On March 23, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. TikTok is a China-owned video-sharing app with 150 million American users. Chew is a 40-year-old Singaporean entrepreneur. He holds degrees from University College London and the Harvard Business School and has held his current job for close to two years. His testimony on Capitol Hill lasted about five hours. It was not a pleasant experience.
Chew was outnumbered. On the matter of TikTok, there is little difference between Republicans and Democrats. Members of both parties are eager to demonstrate the newfound, if fragile, bipartisan consensus on China. They called Chew’s sincerity into question. They said that his company is a danger to the United States.
And they appeared ready to act. Either ByteDance, its owner, will sell the company to a U.S. firm, the thinking goes, or Congress will authorize the Biden admin-istration to ban it altogether. “You have unified Republicans and Democrats,” Representative August Pfluger, a second-term Republican from Texas, told Chew. “And, if only for a day, we’re actually unified because we have serious concerns.”
Here are a few. TikTok is a threat not just because it feeds America’s young people—most of its users are below the age of 35—a toxic diet of unrealistic body images, silly stunts, and twerking. The threat is geopolitical. TikTok and ByteDance are deeply enmeshed in the power structure of the Chinese Communist Party. China’s authoritarian regime has access to TikTok’s data—turning a mobile-phone application into a tool of mass surveillance.
ByteDance personnel, for example, have tracked Western journalists with TikTok. When asked about this incident at the congressional hearing, Chew replied, “I don’t think that ‘spying’ is the right way to describe it.” What verb would he prefer—snooping?
A spy balloon in every pocket is alarming. Yet the algorithm behind TikTok’s “For You” feature also could be used on offense, as a means of information warfare. Officials in Beijing could manipulate the algorithm to try and influence U.S. public opinion according to the Chinese Communist Party line.
In 2019, for instance, TikTok blocked an American teenager for highlighting the repression of China’s Uyghur minority. (The account was later reinstated.) Last year, former employees of TopBuzz, another ByteDance property, said their company had pushed pro–Chinese Communist Party content to its users while downplaying negative material. ByteDance denied the accusation. What it cannot disavow is the hierarchy in China that gives the Communist Party ultimate authority.
When he appeared before Congress, for example, Chew had four opportunities to acknowledge Communist persecution of the Uyghurs. He declined each one. Nury Turkel, a Uyghur American who chairs the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, put the matter bluntly. “ByteDance has a strategic partnership with the Chinese Ministry of Public Security,” he said. “That is part of their business conduct. This is what they do.”
Americans understand the peril. A March poll from the Pew Research Center found that half of U.S. adults support a government ban of TikTok. Twenty-two percent of adults are opposed. It is true that 56 percent of TikTok users are against a ban. The number is unsurprising. It may also be the result of ignorance. These are teenagers we’re talking about. Many users are unaware of who owns TikTok and ByteDance. They have no idea what happens when someone loads the app.
Consider: 53 percent of adults who don’t know that TikTok’s parent company is based in China oppose a ban. Of those who do know TikTok’s origins, however, 60 percent support a ban. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is on firm political ground when he says that the House of Representatives will advance legislation to “protect Americans from the technological tentacles of the Chinese Communist Party.” Americans don’t want China to have a technological advantage.
Most Americans, anyway.
Around the time of Shou Zi Chew’s visit to Washington, D.C., a coalition of the socialist left and paranoid right sprang to TikTok’s defense. First out of the gate was Democratic Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York, who held a March 20 press conference alongside TikTok creators. Bowman said that Republicans want to ban TikTok because they “ain’t got no swag.”
It went downhill from there. Opposing TikTok, Bowman said, is “racist toward China” and part of a xenophobic “Red Scare.” TikTok, he concluded, “poses about the same threat that companies like Facebook and Instagram and YouTube and Twitter pose.”
This false equivalence was breathtaking. None of the American social-media platforms Bowman mentioned is a Chinese company with ties to the Communist Party. Indeed, if Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter are a “threat,” the threat is to the Chinese government. We know this because China blocks them. Why, then, should the United States allow Chinese apps to gather data on Americans when U.S. firms are forbidden from China?
Bowman is not the only Democrat who worries that banning TikTok will alienate one of the party’s core constituencies: the progressive youth vote. He’s just the most vulgar. There are 32 congressmen with TikTok accounts. They belong to the Democratic caucus. President Biden won’t allow federal government employees to use TikTok, but he has invited TikTok personalities into the White House. TikTok hired Biden senior adviser Anita Dunn’s consultancy, SKD Knickerbocker, to run its public-relations campaign.
In a March 1 interview with Bloomberg News, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said she was leery of shutting down TikTok, because “the politician in me thinks you’re gonna literally lose every voter under 35, forever.” Maybe the patriot in Raimondo could point out that every voter under 35 is gonna literally lose wealth, opportunity, and perhaps their lives in a Chinese-led world order?
A TikTok ban, said Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, “just doesn’t feel right.” Such an “unprecedented” move gives off bad vibes. After all, “the United States has never before banned a social media company from existence, from operating in our borders.” True enough. But TikTok is no ordinary social-media company. It is a tech giant aligned with the Chinese Communist Party, and the United States has sanctioned or banned plenty of those strange beasts. Americans can’t use Huawei or ZTE, for starters, because of the national-security risk. TikTok poses a similar hazard.
The opponents of banning TikTok, like Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez, tend to be unserious about foreign policy. Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota also supports TikTok, because, she says, “I don’t like censorship.” Her claim is absurd. Banning TikTok wouldn’t impinge on individual speech. No one would be censored. TikTok users could still speak freely, and briefly. They would just have to do so on a different platform. One without ties to an American adversary.
There’s no better case of the “horseshoe theory” of politics—where left and right bend toward each other at the extremes—than TikTok. The Democratic Socialist Squad is predisposed to blame America first. The paranoid right sees the Deep State everywhere. Antiwar Republican senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, like Ilhan Omar, is against a ban on censorship grounds. He neglects to mention that his most generous supporter, investor Jeff Yass, happens to be the largest U.S. investor in ByteDance. (Paul denies any connection.)
In a rambling monologue, Fox News Channel host Tucker Carlson took the side of Ocasio-Cortez, despite calling her “a tool of the national-security state,” because one of the bipartisan proposals that would allow Biden to ban TikTok “is about introducing flat-out totalitarianism into our system.”
Someone needs to take a chill pill. Biden probably has the authority he needs to ban TikTok. If not, there is alternative legislation that should allay Carlson’s worries. The “totalitarianism” is in our system already, in the form of TikTok. And the American mainstream wants to do the responsible thing: root it out.
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