TikTok may be more dangerous than it looks

At the heart of Elon Musk’s enthusiastic interest in Twitter’s acquisition is the intuition I think is right. Major social media platforms are indispensable to modern life in a way that is difficult to define. We call them town squares. We call them infrastructure. They exist in areas of hell between utilities and private interests. They are too important to outsource to millionaires and businesses, but they are too dangerous to hand over to the government. No satisfactory answer has yet been found for their ownership and governance issues. But some arrangements are more worrisome than others. It has a worse fate than musk.

TikTok, as we know it today, is only a few years old. But that growth is something we have never seen before. In 2021, there were more active users than Twitter, more total US views than YouTube, more app downloads than Facebook, and more visits to the site than Google. The app is best known for viral dance trends, but there was a time when Twitter was a 140-character update for lunch orders and Facebook was restricted to elite colleges. Things will change. Perhaps they have already changed. A few weeks ago, I gave a lecture at a Presbyterian University in South Carolina and asked some students where they wanted to get their news. Almost everyone said Tik Tok.

TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. And Chinese companies are vulnerable to the whims and will of the Chinese government. There is no possibility of ambiguity in this regard. The Chinese Communist Party spent most of last year cracking down on the tech sector. They made a special case from Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba’s high-flying vehicle. The message was unmistakable. CEOs will either act according to the party’s wishes or see their lives disrupted and the company demolished.

In August 2020, President Donald Trump signed a presidential directive claiming that TikTok would sell to a US company or be banned in the United States. By the fall, ByteDance was looking for buyers, Oracle and Walmart were the most promising suitors, but Joe Biden won the election and the sale was shelved.

In June, Biden replaced Trump’s presidential directive, which was successfully filed in court with sloppy writing, with his own. The problem, as defined by Biden’s directives, is that apps like TikTok can access and capture vast amounts of information from users, such as personal information about Americans and proprietary business information. May provide foreign enemies with access to that information. “

Let’s call this the data espionage problem. Apps like TikTok collect data from users. That data may be valuable to foreign governments. Therefore, the Army and Navy have banned TikTok from soldiers’ work phones, and Senator Josh Hawley has drafted a bill banning TikTok in all government agencies.

TikTok is working on the answer “Project Texas”. The plan is to host data for US customers on US servers and somehow restrict access by the parent company. However, as Emily Baker-White of BuzzFeed News wrote in an excellent report, “Project Texas seems to be primarily a geography exercise, which means that the Chinese government has access to American personal information. Seems to be suitable for addressing concerns about It doesn’t mention other ways China can use the platform as a weapon. “

Let’s call this an operational problem. The true power of TikTok does not exceed our data. It goes beyond what users see and create. Controlling what is displayed and what is not is beyond the opaque algorithm.

TikTok is full of videos supporting the Russian story of the war in Ukraine. For example, Media Matters tracked a clearly coordinated campaign promoted by 186 Russian TikTok influencers who posted beauty tips, prank videos, and fluff. And we know that China is expanding Russia’s propaganda around the world. How comfortable are we with not knowing if the Chinese Communist Party has decided to consider how the algorithm handles these videos? How comfortable will we be in a similar situation in five years when TikTok becomes more entrenched in American life and has the freedom that the company may not feel like operating today? ??

Imagine a world where the United States is challenging the presidential election, such as 2020 (not to mention 2000). If a candidate is friendly to China’s interests, will the Chinese Communist Party claim that ByteDance will give nudge to the content that favors the candidate? Or, if they want to undermine America rather than shape the results, TikTok will start offering more and more videos in election plots, confusing the moment the country is about to break.

None of this is exaggerated. We know that TikTok’s content moderation guidelines strictly limit videos and topics at the request of the Chinese government, but the rules have changed since then. We know that other foreign countries (Russia comes to mind) are using American social networks to promote division and suspicion.

China has shown that it sees such dangers as obvious enough to build a firewall internally. They ban Facebook, Google, Twitter and, of course, TikTok. ByteDance had to manage another version of the app called Douyin for Chinese viewers who follow Chinese censorship rules. China has long regarded these platforms as potential weapons. Not too far to suspect that they may do to us what we were always afraid to do to them as China’s authoritarian shift continued and relations between the two countries deteriorated. is not.

“There is no perfect analogy, but the closest analogy is to imagine if the Soviet Union during the Brezhnev era decided to use some of the profits of oil exports to buy a national broadcast television station,” my ex. Colleague Matthew Iglesias wrote in his newsletter, Slow Boring. “The FCC would not have allowed them. And if the FCC allowed them for any reason, the Commerce would have blocked it. Also, the Commerce was wrong and the management of the information ecosystem was wrong. Parliament would have passed a new law if there were judges who did not meet the relevant national security standards. “

As the analogy progresses, I think it’s a good starting point. But if the Soviet Union acquired local television stations across the country, we would know they did it, and what those stations were and what they were trying to do. I have an understanding. .. Propaganda is known as propaganda.

TikTok’s billion users most likely don’t think they’re considering a Chinese government promotion. They watch makeup tutorials and recipes, lip-sync videos and funny dances. But once it is deployed, it will be a stronger advertising outlet. Also, each TikTok feed is different, so there’s no real way to know what people are looking at. It’s easy to use it to shape or distort public opinion, and you can do it quietly, perhaps untraceable.

In all of these, it’s not easy to apply, but I suggest a simple principle. Our collective attention is important. The person who controls our attention (or whatever) controls, for the most part, our future. Social media platforms that attract and shape our attention need to be governed for the public good. That means knowing who is actually doing them and how they are doing them.

Currently, I don’t know which social network owner is clearing the bar. But I’m sure ByteDance isn’t. In this regard, Donald Trump was right, and the Biden administration should finish what he started.

This article was originally New York Times.. TikTok may be more dangerous than it looks

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