TikTok and the Dilemma of Social Media
In its simplest form the current drama surrounding TikTok, the wildly popular social media platform, centers on concerns over China's access to Americans' personal information and the nefarious things they would do with that information. The problem with simple answers is that they are rarely simple. Simplifying things makes selling or gaining support for an issue easier, absolves people from the need to think, and potentially hides more complicated reasons for a particular action. Frankly, when politicians express concern for the American people, I become suspicious. With some exceptions, politicians are primarily focused on getting reelected and making money from insider trading, illegal for most Americans but seemingly OK for senators and representatives. What is actually at play with efforts to ban TikTok? How much of a threat is TikTok? Will the proposed legislation actually address security concerns? Are there freedom of speech issues involved? Let's take a closer look.
First, I must admit that I am not a technology wiz or an expert on social media by any stretch of the imagination. I use most social media, including TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. But I do have significant counterintelligence experience and I am also very aware of how hostile intelligence organizations can use social media, having used it myself in the past to support intelligence operations. So I will be speaking from this experience.
China's Access to TikTok User Information
Much of the concern about TikTok is focused on the personal information TikTok collects from its users and that the Chinese government can gain access to that information. Regarding the personal information collected by TikTok, it is the same as the information that most social media platforms collect, including Facebook, Instagram, etc. TikTok does not collect information unique to it. Concerns that China could gain access to that information and use it for its own purposes are valid. China has a variety of national security laws that basically compel Chinese companies to cooperate with the government on a variety of intelligence and national security issues. While TikTok is based in the US, its parent company, ByteDance, is based in China and is a Chinese company, thus subject to Chinese national security laws.
As a former intelligence professional, access to an individual's social media is a gold mine of information that can be used to recruit someone to commit espionage. Any youthful indiscretion, controversial statements or actions, information on friends, family, and political leanings, all can be used to develop a comprehensive profile of a person. Chinese access to that information would greatly benefit Chinese intelligence in their efforts to recruit sources and steal technology. But there is a problem with this logic. As I noted above, other social media platforms collect the same information and that information is widely available. How many news stories have we seen that uncovered bad past behavior of some politicians? Their Gridr account as they attack the LGBTQIA+ community? Photos from college in blackface or drag? Regardless of TikTok, that information is out there and readily available. Once on the internet, always on the internet. China does not need TikTok to access personal information, and banning TikTok won't remove the threat to Americans' privacy. As long as people continue to post stupid stuff on the internet, it will be available for anyone to see.
Furthermore, companies like Facebook sell the personal information they collect. It earns them money and for these companies, that beats national security. China and other malign players can either buy the information directly or through third-party cutouts. If the legislation does not deal with that problem, banning TikTok will not make us more secure nor deny China access to our information.
China Spreading Propaganda Through TikTok
Another concern raised about TikTok is the potential for it to be used to shape public discourse. This means that China, through TikTok, can spread propaganda, stifle ideas and information that goes against Chinese policy, and influence US elections. This is again a legitimate concern, but like previous concerns, banning TikTok does not address the problem. The last two election cycles, 2016 and 2020, demonstrated a huge effort by foreign players to spread disinformation and work toward influencing US voters. The US identified several facilities, bot farms, staffed by intelligence officers, usually Russian military intelligence (GRU), who spent 24/7 feeding disinformation. The problem is that this was not done through TikTok but principally through Facebook and Twitter. Banning TikTok will not address disinformation. Yes, China can use TikTok to push its agenda but without TikTok, it will push its messages through US-owned social media nonetheless.
If the purpose is to combat disinformation and foreign propaganda, then much broader action must be taken. Closing a hypothetical door, TikTok, while leaving the existing problem, Facebook, etc., does not deal with the issue. I acknowledge that there are first amendment issues involved in broader legislation but it is still worth a look.
TikTok: A Potential Threat Rather Than an Existing Threat
To allay potential fears, just about every serious person involved with the TikTok drama has acknowledged that there is no ongoing threat from TikTok based on the above issues. There have been multiple reviews and inspections of TikTok, including, I believe, access to their servers and programs, by various independent groups and all have reached the conclusion that none of the concerns are taking place. The concerns rest on the potential threat TikTok presents. This should not be discounted. Why wait until the danger is real when you can deal with it before it becomes a problem? This is a sound policy. But, again I would caution that without a comprehensive effort on social media, we will not have a real impact on the issues that are of concern.
The Economics of TikTok
Given that at the heart of this we are talking about a business, let's follow the money, or at least potential money, and who gains from banning TikTok. Based on reporting from a variety of news sources including The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, both sides of the political spectrum, TikTok has been eating Meta's lunch, as well as other social media platforms. For those who don't recognize Meta, it is the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, headed by Mark Zuckerberg. TikTok has been beating other social media with its algorithm that keeps people hooked on the app. As early as 2020, Zuckerberg was highlighting the threat TikTok posed because of its ties to ByteDance and China. Meta hired a Republican consulting firm to set up an anti-TikTok campaign and it has been working Congress very hard.
Since the Congressional hearings on TikTok near the end of March 2023, Meta's stock has gone up, a sure sign that the potential ban of TikTok is having a positive effect for Zuckerberg. A total ban on TikTok would leave Zuckerberg's Instagram as the major player in short-term videos, with millions of TikTok users moving over to Instagram. Have Meta's influence campaign and political donations had an impact on the push to ban TikTok? Hell yes! It's how politics works in America.
Freedom of Speech and the TikTok Ban
Some people have raised concerns regarding freedom of speech and how the ban on TikTok would violate people's said freedom. I leave that to legal scholars but it doesn't strike me as an infringement of freedom of speech, yet. The government is not restricting what you can say, just eliminating one platform. People can switch to another platform and say what they want, within reason. I think some people are complaining because they are making money from TikTok, which is apparently more generous than Meta platforms. That is understandable, but not an attack on the first amendment. The problem will come with how the law is applied and modified in the future.
I read the law and it is vague and precise at the same time. There is some reassurance when the bill states that the purpose is "to authorize the Secretary of Commerce to review and prohibit certain transactions between persons in the United States and foreign adversaries, and for other purposes." That is the act, one sentence but with over 40 pages of details and definitions. The details are where issues can arise. Again, I am no lawyer so I would welcome legal commentary. The act is focused on "foreign adversaries" and describes what a foreign adversary is. It also lists those foreign adversaries by name: China, Russia, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela. The first concern that springs to mind is that our foreign adversaries are not limited to these six countries. These countries are highlighted but the Secretary of Commerce has the authority to declare a nation an adversary based on a less-than-detailed history of working against the US.
Furthermore, entities that can be banned include those with a partnership or joint venture. Again, I have to admit I am out of my area of expertise but at first blush, if you have some type of business relationship with China or Russia you can be banned. I could be wrong but this seems ripe for misuse. We are relying on having an administration that will not abuse its power. I am not confident this will be the case down the line. Given the performance of our elected officials during the TikTok hearings, I am sure they have no idea what this new law means nor the potential pitfalls.
Also of concern is that the proposed law is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Decisions about which social media entities can be penalized can be made in secret without the ability of the public knowing or understanding why it was done. That should be of concern to everyone.
The TikTok debate is a lot more complicated than our leadership is letting on. They are correct that something must be done to counter malign foreign efforts to target and influence Americans but I am not sure if this legislation does that. If banning TikTok is a response to China banning US social media platforms, then it would be a reasonable response on the part of the US, but they should state this and not give us a false sense of security. The problem is not TikTok itself but social media and how it lends itself to being used for all the wrong purposes. Banning TikTok as the sole effort will not hamper China one bit in its intelligence efforts against the US, nor should banning TikTok take the place of capitalist competition.