One of the newest stars in the social-media constellations is TikTok, a free video-sharing app that is very popular among young users. Ostensibly, you have to be at least 13 to join TikTok, but such age limits are notoriously easy to evade.
Like other social-media apps, the TikTok app has various ways of making money, including advertising, contests, and in-app purchases. It was the first non-Meta app (i.e. not Facebook or its ilk) to reach the threshold of three billion downloads worldwide, even with the handicap of being banned in India.
The reason India banned TikTok in 2019, only two years after it went global, was that an Indian court viewed it as a source of pornographic content and a medium likely to be used by sexual predators.
In 2020, the Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology issued a permanent ban, citing national security concerns. Although there have been efforts to ban TikTok in the US, they have been unsuccessful so far.
TikTok is a wholly-owned subsidiary of ByteDance, a company based in China. The US division of TikTok recently made the news when five executives resigned after facing interference by ByteDance into the US organisation’s internal workings. According to an article originally published in National Review, one executive complained:
“A lot of our guidance came from HQ, and we weren’t necessarily part of strategy building. … I don’t want to be told what to do.”
Coming after earlier reports of a leaked strategy document from ByteDance that ordered subsidiaries to “play down the China connection,” one wonders just how tight a rein ByteDance holds on its foreign TikTok operations.
Nothing major goes on in China without at least the passive acquiescence of the government. So we can be sure that Chinese government leaders are aware of what ByteDance is doing. This is one reason that the TikTok app itself is not available in China.
Instead, a modified version called Douyin is available there. But the leaked document urges PR people to respond to questions about Chinese control of TikTok by saying that “TikTok is not available in China.” It’s the truth, it’s nothing but the truth, but it’s not the whole truth.
The question of how much control a central ownership hub should exert over foreign subsidiaries is nothing new. Dodgy things were done during World War II with regard to American-owned properties in Nazi Germany, at least up to the point when Germany blocked American assets there once the US declared war on Germany.
The US isn’t at war with China. But one could be pardoned for wondering why China is exporting tons of fentanyl for illegal consumption in the US. Perhaps it’s in revenge for the Opium Wars, a sordid episode in the relationship between China and the West that forced China to open its doors to opium imported from British-colonised India in the 1800s. Whatever the reason, some people doubt that China has the best interests of the US at heart, and look with suspicion on the way ByteDance is consolidating control of TikTok in China.
Starting in the 1990s, globalising free trade became a worldwide goal and, just as Adam Smith would have predicted, raised the living standards of billions of people around the globe. Most of these were in the developing world, but Walmart wouldn’t be able to sell most of its stuff as cheaply as it does if it weren’t for China, so to that extent the US benefitted as well.
But lately, we are seeing a variety of ways in which the pernicious effects of social media are becoming increasingly obvious — in the toxicity of political discourse, in the soaring rates of depression and suicide among young people, and in the general distractedness of the US population.
A purely US version of TikTok might not be much better than the one we have, but the fact that its strings are being pulled by Chinese masters adds a sinister look to an already fraught situation.
If sovereignty means anything, it means that a sovereign government can control the kind of activities and commerce that foreign-owned and foreign-operated enterprises conduct. So as a theoretical matter, the US would be entirely in its rights to ban TikTok outright, as India in fact has. Yes, there would be a howl, but people would get over it. And probably something similar to TikTok would spring up overnight and try to evade the ban.
But that presumes a unity and coherence of action on the part of government which is notably absent today. As with everything else, a serious movement to ban TikTok would become politicised, with Republicans (probably) favouring it and Democrats (probably) opposing the ban on account of free speech, or possibly even just because the Republicans favor it and we’re opposed to whatever Republicans are in favour of. And then the outcome would depend on which party controls the levers of power, unless there is a stalemate.
That is the good old small-d democratic way, but social media itself has thrown numerous monkey wrenches in the formerly smooth operations of democratic governance. I have never viewed TikTok, but by its reputation it doesn’t seem that political. (I wouldn’t put it past the Beto for Texas Governor campaign to put an ad on it, though — he reportedly joined TikTok in March of 2020, just in time for COVID-19.)
I begin to wonder whether we are ever going to get back to the former compromising and horse-trading that went on when US politicians knew both how to condemn the other side in fiery speeches, and then join their opposite-aisle colleagues at the bar after work for a friendly chat about how to wrangle out legislation that would leave most parties at least partly satisfied. The current style of take-no-prisoners scorched-earth politics may make for entertaining sound bites, but it doesn’t get much done. Including banning TikTok, if in fact that is what we ought to do.
This article has been republished from the author’s blog, Engineering Ethics, with permission.