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Monday, June 10, 2024

TikTok’s time is running out, but why?

Is the looming ban an infringement on free speech or a national security necessity?


By JOAQUIN WATERS — jwat@ucdavis.edu


So. TikTok. For at least six years, if not going all the way back to its 2016 launch, it has been the most popular social media platform in the United States. It is a trendsetter, a ubiquitous outlet and a cultural phenomenon. And it might be off all our phones in nine months. 

For those who don’t know, the Senate and the White House have recently signed into law a controversial piece of legislation that gives ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of TikTok, nine months to sell TikTok to another company, with an additional three-month grace period should a sale be approved, or face the app’s removal in the United States. So far, ByteDance has shown no sign that it will sell — in fact, they are taking the bill to the Supreme Court to debate its legality, arguing that a United States ban would be an infringement on free speech. The truth of the matter? Well, in this author’s opinion, it’s a bit more complicated than an absolute one or the other.

Arguments in favor of banning the app in the United States all tend to lead back to potential national security concerns. TikTok does harvest huge swaths of user data — as does basically every social media platform of note, from Facebook to Instagram to X, the site formerly known as Twitter. The difference here is that those other platforms are American-based, while ByteDance (and by extension TikTok) is Chinese. The validity of these concerns continues to be heavily debated. After all, regarding data harvesting, it’s not as if the soulless lizard-people known as Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are inherently more trustworthy than a board of Chinese executives. That we trust the former over the latter, even subconsciously, contains more than a whiff of xenophobia. 

But this is not to say that there are no genuine concerns regarding ByteDance’s data harvesting. The Chinese government is notoriously far more restrictive than the United States with the foreign-based content they allow. Facebook, Instagram, X and even YouTube and Google, are all banned from Chinese app stores, only accessible through virtual private networks (VPNs), because, ironically, they do not comply with China’s restrictions on data sharing and types of content shared. Meanwhile, an article in the country’s National Intelligence Law requires Chinese corporations of all types to “assist and cooperate” with their intelligence agencies. Admittedly this is a fairly vague ask, but then governments historically get away with a heck of a lot through loopholes and vagaries. It is not unreasonable to question why they are so restrictive of foreign-based companies’ data sharing while so demanding of their own companies’ compliance.

With all that said, there is also a reasonable counterargument that states that the TikTok ban would be a stepping stone on the United States’ part toward the restrictiveness of governments like China’s. Would the ban give China a taste of its own medicine regarding app restriction, or would it be one further step on our own part down the slippery slope of fascism? It’s a tough question to answer because, while there are genuine concerns in what ByteDance does with our data, there are genuine concerns from our own companies as well. Data harvesting is the trade-off for all social media platforms. How many times have we paid glib lip service to our own implicit paranoia about data sharing by joking that “our algorithms are spying on us” or that “my CIA agent isn’t gonna find much interesting on my computer, LOL?” The simple truth of the matter is that we do not know what they — our government — know, either about Chinese intelligence agencies or American ones. It may well be that ByteDance is a foreign spy tool; it may well be that Meta or X are domestic spy tools; it may well be that this whole issue is born from xenophobic paranoia. We don’t know, and until we do, it’s near-impossible to definitively give an informed answer.

What we do know is that the impact of the TikTok ban (assuming it goes through) will be enormous, and not entirely positive. There are content creators who make their livelihoods through TikTok, either as a side hustle or because they have no other options. And whatever the behind-the-scenes truth of the matter is, TikTok has, at least partially, become an outlet for artistry and free speech in the United States. Dissenters might say that it has also become an outlet for propaganda, and that isn’t untrue, but so has any platform that allows for the dispersal of a wide range of opinions. The absence of TikTok from our app stores will be keenly felt, probably even more than its arrival there in 2016 was felt.

So the question remains: will ByteDance bite (no pun intended) and sell its most profitable platform, or is TikTok’s time in the U.S. nearly up? In this writer’s opinion, the latter is more likely. Let’s face it — more than an artistic outlet or a potential security tool, TikTok is a business, and its parent company will do whatever does the least damage to that business. While a ban in the U.S. would be a blow to that business, it would not be fatal; they get the majority of their income from China. And the other question remains as well: should this happen? Well, this was a long-winded way of saying “I don’t know.” We can’t know, because we have not been given all of the information to properly make that call, so we gravitate toward the uninformed opinion that best suits our worldview, be that xenophobic paranoia or defensiveness of a platform that has brought us joy. Whichever view we embrace is entirely in our hands, but in my view, ambiguity is the most truly informed opinion as the clock winds down. Tick, tock.


Written by: Joaquin Waters — jwat@ucdavis.edu 


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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