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How some U.S. service members built a following on TikTok


The Pentagon removed TikTok from government phones last year, but that has not stopped some military service members from cultivating a following on the platform. Steve Walsh with WHRO in Norfolk sends us this story.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Vanessa Richards is a culinary specialist on Naval Station Norfolk. She's also the mother of a small child. On TikTok, she's known as @governmentownedmama.


VANESSA RICHARDS: So for this, it will depend on where your command is and where they put you at. But on a typical day-to-day basis on a ship, a CS will work about 16 hours in the galley.

WALSH: Richards has over 600,000 likes, spread out over dozens of videos. She posts when she has a spare minute, including during breaks while she's on duty. The posts cover makeup tips, being a working parent and life in the Navy.

RICHARDS: I just want to communicate, I guess, the lifestyle 'cause I feel like a lot of people don't understand, like, what the Navy is and what it entails, or some people are like, I could never do it 'cause of this, this and this, and I'm like, no, it's not always like that.

WALSH: Richards is one of dozens of creators from different branches of the military who post regularly on TikTok. Collectively, they're known as MilTok. They soldier on as the government takes steps to ban the app. Caitlin Chin-Rothmann researches digital privacy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She says Congress is concerned about the amount of personal data TikTok is collecting.

CAITLIN CHIN-ROTHMANN: Lawmakers have also cited a concern that because TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, is based in China, TikTok could either transfer sensitive personal information to the Chinese government or the Chinese government could potentially control TikTok's algorithm.

WALSH: But Chin-Rothmann says privacy concerns extend far beyond TikTok.

CHIN-ROTHMANN: The Chinese government doesn't actually need TikTok in order to collect personal information. We have many mobile apps or many other types of companies collecting and sharing personal information, so a lot of this information actually is very widely available out there.


JOHNNY VARGAS: Here's a list of some lies you might hear in the military - look, I know you stayed late yesterday, but we're going to get you your time back - I promise. It's a lie. Run.

WALSH: Army Sergeant First Class Johnny Vargas posts on Instagram and YouTube, but he has a larger audience on TikTok as @vivalavargas.

VARGAS: A lot of my chain of command follows me because they like the content. They think it's hilarious.

WALSH: Stationed at Fort Cavazos, Texas, Vargas uses TikTok as a second income. He's aware of the controversy, but he continues to post as long as it's allowed.

VARGAS: There's a couple people that assume that just because I wear a uniform, I don't have the freedom of speech or I don't have the right to an opinion, and everyone does. The Bill of Rights is still the Bill of Rights, no matter what you're wearing, as long as you're an American.

WALSH: MilTok has been an outlet for serious discussions of military sexual assault, mold in the barracks and toxic leadership. Individual recruiters pop up, but most of the engagement comes from troops sharing their own experiences. Vargas will talk about VA home loans and issues with pay.

VARGAS: Things that are controversial or unpopular will also get kind of big, but the stuff that kind of stays steady is just, honestly, your silly skits.

WALSH: It's been a tool for demystifying military service. The official commands were supposed to leave TikTok last year, when it was banned from government phones, but the app remains valuable to the military, says Vanessa Richards, the sailor who's stationed in Norfolk.

RICHARDS: I feel like it just appeals to the younger generation 'cause now the younger generation's on TikTok. I feel like nobody's on - I think they call it X now. I feel like nobody from the younger generation is on there anymore. Now, it's the TikTok reels or the Instagram reels.

WALSH: In response to questions, the Pentagon says the app is not allowed on government phones or computers, but there is no policy prohibiting the use of TikTok in a personal capacity - at least for now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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As a military reporter, Steve Walsh delivers stories and features for TV, radio and the web.