TikTok Could Be More Dangerous: The massive interest surrounding Elon Musk‘s acquisition of Twitter is based upon an intuition that I believe is correct: major social media platforms are essential to modern life in some hard-to-describe way. You might call them town squares. Some might call them infrastructure. They serve as a medium between public service and private enterprise. Despite the fact that they are too significant to be entrusted to billionaires and businesses, governments may not be able to handle them. The question of their ownership and governance has yet to be satisfactorily addressed. Nevertheless, certain arrangements raise significantly more concerns than others. Musk’s fate may well be worse than others.
Our current understanding of TikTok dates from only a few years ago. Nevertheless, the growth of the platform is unprecedented. The platform had more active users than Twitter, more US watch minutes than YouTube, more app downloads than Facebook, and more website visits than Google in 2021. There was a time when Twitter was limited to 140-character updates about lunch orders, and Facebook was only available to elite universities, but now it is best known for viral dance trends. Times have changed. Or maybe they have already changed. During a lecture I gave a few weeks ago at a Presbyterian college in South Carolina, I asked some of the students where they got their news. Nearly all of them replied TikTok.
Chinese company ByteDance owns TikTok. In addition, the Chinese government is susceptible to the whims and whims of its companies. On this point, there can be no ambiguity: The Chinese Communist Party has spent much of the last year reducing its technology sector. Jack Ma, the market-leading founder of Alibaba, was cited as an example. As it was clearly communicated: Chief executives will act in accordance with party wishes or face the prospect of their lives being upended and their companies being dismantled.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order in August 2020 that directed TikTok to sell itself to an American firm or be banned in the United States. When Oracle and Walmart emerged as the most likely buyers, ByteDance was seeking a buyer, but after Joe Biden’s election, the sale was indefinitely postponed.
With Biden’s executive order, Trump’s sloppy executive order, which was being successfully challenged in court, was replaced. According to Biden’s order, apps like TikTok are able to access and capture a significant amount of personal and business information from users, including US persons’ personal information. A foreign adversary could gain access to that information through this data collection.”
Data espionage is what we should call this problem. User data is collected by apps like TikTok. Governments abroad may find this data valuable. TikTok was banned from soldiers’ work phones by the Army and Navy because of this, and Senator Josh Hawley wrote a bill banning the app on all government devices.
The company has come up with a plan: “Project Texas,” which would host customer data on U.S. servers and somehow restrict access for its parent company. In fact, BuzzFeed News’ Emily Baker-White reports in an excellent report that “Project Texas appears to be largely a geographic exercise, one that seems well-positioned to address concerns about Chinese officials accessing Americans’ private information. Moreover, it fails to address other ways China could weaponize the platform. This includes adjusting the algorithm of TikTok to increase exposure to divisive content or creating an environment for disinformation campaigns.
This is known as the manipulation problem. TikTok isn’t really in control of our data. Users decide what to watch and create. What’s at issue is the opaque algorithm that dictates which posts are visible and which aren’t.
TikTok has been flooded with videos that support the Russian narrative regarding the war in Ukraine. An apparent coordinated campaign of 186 Russian TikTok celebrities, such as pranksters and beauty bloggers, was tracked by Media Matters. In addition, China is widely known for amplifying Russian propaganda. Is it okay for us not to know whether the Chinese Communist Party decided to influence how the algorithm treats these videos? In five years, when TikTok is even more embedded in American culture, and the company has more freedom to operate as it pleases, how comfortable will we be with a similar situation?
As in 2020 (not to mention 2000), the United States would have contested presidential elections. Could the Chinese Communist Party insist that content favouring that candidate be given a nudge from ByteDance if one of the candidates was more friendly to Chinese interests? Or maybe TikTok begins serving up more election conspiracy videos at a time when the country is on the verge of disintegration. This is in order to weaken America rather than shape its outcome.
There is nothing out of the ordinary about any of this. The Chinese government instructed TikTok to clamp down on videos and topics, though the company says these rules have changed since then. There is no doubt that other countries, such as Russia, use American social networks in order to cause divisions and doubt.
This is telling: China views these threats as obvious enough to have built a defensive firewall against them: They have banned Google, Facebook, Twitter, as well as TikTok. In order to manage Douyin, a version of ByteDance’s app that adhered to Chinese censorship rules, ByteDance has developed a different version for Chinese audiences. The Chinese government has long viewed these platforms as an offensive weapon. It is not an unreasonable assumption that China would do to us what they have always feared we would do to them. This is because China’s authoritarian turn continues and relations between our countries deteriorate.
The closest analogy I can think of is that the Soviet Union during the Brezhnev era would have bought up television stations across the United States with some of its oil export profits, my former colleague Matthew Yglesias wrote in his newsletter, Slow Boring.
That’s a good beginning, from an analogy perspective. Nevertheless, if the Soviet Union had purchased local television stations nationwide, we would have known about it, and we would have known what they were and what they were doing, just as there was with Russia Today. Propaganda would be simply perceived as propaganda.
The billion TikTok users don’t think they are watching a propaganda operation run by the Chinese government because, for the most part, they aren’t. They watch lip sync videos, makeup tutorials, and funny dance videos. That would, however, make it a more powerful propaganda tool if it were used. Moreover, since every TikTok feed is unique, we have no way of knowing what people are seeing. Using it to shape or distort public opinion could be trivially easy, and unavoidably untraceable.
I am suggesting, though it will not be simple to apply, a simple principle: We need to pay attention collectively. Our future is largely determined by whoever controls our attention (or whatever). Social media platforms should be managed in the public interest as they hold and shape our attention. In other words, we need to have a good sense of how they’re run and who’s behind them.
To my knowledge, none of the social network owners currently meet this requirement. ByteDance I’m fairly certain does not. The Trump administration acted correctly, and the Biden administration should follow his lead.