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After the Bell: Is TikTok a danger to the US, or merely a vehicle for cat pictures?

After the Bell: Is TikTok a danger to the US, or merely a vehicle for cat pictures?
(Photo: EPA-EFE / Allison Dinner)

The issue arises because, incredibly, the one thing that both major political parties in the US appear to agree on in this day and age is not global warming, inequality or immigration, it’s that the Chinese owner of TikTok, ByteDance, must sell its US business to a US company.

For a tech app designed to optimise your enjoyment of a person rollerblading while listening to a Fleetwood Mac song, TikTok does raise some large and complicated questions. And, as Daily Maverick columnist Steven Boykey Sidley points out, it hinges on whether your preferred dystopia is Orwellian or Huxleyian.

“What?!” I hear you ask, “How did you get there?” Let me see if I can tease out some of the issues. There are two essential questions:

  • Is TikTok really a danger, even a potential danger, to democracy?
  • Will banning TikTok overshadow the danger, because essentially you would be attacking freedom of speech?

The issue arises because, incredibly, the one thing that both major political parties in the US appear to agree on in this day and age is not global warming, inequality or immigration, it’s that the Chinese owner of TikTok, ByteDance, must sell its US business to a US company. The vote in the House of Representatives was 362-65 and the legislation now goes to the Senate; given those numbers, it’s a shoo-in. Hello, brave new world.

What are Americans afraid of and should South Africans, for example, join them in worry and, as Indians have already done, ban TikTok? TikTok is now the social media site of choice for the US’s teens and young adults. The FBI and US intelligence agencies are worried about everything, from China obtaining Americans’ personal data to using the app’s algorithm to help spread disinformation and meddle in US elections.

Is that a realistic danger? The easy answer might be, “No, TikTok is a vehicle for cat pictures.” But the problem is that the Chinese in 2017 passed the National Intelligence Law, which stated that all Chinese organisations and citizens should “support, assist and cooperate” with the country’s intelligence efforts.

There is no clear line between the state and society in China in the same way there is in democratic countries. This law does have caveats, notionally there to protect private companies, but ultimately all Chinese companies are partners to the Chinese state.

US politicians are concerned that ByteDance could be forced to hand over data concerning the private lives of Americans. TikTok has denied that it can do this, but recently leaked files of I-Soon, a Chinese hacking company, revealed that public-private collusion in data sharing is common in China.

Just by the way, the other charge against TikTok — that it holds an excessive amount of private data about its users — is questionable, since several studies have found it holds no more data than do Facebook or Google. But that doesn’t make it less scary given that TikTok (and the others) have data on your location, what device you are using and what other apps you have on your device. And of course, what you have been watching.

That might not sound like much, but imagine what you can do with that. With matched location data, you know who people are meeting. You can find out their habits, weaknesses, desires, health issues, political affiliation and myriad other preferences.

There is an actual case to test this because, in 2022, ByteDance admitted that several of its Beijing-based employees accessed the data of at least two journalists in the US and UK to track their locations and check whether they were meeting TikTok employees suspected of leaking information to the media. The company now says those employees were dismissed.

Harsh new security laws

To see the hard face of China, you only have to look at the new security laws which Hong Kong has passed, which impose life imprisonment for treason and increase the penalties for sedition. We in SA know all about security legislation; it is almost guaranteed that ambitious bureaucrats and security forces are going to go overboard. They always do.

So there is the Orwellian dystopia for you. It’s very easy to recognise; it’s the Soviet Union circa the 1950s or North Korea circa now. In a blog, the writer Prabhu Pant makes the point that for Orwell, humanity was facing a permanent state of war and totalitarian mind-control, summed up by the image of “a boot stamping on a human face, forever”.

But Huxley’s Brave New World describes an alternative nightmare society where everybody is perfectly happy all the time. This is assured by destroying the free will of most of the population using genetic engineering and Pavlovian conditioning, keeping everybody entertained with endless distractions, and offering a plentiful supply of the wonder drug Soma to keep people contented if all else fails, he writes.

Now doesn’t that strike you as a more appropriate dystopia to apply to the TikTok dilemma? Humanity facing a future world tranquillised by pleasure and drugs and the voluntary distractions of “civilised infantilisation”, Pant writes.

So, oddly, from whichever version of dystopia you prefer, TikTok is the villain of the piece. But wouldn’t banning TikTok be akin to taking on the mantle of the beast itself? My guess is that this is why US politicians are insisting that TikTok be sold to a US company, because the US Supreme Court could come to that embarrassing conclusion.

But the problem with trying to escape this dilemma in this fashion is that it raises another question, namely national competition and protectionism. TikTok is massively popular, but since all the other social media platforms are American, forcing TikTok to be American-owned too seems like rather petty jealousy and not national security.

The danger is not so much for TikTok — I’m sure it would flourish as an American company — but that forced corporate nationalism is anti-competitive and consequently, most economists would be critical of it as potentially a growth-diminishing tendency, an argument I would applaud. Imagine if the EU, for example, decided that Meta should be sold to a European company.

My ten cents’ worth is that although it’s a tough call, the decision to force the sale of TikTok is wrong. It’s not doing sufficiently more damage than its competitors to warrant such a drastic step that could have big unintended consequences. I realise the US political class is not going to immediately fall in line with my opinion, but as Huxley might have said, when you stop making a choice, you stop being a person. DM

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  • Colin K says:

    The dystopia options seem quite apt and it looks the “Western” or liberal democratic world has opted for Huxley – social media takeover, Political Correctness on steroids, people thinking they have a right not to have their feelings hurt; versus the autocratic or authoritarian bloc of the world which has opted for Orwell – social credit scores, surveillance on steroids and people not being individuals but components of the state.

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