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Yes, of course we should ban TikTok
Cutting down on weaponized interdependence.
Biden and Congress are both attempting to do what Trump tried and failed to do: force TikTok, the Chinese-owned video app, to shut down its U.S. operations unless its parent company, ByteDance, sells it to a U.S. company. There are two reasons to do this, and neither one of them has anything to do with protecting American kids from developing short attention spans, or saving American companies from competition.
The reasons are:
TikTok sends data about its American users to the Chinese Communist Party, and
TikTok is probably subject to Chinese-directed censorship that tries to nudge U.S. users into supporting CCP goals.
Let’s talk very briefly about each one of these. Spying is the most commonly cited reason for banning TikTok, because it’s the easiest to prove. Tiktok has admitted tracking journalists’ physical movements and sending the data to its Chinese parent company. But physical location is probably only the tip of the iceberg of the data TikTok can collect, which includes faceprints, voiceprints, browsing history, text messages, and pretty much anything you do on your phone. And as Ben Thompson wrote back in 2020, that information basically becomes the property of the Chinese Communist Party:
All Chinese Internet companies are compelled by the country’s National Intelligence Law to turn over any and all data that the government demands, and that power is not limited by China’s borders. Moreover, this requisition of data is not subject to warrants or courts, as is the case with U.S. government requests for data from Facebook or any other entity…If anything it would be a something of a surprise were it not[.]
This information could conceivably be used for any number of nefarious purposes — to track and intimidate people who criticize China, to conduct industrial espionage on U.S. companies, and so on. It’s not clear how dangerous this sort of espionage is, but cybersecurity experts have generally been favorable to government restrictions on the use of the app.
Second, let’s talk about propaganda. ByteDance employees have admitted being told to highlight pro-China messaging in TikTok’s English-language news app. At one point, TikTok’s moderators were instructed to ban videos that referenced the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibetan independence, or other topics China’s government would prefer people not discuss. A study also found that TikTok’s algorithm steers users toward Kremlin disinformation regarding the Ukraine war. Thompson writes that even if these don’t represent deliberate Chinese government attempts to control U.S. opinion, it’s practically inevitable that there will be such attempts:
TikTok’s algorithm, unmoored from the constraints of your social network or professional content creators, is free to promote whatever videos it likes, without anyone knowing the difference. TikTok could promote a particular candidate or a particular issue in a particular geography, without anyone — except perhaps the candidate, now indebted to a Chinese company — knowing. You may be skeptical this might happen, but again, China has already demonstrated a willingness to censor speech on a platform banned in China; how much of a leap is it to think that a Party committed to ideological dominance will forever leave a route directly into the hearts and minds of millions of Americans untouched?
It’s important to point out that it’s not clear how much this propaganda matters right now. We have plenty of evidence that biased media outlets can change people’s votes, opinions, and behavior. But it’s less clear whether subtle algorithmic nudges on video platforms are capable of effectively shifting the opinions of whole populations; research into the much-feared possibility of YouTube right-wing radicalization hasn’t found any measurable effect.
But it’s clear that in an emergency situation like a conflict over Taiwan, the effect of TikTok propaganda might be much greater; the Chinese government could easily lean on ByteDance to block TikTok content in support of Taiwan, preventing it from developing the kind of sympathetic international audience that Ukraine developed following Russia’s invasion. An increasing number of Americans, including a quarter of young people, regularly get news from TikTok:
And in such an emergency, with TikTok spreading Chinese government messaging to much of the American population at a critical moment, it would be very hard to ban the app. Not only would the courts probably hold up an emergency ban (as they held up Trump’s attempted ban in 2020), but the app’s users and influencers represent a major constituency. Right now, TikTok is attempting to fight the ban by shipping a bunch of influencers to Washington D.C.
In other words, even if the TikTok issue seems largely symbolic right now, the app’s dominance of American media gives China’s government a considerable amount of option value in the event of a crisis. TikTok could become really important, really fast. We shouldn’t let things get to that point. So that’s the best argument in favor of banning it now; it gives us lead time to navigate the legal aspects of the ban, to psychologically prepare the American people for the realization that this app isn’t going to be around forever, and to force the app’s defenders to exhaust their political capital now.
As for the downsides of a TikTok, there really aren’t many. Even if TikTok doesn’t get sold to a non-Chinese buyer, there are plenty of other very similar video apps Americans can use. Ad if none of those satisfy, I’m sure someone can whip up a TikTok clone very quickly and make a lot of money. In short order, users will be back to browsing the exact same videos. The only people who lose out will be the few who spent years building up big followings on TikTok; but this could actually be a good thing, since social media influencer hierarchies tend to get ossified after a while, so clearing out the old would create opportunity for everyone else. A reset of social media status every once in a while could be a good thing.
Courts, of course, may hold up the ban, as they did when Trump tried it, on the grounds that it violates free speech. But as Mike Solana notes, this is a pretty weak argument; if we were in a war and our enemy released a video app that spied on our movements and also let us make cute dance videos, it would be pretty silly to say that the 1st amendment required us to accept the espionage just because it came packaged with the dance videos. I don’t know what the courts are thinking, but I hope that Biden and Congress are reviving Trump’s effort now because they’ve used the past two years to figure out how to navigate the legal challenges.
But there’s another, more subtle reason to ban TikTok, which I think most people perceive but have trouble articulating. For the past decade and a half, America’s relationship with China has been highly asymmetric. China banned Google and Facebook and any number of other U.S. apps and platforms, while the U.S. accepted Chinese media and Chinese apps as a matter of course. China routinely wielded “sharp power” against American individuals and companies, threatening to revoke market access or unleash other punishments if Americans didn’t toe the CCP line on Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, or any other issue the Chinese government cared about. But America wielded no such “sharp power” against China.
In other words, while China acted as a nation-state aggressively promoting its own interests, the U.S. acted more like a central clearinghouse for an unequal globalization — a neutral background actor who simply maintained the town square and didn’t worry about the fact that China was shouting down all the passers-by.
In other words, we were in a state of what political scientists Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman call “weaponized interdependence”:
Highly asymmetric networks allow states with (1) effective jurisdiction over the central economic nodes and (2) appropriate domestic institutions and norms to weaponize these structural advantages for coercive ends. In particular, two mechanisms can be identified. First, states can employ the “panopticon effect” to gather strategically valuable information. Second, they can employ the “chokepoint effect” to deny network access to adversaries.
China’s increasing control over the global internet is a textbook case of how this works. China had the institutions and norms to control its own internet, and U.S. institutions and norms forced us to allow China to exert some control over our internet.
To supporters of the old status quo of the mid-2010s, this asymmetric arrangement seems right and fair and natural:
But it’s simply not clear what the U.S. derived from the arrangement other than a feeling of self-righteousness. Certainly the internet didn’t end up liberalizing China as we expected in the 90s; instead, asymmetric control simply ended up making U.S. citizens more subject to the diktats of foreign authoritarians.
That old status quo has broken down now, and it isn’t coming back. The U.S. has already demonstrated its (belated) willingness to weaponize interdependence in its own way, with export controls on China’s semiconductor industry. Now the effort to ban TikTok is proving to be highly bipartisan. Anyone who dreams of a return to the asymmetric “engagement” of 2015 needs to wake up and realize that America is beginning to act like a nation-state again. Nation-states act to protect their own interests, and preventing U.S. citizens from being spied on and propagandized by a superpower with a decidedly adversarial attitude toward the U.S. seems like one of those interests.