18 August 2020

Stratechery: “The TikTok War”

The point, though, is not just censorship, but its inverse: propaganda. TikTok’s algorithm, unmoored from the constraints of your social network or professional content creators, is free to promote whatever videos it likes, without anyone knowing the difference. TikTok could promote a particular candidate or a particular issue in a particular geography, without anyone — except perhaps the candidate, now indebted to a Chinese company — knowing. You may be skeptical this might happen, but again, China has already demonstrated a willingness to censor speech on a platform banned in China; how much of a leap is it to think that a Party committed to ideological dominance will forever leave a route directly into the hearts and minds of millions of Americans untouched?

Again, this is where it is worth taking China seriously: the Party has shown through its actions, particularly building and maintaining the Great Firewall at tremendous expense, that it believes in the power of information and ideas. Countless speeches, from Chairman Xi and others, have stated that the Party believes it is in an ideological war with liberalism generally and the U.S. specifically. If we are to give China’s leaders the respect of believing what they say, instead of projecting our own beliefs for no reason other than our own solipsism, how can we take that chance?

Ben Thompson

Formidable article about one of the more important stories in tech and politics right now, the debate around banning TikTok in the U.S. It is certainly a complicated matter with multiple repercussions on other fronts, and you can consider it from several points of view.

It is certainly possible that Donald Trump is doing a right thing for all the wrong reasons (and in the wrong ways). Some have speculated that he is fixated on banning the app because a coordinated effort by teenagers on TikTok messed with attendance at his rally in Tulsa this June. I think it is more likely that he is using this issue to once again distract the public from his countless misdeeds and catastrophic handling of the pandemic. As with the Huawei ban, it may be that Trump will change his mind and walk back on his current threats and demands, as he has already done by shifting the deadline for a sale from 45 to 90 days.

It is at the same time possible to argue that the US Congress has ceded too much power to the President to handle this sort of matters. Other were quick to label a TikTok ban an infringement on the First Amendment, which I find a terribly obtuse argument. Americans seem to put too much trust in a Constitution written two and a half centuries ago and too little in their own judgment of current affairs. Fetishizing the Constitution caused their paralysis around gun control, and invoking the First Amendment is the right’s favorite tool to prevent social platforms from regulating hate speech, so I cannot take this argument seriously, especially while there are multiple other similar apps available.

Nothing can be more laughable than the ‘racism’ argument, considering China has banned US companies for decades – did any of these social justice warriors critiqued China for being racist? It is easy to criticize a democratic government in a free society, and quite another to do so inside an oppressive regime. This asymmetry is lost on too many people unfortunately, who conflate the data collection from social networks and advertisers in the West with the massive surveillance and propaganda performed by the Chinese government. The US should definitely set up better data protection regulations, the EU should more swiftly enforce GDPR – but that does not excuse allowing a foreign government complete access to citizens, especially one so overtly adversarial as China. TikTok was caught multiple times gathering data in illegal or questionable waysincluding childrencensoring content unfavorable to Chinese interests and spreading conspiracy theories – and the bigger issue is that we cannot trust any of their reassurances so long as the company is within the reach of the Chinese government.

Another aspect of this conundrum is related to antitrust and protectionism. Right now, TikTok is competing with Facebook for teenager attention; banning the app is likely to help Facebook in the short term, boosting its recent clone Reels. Even a purchase by Microsoft, who is probably not that interested in operating a teen social app, could slow down TikTok’s impact, allowing Facebook to get ahead in Western markets.

An US ban could have long term consequences for other global companies, accelerating a trend towards data localization and tighter controls on foreign social media. India was the first to take a shot at Chinese-operated apps – not surprising considering its recent slide towards authoritarianism – and Mark Zuckerberg is already concerned that this precedent may be used against Facebook at some point in the future. Even in the absence of full bans, Facebook’s operations could become increasingly complicated if countries imposed different, conflicting rules around speech, data, and privacy. If US antitrust action does not break up social media, it may still suffer regional soft breakups caused by regulatory constraints. It will be interesting to see if European regulators will take measures against TikTok; the company recently promised to set up its first data center in Ireland (where all privacy complaints go to die).

This is, without question, a prescription I don’t come to lightly. Perhaps the most powerful argument against taking any sort of action is that we aren’t China, and isn’t blocking TikTok something that China would do? Well yes, we know that is what they would do, because the Chinese government has blocked U.S. social networks for years. Wars, though, are fought not because we lust for battle, but because we pray for peace. If China is on the offensive against liberalism not only within its borders but within ours, it is in liberalism’s interest to cut off a vector that has taken root precisely because it is so brilliantly engineered to give humans exactly what they want.

Ben Thompson

I fully agree with the conclusion of Ben’s article. My only concern is that, should Donald Trump loose the upcoming election, the new Democratic administration will fail to act on this, partly because they will have massive and more pressing problems to solve first (the pandemic, US healthcare, the budget deficit, climate change, to name only a couple), partly because of the perception that it was one of Trump’s crazy ideas and must be abandoned with haste.

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