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Banning TikTok won’t fix social media

On April 24, after years of talking about banning TikTok, President Joe Biden committed to reshaping the platform’s presence in the United States. The foreign aid package he signed into law, which passed the House and Senate with strong majorities, included funding for Ukraine, Israel and Gaza, plus a bill that would force the digital platform to either be sold to a US entity or be banned nationally. ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of TikTok, now has roughly nine months to sell. In his remarks after signing the package, Biden did not directly mention the social media platform, though he did say foreign aid would «make America safer,» a notion that also helps explain the administration’s reasoning for banning TikTok.

Over the past few years, TikTok has become something of a symbol of both fears about China’s rise as a dominant international power and concerns that social media as a whole is harming children. The existential threat posed by the new legislation is nothing new. In 2020, the company presented an elaborate plan to give twenty percent of its platform to Walmart and Oracle, which would hypothetically ensure data security and the company’s independence from the Chinese government. This plan was eventually shelved in 2021 for security reasons. Since then, however, the platform has become more popular only among American users, whom the company has tried to convert into activists on its behalf. Earlier this year, US users who opened the app found a pop-up asking them to «tell Congress what TikTok means to you,» along with a button to call elected officials directly. The ensuing wave of angry and ill-informed calls, recounted to Politico by lawmakers’ offices, may have actually encouraged lawmakers to act on the proposed ban. According to Politics, the chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, concluded that the calls «only revealed the extent to which TikTok can manipulate and target a message.» In other words, by trying to rally its supporters, the company only proved itself to be a propaganda threat.

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TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew has become something of a Gen Z-approved celebrity after appeared before Congress in 2023. On the day Biden signed the new package, Chew made clear the company’s position on the polished TikTok video published on his official account. The law was «a ban on you and your vote,» Chew said. He continued, «TikTok provides everyday Americans with a powerful way to be seen and heard.» Chew’s statement hinted at what appears to be ByteDance’s legal strategy moving forward: arguing that getting rid of TikTok could mean violation of freedom of speech. On Tuesday, the company sued the US government, writing in its filing that preventing US citizens from accessing the app is «unconstitutional». There are legal precedents for such a claim, including a 2017 Supreme Court case, Packingham v. North Carolina, which struck down a state law barring a sex offender from accessing Facebook. «It is a fundamental principle of the First Amendment that all persons have access to places where they can speak and be heard,» wrote former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. «One of the most important places for the exchange of ideas is cyberspace, especially social media.»

But other hints from ByteDance about how it might respond to the new law don’t quite reflect its position in passionate First Amendment terms. According to Reuters, ByteDance will shut down its US TikTok operation rather than sell it. The the vaunted recommendation algorithm what drives the TikTok “For You” feed is what makes the app unique and successful; ByteDance uses the same technology in many of its other businesses, including Douyin, China’s version of TikTok. As in any other international trade dispute, putting a valuable technology in the hands of a competitor through a sale would be destabilizing. Meanwhile, TikTok’s US audience is said to have generated only about thirteen percent of ByteDance’s revenue in 2023. In this sense, giving up the US market would be strategically more advantageous and relatively trivial for ByteDance. TikTok is already outright banned in several countries, including India, and has survived just fine. (China itself blocks access to TikTok, not to mention Facebook and Instagram, in its own strategy of techno-nationalism.)

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TikTok’s algorithm is inseparable from the app, and it seems that the algorithm is also what we fear the most. Both in political speeches and in some media headlines, it is portrayed as something that could deliver Chinese propaganda to unsuspecting American teenagers and allow a foreign government to monitor the behavior of our citizens in great detail. Unfortunately, there is already plenty of propaganda, misinformation, and international bot activity on every other social platform that will remain quite accessible to Americans in the face of any TikTok ban. Data generated anywhere on the Internet can be packaged and sold to foreign (or domestic) adversaries if tracked. Parents express concern about their children’s addiction to TikTok, yet YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels, two American products, aim to be just as transfixing. TikTok provided the template for an algorithmically passive future of social media consumption, and other tech companies rushed to copy it. You can ban TikTok in America, but it’s too late to stop the habits it has unleashed. The US ban makes the most sense as a political ploy: militant actions against China are popular across the political spectrum, and those too young to vote are most vocally upset about the looming ban.

One funny thing about TikTok is that for all its ubiquity in the news cycle and social media discourse, many stakeholders know little about it. And 2023 survey The Pew Research Center found that only 33 percent of American adults say they «sometimes use» TikTok; in contrast, 83% say they use YouTube and 68% say they use Facebook. The survey also showed that TikTok’s demographic skews dramatically younger: 62 percent of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds said they sometimes use TikTok, while ten percent of people age sixty-five and older said they sometimes use it. According to another estimate, more than two-thirds of TikTok’s monthly active users in the US are under the age of thirty-five. Most millennials I meet rarely, if ever, open the app and admit they don’t really know what it’s like or how it works, in part because of its entrenched reputation as a youth app. Admitting you use it, as I do, is sometimes like saying you watch Saturday morning cartoons.

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This ignorance of TikTok reinforces its status as a bogeyman, making it easier to blame for the collective ills of social media than other apps Americans already spend so much time on. An intoxicating aspect of TikTok is its feed, which drags users through an endless parade of content and seems to read their minds about what they want to see next. What’s so addictive about the app is largely the same kind of banal Internet content that exists everywhere else now: loose monologues, repetitive choreographed moves, «America’s Funniest Home Videos»-level stunts, and random shopping recommendations. (The latter genre quickly expanded on the platform as its executives realized that e-commerce could be more lucrative than advertising.)

TikTok is not magic; it is not the digital equivalent of a nuclear bomb controlled by one nation at the risk of another. If we want to understand its real risks, we would do better to disentangle the motives behind the US ban. The direct influence of the Chinese government would be somewhat ameliorated by separating the app from ByteDance, if that is indeed the path accepted by its parent company, or by banning the app from operating in the US at all, but if the main concerns are digital-data surveillance and targeting of individual users in ways, that can manipulate them or threaten them, then we have to deal with a lot of domestic threats first. ♦


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