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Yes, We Should Ban TikTok
China is in an ideological war with the West. It's time we start taking it seriously.
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I’ve never used TikTok. I’ve never used TikTok for the same reason I stopped using Facebook and haven’t posted a picture on Instagram in three years: social media is designed to ruthlessly monetize your attention and is specifically engineered to be addictive. It is a massive time waster and warps your perception of the world.1
But I’ve done quite a bit of research on TikTok for this post, and have discovered that the app is on a whole ‘nother level. Before we get into why we should ban the app, let us first try to understand why people are so attached to it, beginning with a brief review of video as it relates to social media.
As Ben Thompson wrote a couple of years ago, if we assume that advertising revenue is a reasonable proxy for attention, you’ll find that people like pictures more than text, and moving pictures most of all.2 Upon introducing the news feed, Facebook quickly learned that photos drove much more engagement, which is why it bought Instagram. It was Instagram that Facebook used to counter Snapchat’s Stories feature, an even more immersive way of interacting with content than the feed. The gambit worked brilliantly in deterring Instagram users from trying Snapchat out.
But as Thompson notes, the rise of TikTok suggests that Facebook didn’t learn the correct lesson from the Snapchat threat: what made Stories so compelling was the fact that these short little clips were similar to video. Facebook never capitalized on the opportunity to focus specifically on that. The company spent way too much time and money trying to encourage 3rd-party professional videographers to migrate to Facebook from YouTube, failing to realize that its most valuable content has always been user-generated.
Facebook’s logic is understandable in retrospect: while it’s easy for users to post text, and, thanks to the advent of smartphones, even easier to post pictures, producing quality video is much harder. Even as recently as a few years ago, phone cameras were significantly worse at video than pictures, but more importantly, creating compelling video requires a fair amount of skill. Given that the user-generated content Facebook shows you is constrained by who’s in your friends network, and that most people aren’t friends with many videographers, the chances that a given user is exposed to compelling video in their feeds are slim.
This all highlights what makes TikTok such a game changer. People like videos, and TikTok’s video creation tools are infinitely more accessible for non-professional videographers. The key missing piece, however, is that TikTok isn’t really a social network.
TikTok is owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance, which is based in the People’s Republic of China—an increasingly dystopian dictatorship. ByteDance launched the Chinese version of TikTok (called “Douyin”) in 2016.3 Whereas Facebook evolved from being a social network into an algorithm-driven feed, TikTok has always been about the feed and algorithm. Herein lies the reason why the app has been referred to as “digital fentanyl”: the algorithm is incredibly powerful.
The first time you open TikTok, the content you see is generic, but every scroll, every click, every second spent lingering over a video is fed into a sophisticated feedback loop that refines what you see. Meanwhile, fantastic amounts of data are siphoned through into larger machine learning processes that run billions of A/B tests every day on all manner of content, cross-referenced on user input. People often say it feels as though TikTok can read minds, so good is it at anticipating the kind of content they’ll enjoy, and the app accomplishes this without any kind of friend recommendation system. And by relying on an algorithm, TikTok is able to expand the library of videos available to you from those made by your network to those made by anyone on the service, leveraging the sheer scale of user-generated content to show people the most compelling content possible.
This formula works extremely well. The average American viewer watches TikTok for 80 minutes a day—more than the time spent on Facebook and Instagram combined. In 2021, the app had more active users than Twitter, more U.S. watch minutes than YouTube, more app downloads than Facebook, and more site visits than Google. Its growth has been astounding.
But I don’t think we should ban TikTok because it’s digital fentanyl that’s frying the brains of our young people. I think we should ban TikTok because it sends data about American users to the Chinese Communist Party and is very probably subject to Chinese-directed censorship that tries to nudge U.S. users into supporting CCP goals.
Too many people fail to realize the long game that China, a country with a 3,500 year history and the world’s largest population, the second-largest economy, and a military-industrial complex and high technology sector second only to America’s, is playing against the U.S. specifically, and the West generally.
As Tablet’s Tanner Greer writes, the Chinese people are “acutely aware that China was once the standard setter in advanced civilization, the center point around which the economies and cultures of much of the Earth revolved.” The CCP is driven to reverse what it refers to as “the century of humiliation,” when China was exploited by imperialists and divided by warlords. The following century, which comes to an end in 2049, is seen as the century that will make China great again.
The CCP is convinced that Marxism is the key to China retaking its dominant force in the world. Party leadership is determined to avoid what it calls the “Soviet mistake,” when Mikhail Gorbachev decided to “open” the USSR system and expose the previously isolated Soviet peoples to the enticements of the Western order.
A leaked internal party directive from 2013 describes “the very real threat of Western anti-China forces and their attempt at carrying out westernization” within China. According to the directive, the party is in an “intense ideological struggle” for survival in which the ideas that threaten China with “major disorder” include concepts such as “universal human rights,” “Western freedom,” “civil society,” “economic liberalism,” “freedom of the press,” and “free flow of information on the internet.” Even so much as allowing the Chinese people to contemplate these concepts would imperil the CCP’s plan to build a modern, socialist future.
When we think about competition with China, we tend to view it through a military/geopolitical lens. But the CCP believes the most significant threat to the party, China’s stability, and the country’s rightful return as the center point of advanced civilization, is ideological. Chinese communists obviously don’t like the sabre rattling of the U.S. Pacific Command, but what really irks them are ideas that they believe America is intent on embedding “in the discourse and institutions of the existing global order.”
The point is that China believes it’s in an ideological war with America, and the CCP seeks to undermine Western values in every way possible in order to safeguard China’s rejuvenation. Moreover, the CCP has a track record a mile long of conducting business and industrial espionage as well as other actions contrary to U.S. national security.4 We would be stupid not to assume it will continue to use every means available to do this.
Unlike here in the U.S., this requisition of data isn’t subject to warrants or courts, meaning the Chinese government could definitely be running a learning algorithm in parallel to ByteDance’s on all TikTok data. Such information could be conceivably used for any number of nefarious purposes. If the Chinese government tells ByteDance, “We want you to use the algorithm and the data that you have access to in a certain way,” they have no choice but to do it. There’s no such thing as a private company in China.
Then there’s the matter of propaganda. TikTok’s real power isn’t over our data so much as what users watch and create. It’s over the secretive algorithm that governs what gets seen and what doesn’t, an algorithm subject to deliberate intervention by the people who control the platform. As mentioned earlier, this algorithm is unconstrained by professional content creators or your social network, meaning the app is free to promote any videos it likes without anyone ever knowing the difference.
We know that TikTok is under the thumb of a foreign power that has an interest in making American society as dysfunctional as possible. We also know that the app has engaged in top-down efforts to manipulate what users see. AP reports that China is already boosting accounts that “parrot the government’s perspective in posts seen by hundreds of thousands of people, operating in virtual lockstep as they promote China’s virtues, deflect international criticism of its human rights abuses and advance Beijing’s talking points on world affairs like Russia’s war against Ukraine.”
And if you’re skeptical as to whether subtle algorithmic nudges are capable of changing people’s votes, opinions, and behaviors, I encourage you to read this post I wrote about Google. Suffice it to say that, yeah, it’s possible, and yeah, Google does it.
In highlighting the potential influence of CCP TikTok propaganda, Noah Smith points toward a potential emergency situation like a conflict over Taiwan. The Chinese government could very easily have ByteDance block TikTok content in support of Taiwan, preventing it from developing the kind of sympathetic international audience that Ukraine developed following Russia’s invasion.6 This is especially true considering that an increasing number of Americans, including a quarter of young folks,7 regularly get news from TikTok:
Smith also underscores a more obvious reason for banning the app. For the past two decades or so our relationship with China has been highly asymmetric. While China has banned a number of major apps and platforms including Google, Facebook, and Twitter, the U.S. has meekly accepted Chinese media and Chinese apps as a matter of course. China also routinely wields “sharp power” against American individuals and companies, threatening to rescind market access or impose other punishments if Americans fail to toe the CCP line on a variety of issues.8
The bottom line is that from a narrow economic perspective, China has been limiting the economic upside of U.S. companies far longer than the U.S. has tried to limit China’s. While China acts as a nation-state aggressively promoting its own interests, we’ve found ourselves stuck in a situation defined by “weaponized interdependence,” where China has the institutions and norms to control its own internet, but U.S. institutions and norms force us to allow China to exert some control over our internet.
Last month, Canada finally banned TikTok from government phones, joining both the U.S. and Europe and reigniting the debate here in the States as to whether the app should be banned outright. Since then, a host of mainstream media reporters and left-wing types have come to the company’s defense. Their argument? Preventing a hostile foreign government from spying on your citizens and spreading pro-CCP propaganda constitutes a violation of freedom of speech.
That’s right: the crowd that believes the laughably negligible Russian “interference” in the 2016 election gave Trump the presidency, and which has, as a result, cheered on flagrant state censorship for the better part of the past decade, and which calls the Twitter Files revelations “a big nothing-burger,” is now treating the First Amendment as sacred. Amazing. Even the American “Civil Liberties” Union — the same ACLU that championed vaccine apartheid and villainized Elon Musk for buying Twitter specifically to reduce online censorship — has come out in defense of TikTok.
The truth is that these people only give a damn about free speech when it benefits their globo-socialist agenda and left-wing politics. They support censorship as long as it helps the Democratic Party and is imposed on those who deviate from liberal orthodoxy. And they just so happen to have all started using TikTok and like it.
TikTok should be banned.9 That’s my opinion. It should be banned because the app’s collection of American users’ data, its obligation under Chinese law to provide that data to the CCP, and its ability to disseminate CCP propaganda and suppress anti-CCP dissent through its algorithm constitute a national security threat.
I’m not a fan of the RESTRICT Act. Rather than targeting TikTok or ByteDance directly, it would authorize the Secretary of Commerce to “review and prohibit certain transactions between persons in the United States and foreign adversaries.” The secretary, in consultation with the rest of the executive branch, could then use that authorization to ban or otherwise restrict TikTok or other foreign tech products. One section in particular has come under fire: The commerce secretary can use “any mitigation measure to address any risk arising from any covered transaction by any person, or with respect to any property, subject to the jurisdiction of the United States,” in consultation with other agency heads. That doesn’t sit well with me. Far too broad of a remit.
I understand that some of you concerned with the growth of executive power will oppose any kind of a TikTok ban on the grounds that it might establish a precedent where the government is given license to ban any app or information source that it doesn’t like. To give the government such discretionary power is a terrible idea. But let me ask you something: would we let China or Russia buy a TV network?
I believe America needs to start acting like a nation-state again. That means our government should only act in the best interests of America (what a novel concept). And that includes preventing Americans from being spied on and propagandized with a memetic superweapon wielded by a foreign government which has an unmistakably adversarial attitude toward the U.S.
It’s time to start taking China seriously. Chinese communists believe that they lead an ideological-political system distinct from and in opposition to those of the capitalist world, and that only one of liberalism or Marxism can prevail. They see America and Western values more broadly as the chief impediment to restoring China to greatness, and are wholly convinced that they’re engaged in an “ideological struggle” with a hostile liberal order that must be subverted.
The truth is that we’re in a near-peer competition, and in many ways a conflict, with China for global influence and the direction of the world. To that end, China has taken steps to control information not just within its borders, but outside as well. If China is on the offensive against liberalism within our borders, it’s in our best interest to deny them access to America on a platform with a stranglehold on millions of malleable minds that’s specifically engineered to hold and shape attention and keep people coming back for more. The CCP, which is committed to ideological dominance and is our biggest adversary, won’t hesitate to use a route directly into the hearts and minds of Americans to promote content sympathetic to its cause. It already is.
I must admit, however, that I use Twitter. It’s just such an excellent source of information. I follow a whopping 90 accounts so that my feed is curated to only show interesting, intelligent people who I believe make me smarter. I’m a “lurker”: I read and learn, rarely commenting or retweeting. And for what it’s worth, I’ve only had an account since January 2022.
It is telling that the Chinese government doesn’t allow the American version of TikTok inside its country, or inside the minds of its youth. The Chinese version of the platform is completely different, with a focus on education, not mindless dross. The U.S. version is designed to be more addictive.
The app will even read the data on your phone’s clipboard. So if you copied sensitive text on your phone, such as a password, there’s a chance that TikTok could have accessed that information.
TikTok U.S. users between the ages of 10 and 19 account for 37% of all users, and 64% of users are under 30 years old.