Darrell Ehrlick

(Daily Montanan) They heard the pitch and they believed in it.

At least two of the Montana residents who have sued the state over its first-of-a-kind ban of the social media app, TikTok, told the Daily Montanan: They believed it when Gov. Greg Gianforte and other state leaders went on a campaign to recruit young couples back to Montana, where the restrictions were few and the opportunities plentiful.

Now, they’ve said the same state leaders, including Gianforte, himself a multi-millionaire who founded a tech company out of his garage after moving to Bozeman, are putting their livelihoods at risk through the ban, which could force them to relocate in order to pay the bills and feed their families.

That’s why they decided to file a first-of-its-kind lawsuit, challenging the state’s ability to ban the popular app. They filed before social media giant even waged its now-filed lawsuit.

Currently, there are two lawsuits that are challenging Senate Bill 419, which bans TikTok from Montana beginning on Jan. 1, 2024, and fines any company who allows the app to be downloaded as much as $10,000 per download.

While TikTok filed suit against Montana, claiming that its rights were being violated, and along with it, the constitutional rights of all of its American users, five Montanans also filed a separate suit, saying it was important to stand up for their rights in the place they call home.

“It’s a big deal to have this taken away in such a state with a small population,” said Samantha Alario, one of the plaintiffs.

Alario lives in Missoula and uses TikTok to market her sustainably-sourced swimwear company, Gemini Mountain Swimwear.

She said she and other TikTok users are concerned about data security, but that is a larger issue, much bigger than just one social media app.

“This is a step into censorship,” she said.

She said the actions by the Montana Legislature this year seem to be an erosion of rights – from healthcare to what state residents can watch online.

She explained that TikTok offers things other social media applications do not. For example, Facebook, which is owned by Meta, doesn’t allow her to market to new users without advertising. The algorithms, or codes which help select content, are not the same. On TikTok, a wider audience sees her products, which helps build a different community. Alario said that she uses both applications – and must – to keep her business afloat, but they’re different tools.

“I sell bikinis. In Montana. We can’t even wear them here half the year,” Alario said. “In Montana, the only other way would be going door to door or word of mouth. This ban is taking away my livelihood.”

For Carly Ann Goddard, one of the other plaintiffs, the ban is even more profound.

She and her husband grew up in the South and wanted to move to the West where they could continue their dream of ranching.

She and her husband worked hard to get into the business, him managing a feedlot for a time in Belfry, her working as a waitress.

“We literally had ramen every night. That’s what we ate because that’s what we could afford,” she said.

She started on TikTok as a way to connect with others who lived in rural areas and wanted to raise a family there.

Now, they live on a small acreage in Custer. Even though the small town is in the same county as the largest city in Montana – it’s a world away. She and her husband are raising a family, him working a small cattle operation while she earns income from product reviews and a popular blog about parenting and rural lifestyles.

Goddard connected with similar folks scattered throughout the U.S. She talked about different products she used as she was parenting and decorating. The extra money she earns from product reviews means no more ramen, but it also pays for more important things, like a recent trip to the doctor.

“You wouldn’t imagine what this income does,” Goddard said. “It’s a lifeline. We love it here and we want to be here.”

Alario said her business helps pay the expenses of her household, which includes two young children.

“This app allows us to enjoy and provide for our families,” Alario said. “We’re not living big luxurious lives.”

For Goddard, if the TikTok ban stands, she not only loses her connection to nearly 100,000 followers, but also essential family income.

“We may have to figure out something. But we want more kids, but we’re waiting to see what happens,” she said.

Both Alario and Goddard said they share concerns about data, and believe if politicians would have done more outreach, they may have crafted something that protected data better without targeting one company. Alario said even though she wrote letters and reached out to the entire Montana delegation, only one politician responded, Jon Tester.

“If you are using Amazon or Google or any apps, they are doing the same thing with our data,” she said. “The data issue needs to be processed better.”

The Daily Montanan also reached out to Gianforte about his marketing campaigns to recruit residents to Montana as well as his stance on TikTok.

It received no response.

After she joined the lawsuit with other TikTok users in Montana, Goddard said she’s been getting a lot of hate, mostly by people who don’t understand that the terms and agreements of other apps are similar to that of TikTok.

And she’s built a community of followers that extends beyond the state’s borders – a group that she calls “supportive and amazing.”

“I do love Montana and I want to stay here,” she said. “I feel like I am supporting small business and I hope the governor looks at what creators do for the state. They don’t realize how I use it – to put food on my table for my family. That’s why I am fighting.

“I wish I could make them understand.”

Alario said that she is proud of her Montana business and is happy to contribute as a resident of the state, but the laws are making it harder to do that.

“They want us to come here and now they don’t want us to contribute to the State of Montana?” Alario said.