TikTok in the Age of Lies

TikTok in the Age of Lies

Well, the government is trying to ban TikTok. Again. The hope was to start with something to set the tone a bit better but the news cycle is wrapped up in this one and there are enough bad takes and strange freaks wrapped up here that it probably warrants a deep dive of its own. With so much noise, it's probably about time to cut through it all.

What's happening?

A Republican Representative from Wisconsin, Mike Gallagher, introduced a bill that plainly targets TikTok, requiring their parent company, ByteDance, to divest from the platform entirely, handing over the reins within 180 days. The bill, colloquially called the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, also takes into account any applications owned by ByteDance and even anything with a 20% ownership stake by the usual targets (China, North Korea, Iran & Russia). No, the 20% isn't random. That's the ownership stake by the founders in the company.

On its face, it seems like a well-intentioned proposition. We've heard there's a security risk related to American's data and the potential for propaganda. The Chinese government is running the show over there, according to both media and politicians. Rep. Gallagher even said "it's not a ban, it's a forced separation".

While that may technically be the case, they're sure as hell not making it easy or even necessarily possible. When's the last time someone was able to buy a company this large and get it cleared with all regulatory bodies in less than six months? Are we committing to allowing a large American corporation to buying this without the usual regulatory oversight? Would we be comfortable with a Saudi investor buying the company since they're considered an ally while having even more repressive policies in their nation? Does anyone have deep enough pockets to want to go for TikTok?

This is assuming that the founders would divest or Beijing would approve the sale to an American. As of now, that looks to be unlikely. Still, the vote on the bill has already passed the House of Representatives with bipartisan support, with a roll call vote of 352 to 65, and Biden is indicating he'd sign the bill if it arrived as is.

Everybody hates TikTok

I guess not everybody hates it but it sure seems that way. For the uninitiated, TikTok rose to prominence as a short form video app, to Gen Z what Vine was to millennials. Since then, they've expanded the length of videos you can upload dramatically and bolted on a store that you'll accidentally end up in multiple times during a single scroll. As with any social media app, it algorithmically builds up "profiles" of its users, based on the things they follow and interact with, helping surface content (and advertisements) it thinks you'd like while also finding ways to maximize the length of time you spend in the app, interacting with things that make them money. That's pretty standard fare for companies of this sort.

It doesn't help that TikTok has also had a few scandals of their own. The highest profile one started during accusations of China-based employees accessing American user data. The implication being that access to the data by these employees meant that the Chinese government was also eyeballing it. This had a slow burn, with the plot thickened with Forbes reporting on links between ByteDance employees and Chinese state media, a fairly innocuous statement on its face since companies everywhere hire former government workers.

The stir turned into a mess when TikTok was then caught surveilling on the Forbes journalists responsible for breaking the story as part of an investigation named internally "Project Raven". TikTok came clean with the reporters, outlining that there were employees tracking the IP addresses and locations of these reporters with the intent of identifying if they were in the same area as any ByteDance employees, hoping to identify the source of leaks.

Throughout all of this, the drumbeat has grown louder for action from TikTok and on their part, they've taken steps to reduce the insight into American user's data. This took the shape of "Project Texas". According to TikTok, this was the way they rebuilt all policies around corporate governance, moderation and data access. To assuage American regulators, they struck a deal with Oracle, a fairly large cloud computing company, to become their "trusted technology platform" by storing American data for the social media network within US borders. A similar "Project Clover" is still underway to help keep European user data in Ireland.

Why? Why? Why?

Ultimately, there's a confluence of events going on here leading to a lot of politicians, business leaders, and media aligning on the same idea, that TikTok should be banned. But the meat of the issue is the "Why". We've yet to really land on a concrete answer to this. The two big ones that politicians have echoed are "user privacy" and "national security". Some business leaders like Alexis Ohanian have even tried saying that China doesn't allow American social media which is a strange tit for tat argument. They similarly don't have the First Amendment. Is that worth throwing it out at home?

The user privacy angle is just straight up nonsense. The handwringing over a social network having too much data by politicians is exasperating, talking about the concern over the data TikTok has as if they're solely operating a funnel for getting Americans' information into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. Why would someone build a social media network as the cover for that in an era where personal information is just readily for sale. We have zero data protection laws in the US that'd prohibit them from just purchasing the data and saving all the money dumped into the operating costs of a platform. Sure, the President issued an executive order to try protecting the sale of personal data to "countries of concern", but that's the least effort into what clearly needs a reliable privacy regulation. What we'd need is a serious piece of regulation to protect user data but that'd impact other, well-lobbied platforms like Facebook and Amazon.

Now, national security. That's a sticking point. What does it mean when they say that TikTok is a "national security threat"? A number of Senators from the senate Intelligence Committee have given vague statements about the risk TikTok poses to Americans like Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal saying, "My reaction to this briefing is that TikTok is a gun aimed at Americans' heads" after a closed-door classified intelligence briefing. Sounds dramatic, right? While they've said that this should be public, it sounds a bit more like posturing than anything else. Sources have indicated that "no new smoking gun or evidence of Chinese coercion and that some left underwhemed". The Intercept analyzed the historic discussions around TikTok from the intelligence community, showing the pains they take to emphasize that everything is hypothetical. That they could do something if they wanted to, but there's no evidence to say it has happened.

Thus, the concerns folks say about "propaganda". At best, there was the identification of some accounts run by Chinese intelligence, trying to agitate for both political parties in the midterm elections. That doesn't indicate any cooperation from the platform. Russia did the same thing on Facebook and the US had even directed the CIA to to the same thing to China on their domestic social media platforms. Sure, there are problems with the platforms that permit them to be used in this way but that's more often the result of pulling the levers of surveillance capitalism itself rather than a "political bent".

Let's go a layer deeper

The above doesn't work when we take them at their word so we have dig in, rustling up the lil' freaky bits that they're pushing. Seeing Democrats and Republicans in lockstep usually indicates it's slam dunk legislation or the forces of big business have thoroughly lobbied this in the right direction.

Combining that with the usual suspect of anti-Asian racism, we've somehow landed into a broad consensus by lawmakers. Dunking on China has been an easy way to rile up the voter base but it's pretty clear to most that the Senate is just terrible at asking any useful questions about the risks presented by TikTok's ownership structure. Take Republican Senator Josh Hawley for example, badgering TikTok's Singaporean CEO, Shou Zi Chew. If there was a bit more than just asking in six ways if he's Chinese or bowing to the Chinese Communist Party, perhaps there'd be plausible deniability but these folks have to know better at a certain point.

There's also the obvious of a number of business magnates lining up with dollar signs in their eyes, hoping to purchase what is a very lucrative social media network at a discount rate due to needing to be divested within 180 days. ByteDance as a whole was considered "troubled" when it was valued at $223 billion. To take even a slice of that off of ByteDance in the form of the American version of TikTok opens to door to an awful lot of money coming in.

Every little ghoul was ready to try getting into the mix. Bobby Kotick, disgraced ex-CEO of Activision, was crawling out from under a rock, saying he was considering buying it with a group of partners. Former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also came out saying it's "a great business" and was interested in putting in a bid. They know ByteDance will never divest, risking to lose the remaining 80% of investors beyond their founders a boatload of money by doing so. They're just jostling for first in line for whatever comes next, hoping to state their visionary bonafides for further investments.

The darker side of this is that this telegraphs as a First Amendment issue. Stripping away the platform leaves a lot millennials and younger with one less unvarnished source of videos. Is that to say TikTok is without fault? Of course not. Every social media platform is rife with a mix of bullshit, misinformation and flat out disinformation. If I had it my way, we'd probably regulate the algorithms that feed you content, using dark patterns developed by designers and psychologists to keep you inside the app. But I'm not an elected leader and probably won't ever be so fortunate. The legislation itself props up a process for the President designating any future platforms as a "national security risk", requiring the same divestment within 180 days. Even if Joe Biden may try playing within the guard rails of the American levers of power, I'm not so sure that I'd trust him with that power, let alone those who come after him.

To put a better point on it, let's look at some particularly concerning statements during the push to ban TikTok. With the Israeli war machine churning in Gaza, we've seen Israeli surrogates like the ADL's director, Jonathan Greenblatt, saying on a Zoom call that we have a "TikTok problem", a "GenZ problem". The insinuation that the youth seeing the raw footage from the conditions on the ground in Gaza is somehow a problem. There's room for criticizing the content moderation of social networks or the number of misleading videos with false titles, driving confusion in what is already a confusing time. But this is par for the course with social media networks refusing to understand nuanced issues of racism, antisemitism and in particular, those outside the United States. Hell, we've even queued up celebrities to call for it to remove antisemitic content, something they already do.

I guess we'll have to wait and see what the Senate does. The signals are mixed with Republicans probably waiting to see which way the wind blows with Donald Trump previously being in support of a ban but recently flip-flopping to being against it with reports indicating that he's considering a deal for funding from one of ByteDance's American investors. Even more fun is that the Congressman responsible for raising the bill, Republican Representative Mike Gallagher, announcing that he'll be stepping down from the House come April to take a job with... Palantir, an American surveillance tech company.

Oh, how lovely American politics are when you can regulate an industry and then immediately jump into it. For now, that's the trash.

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