Cosette Rinab is a USC senior majoring in public relations and TikTok creator. @Cosette gained 2.3 million followers on the app since she began in December 2018. In 2020, she joined a Pennsylvania lawsuit with two other TikTok creators against President Donald Trump and the U.S. Department of Commerce for attempting to ban the app from U.S. based application stores. A judge ruled against the ban, but the U.S. government has appealed the ruling.
Annenberg Media spoke with Rinab about the lawsuit and what it is like to be a content creator while in school. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Annenberg Media: When did you get started on TikTok and what drew you to the platform?
Cosette Rinab: I started on TikTok just about two years ago. I wanted to get started on it because I’m part of a social media club on campus called USC Reach and they’re the ones who actually slowly started mentioning TikTok within the meetings. In the beginning, I thought I would test the waters — as content creators, we’re always trying to find new avenues to post our content. But it really started out just to express myself in a fun and creative way. I was not thinking about it as a business at all. But over time, it really just went out of proportion and really rolled into something that I could call a business.
AM: What do you feel is unique about TikTok’s platform that makes it different and makes it important to stay around?
CR: The most important thing about TikTok that isn’t really seen on any other platform is the accessibility. You can have zero followers and you still have access to a global audience. [And] you can go viral with five followers. In fact, the first time I went viral, I think I had like two or three followers and my video got half a million views. You don’t need to be a celebrity or have a million followers to have a video perform well. [It] can really be anybody, your friends, your neighbors — anybody can blow up on TikTok.
AM: What made you get involved in the lawsuit and what was the process like?
CR: When I first heard about, you know, TikTok being threatened by President [Donald Trump’s] administration, I was in complete denial. I wasn’t really worried at first, because I genuinely thought that nothing would come of it. But as weeks went by, and as it became more and more real and I saw my TikTok friends, panicking to get their followers over on other platforms, I started realizing, “Okay, this is definitely something to worry about.” Especially for creators that you know, depend on TikTok for their education, their livelihood, their income — this is something that poses a huge threat … I knew I immediately wanted to get involved to be able to represent the TikTok creators. This was a frustration that a lot of people were feeling, but not everybody was able to speak up about it. So when I found my place and was able to get involved in the lawsuit, I was all for it. We’ve won for now — it’s not the end, [since] we’re still waiting on the government appeals. But it’s looking good for the future.
AM: How would your life have changed if TikTok was successfully banned?
CR: Since I started, TikTok has really been my main platform. I upload on other platforms, but TikTok is where I exclusively create my content for basically. It would significantly impact my life, because my primary source of income is TikTok brand deals and monetization. So not only would I lose a large source of my income...I pay my rent [and] I pay my tuition with the money that I make from TikTok. [That] is very, very concerning and worrisome for creators. But I would also lose access to the huge creator community that I’ve been a part of. After a long, hard day of work, I just want to sit down on my phone and consume fun, silly, entertaining content. And I don’t see that available anywhere else really in the same way that it is on TikTok. So I think it’d be taking away my income, but also my livelihood and source of happiness, especially in the middle of the global pandemic.
AM: Because of the pandemic, court cases have moved online — what was the experience of doing an online court case?
CR: I mean, I had nothing to compare it to, because this is [my] first [lawsuit], and hopefully, I don’t have to be involved in many lawsuits moving forward. I had met the other plaintiffs in person at other events, so I knew them both. But meeting the lawyers for the first time, I was sitting in an online courtroom over Zoom on an early morning — the court was based out of Pennsylvania, so it was very, very early in California. [And to] just see how people have to adjust to these times, it was really cool. Everybody [was] using their virtual backgrounds, and you can just sit there in pajama pants. I’ve watched a lot of movies that involve court hearings. So the lingo was the same, but having it all over Zoom was just absolutely crazy. However, with all the technology and tools that we can utilize today, I would say that it was very beneficial in the sense that the other plaintiffs and the lawyers and I all had a group chat, [so] we were able to communicate through email or through iMessage every single day, sending each other articles.
AM: What was it like balancing school with your online content schedule as well as a lawsuit?
CR: I would say it definitely wasn’t easy, just because of the pressures that come with being involved in the lawsuits and the public opinions that come along with being in such a public lawsuit. I would be sitting in my public relations USC class and having my fingers on the desk because I’m so nervous, like, “I have a court hearing the next morning at 6 a.m.” And especially my peers in class and my professors would see these things in the news. I never mentioned anything in class, but everybody knew that it was going on, because it was all over the news and so many different publications. I had one of my public relations class one of my peers called out, “By the way, like, shout out to Cosette, she’s suing Trump.” So, it was definitely like a very surreal feeling to know that most of your peers know about TikTok and know what’s going on.
AM: Do you have any hopes for what this ruling could mean for the future of online content creators and TikTok creators?
CR: I think my biggest hope for this [ruling] is that the older generations start to understand a little bit more the impact of social media platforms. Because when first people first heard that TikTok was being banned, a lot of the reactions that I got on Twitter, specifically, were very negative. Like, “It’s just a social media app, get over it” [or] “So sorry you can’t post your stupid videos anymore.” And people don’t understand a lot of times the meaning or the implications behind social media apps like this. It’s not just about posting silly videos, it’s about your livelihood and building a community. As I said, it’s a job. I’m working eight hours a day, engaging with my community and have to put in hours just like any office job. I just hope that people are able to understand a little bit better why an app like this is so important as we start to accept social media as a legitimate job in the future.
AM: Now that TikTok is here to stay for now, are there any hopes that you have for the future for the creator community or TikTok user base? What content do you gravitate towards?
CR: I think [TikTok] already does such a great job of building a community and making a creator community feel welcome and included. I hope that TikTok continues to be very transparent. Throughout this entire lawsuit process, [TikTok was] very transparent because obviously, this is [a] very blinding time for a lot of people to know whether or not they have a job the next day, whether they have to completely restructure their lives. And also, my hope is that TikTok continues to be a very inclusive and authentic place for people to create content.
AM: For any aspiring content creators at USC right now, what advice do you have for creators to get started?
CR: For me, the most beneficial thing about USC is not necessarily the classes, but the networking. And I would not have become a content creator, if it weren’t for the networking that I did on campus. it’s [about] finding your people on campus, trying out anything and everything and you’ll [eventually] find your place.