass by a barn that has a massive “Get Lost” sticker that is readable from the interstate because nobody really wants you here. I shouldn’t say you specifically, but, you know.
I appreciate your frankness. Why do you think the government was hellbent on getting TikTok banned? I have my theories, but I’m curious what you think.
This is a question I wish more people would bring to me in interviews. What seems to be happening is, there are representatives from all over the nation who are trying to ban whatever, X, Y, and Z, right? For Montana, I think they’re using this as the baby step, the stepping stone, to see if it is possible for representatives to ban a certain app based on whatever security reasons they can make up or exaggerate or whatever. Then, if it goes off without a hitch, with little to no pushback, representatives from other states are gonna look at this and go, “Oh my gosh, we can do that,” and ban TikTok with little backlash or few problems. Then they can easily start banning other stuff as they see fit. Whether it’s certain websites that they don’t like, or different apps, or anything they aren’t a big fan of, they can start banning it left and right because they’re like: “We’re allowed to do this because the precedent has been set by the state of Montana. They’re the pioneers to do it. If little rinky-dinky Montana can do it, we can absolutely do it.” Right? That’s a big fear for so many folks—not just in the state of Montana but across the nation—who don’t want this to happen. That’s going to lead to so many infractions of our First Amendment rights, especially freedom of speech and media. Once we start having those infractions, it becomes a constitutional issue, and it’s going to become a bigger issue than it ever needed to be in the first place.
It’s interesting: One of the most prominent TikTok users from Montana is state Rep. Zooey Zephyr, the transgender Democratic lawmaker who’s been kicked off the House floor for the rest of this term—
I did see that. That was wild.
And this ban acts as another means of shutting down her voice, or the voices of other Montanans who may share those politics, or those who are seeking another outlet in general. But maybe TikTok going away is not a widespread concern.
I mean, those who want to be on it are already on it, right? I know my dad doesn’t care about TikTok. He’s much more of an Instagram Reels guy. Half our state is. So, I think the TikTok door is already closed.
Is there anything you would wanna say to TikTokkers or TikTok enthusiasts in other states who may worry that a ban could be coming their way?
If we couldn’t stop it, you guys absolutely can, because you will get support from those who have lost TikTok in their own areas. You’ll be able to see what’s happened, and you won’t want that to happen. Montana will be an example for what legislators can do, but we’re also gonna be an example for what people can do. The time we’ve lost, and all the creation and effort we’ve lost, you can do better to ensure that that does not happen to you. You guys can fight back harder than we can because you’ll have the people; you’ll have the support. So that’s that.