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Is it tic-tac-toe time for TikTok?

Mar 22, 2024

"The world is increasingly dancing to algorithmic tunes."

The lively debate about TikTok and its future in the U.S. market has all kinds of people arguing all kinds of things, with “Pollyannas” and “paranoids” locked in mortal combat. As is often the case in American politics, the “me-me-me” claims of high moral dudgeon obscure the nitty-gritty nuances of the issue at hand.

Nowhere is this more true than in the U.S. Congress where flag-waving, serving up lies like freedom fries, cloaking intentions, dog whistling to constituents and signaling antipathy for anything foreign is just another day on the Hill.

American politicians vent the way they do because adopting a patriotic pose wins votes and shores up vested domestic interests. It’s more about scoring points than finding a solution.

Nancy Pelosi resorted to creative alliteration to bolster her defense of the congressional bill, saying of the forced sale. “This is not an attempt to ban TikTok. It’s an attempt to make TikTok better. Tic-tac-toe. A winner.”

The congressional vote in favor of forcing a sale of TikTok is devised to avoid having to ban it, the optics of which are problematic for hardcore free speech fans. Lawmakers pose for the cameras, plead their points and fall over themselves with self-congratulatory kudos arguing for a ban that’s not a ban.

But legitimate technological issues get left on the House floor when righteous-sounding politicians turn the focus to the superiority of capitalist ownership, national boundaries and children’s internet habits.

What was absent was any acknowledgement of the comparable dangers inherent in American social networks, most especially Facebook, which, despite its own long record of unscrupulous practices and algorithmic news generation stands to benefit from a diminished TikTok. 

U.S. commentators tend to fall into two camps, one espousing the Paranoid View, which sees anything from China as bad, and the Pollyanna View, which sees the U.S. as such a good beacon for free speech that it is somehow magically immune from deleterious foreign influences.

Why? Because Americans are, well, different.

The necessary discussion about security measures was quickly hijacked by talk of high finance and ownership. Several U.S. billionaires have expressed an interest in owning a piece of the much-debated technology, presumably to harness it to their own purposes.

In the Pollyanna camp, there are paid defenders of Silicon valley, bright-eyed net evangelists, digital technology aficionados and free speech absolutists who cry “censorship” and “slippery slope” whenever a multi-billion dollar tech company faces regulation.

Defenders of TikTok claim with some credibility that much of the content on TikTok is literally kid’s stuff and not exactly a trove of valuable data. There’s a weakness to that argument, though, because big data and metadata work in insidious ways, but even leaving aside data harvesting, it’s the algorithms.

Who’s next? Elon Musk and his beloved X, the site formerly known as Twitter?

Prominent among the “don’t tread on me” crowd is Rand Paul, who is consistent enough in his claims to be a Libertarian that it’s not necessarily about money, not that he is adverse to taking money. Arch-conservative billionaire Jess Yass, who already owns a 15-billion dollar stake in TikTok has reportedly provided about 83% of all the money taken in by Rand Paul’s super PACs.

Freelance free speech defenders such as Kaiser Kuo, an American commentator who formerly worked at Baidu in Beijing, argue that America is making a big fuss about nothing. We are witnessing a nationalistic hissy fit born of insecurity.

“Jesus this moral panic is going to look so embarrassingly stupid a decade from now. Have a little f*cking confidence in openness, pluralism, and the First Amendment for chrissakes,”  Kuo tweeted on March 13.

Project Texas is a billion-dollar effort to assuage both Pollyannas and Paranoids. It’s a costly compromise designed to preserve Chinese ownership of TikTok while offering strict restraints on data harvesting, with Oracle assigned to oversee U.S. onshore data security. But it doesn’t adequately address the “secret sauce” of TikTok which is the algorithm driving user content.

It’s the programmable hidden hand that causes some things to go viral and others to get suppressed that makes TikTok a Trojan horse of influence.

Defenders of Project Texas argue, if TikTok is so influential, why hasn’t it resulted in China becoming more popular in the U.S.?

Again, it’s a case of Pollyannas missing the point. Dezinformatsiya, famously pioneered by Russia but far from absent in the toolbox of dirty tricks used by all major powers, is not about popularity. It’s about the stealthy release of facts and fictions that sow discord and deepen division in a target population. It’s about weakening and humiliating the other guy, not necessarily bolstering the home team.

The ownership issue is a red herring. It’s a way for America’s deceptive politicians, self-styled defenders of free speech and ardent foes of censorship, to have their cake and eat it too.

It allows the billionaire class to take one for the team in the guise of domestic ownership, while failing to address the security issues common to all big platforms.

The Chinese government recognized before many Americans did that Facebook, Google and other big Silicon Valley firms are not anybody’s friend. Despite Hillary Clinton’s outreach to make the world safe for Facebook, China declined. And by the same logic, and same concerns about infiltration, the U.S. has the sovereign right to decline TikTok.

“Whether you estimate the risks to be dire or mundane, it is a sign of dysfunction that the House and the Biden administration find this ownership proxy appealing, rather than developing legislation or other means to focus on the risks themselves,” argues Graham Webster, a research scholar at Stanford.

Yaqiu Wang, research director at Freedom House writes that TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is vulnerable to pressure from Beijing. She cites the risk of “TikTok being exploited …to shape the information environment in the United States in the event of a national crisis or a seismic international event.”

Aynne Kokas, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia also surveyed by ChinaFile adds this: “TikTok is the only current major U.S. social media app whose algorithm is subject to export approval by the Chinese government and whose parent company is subject to Chinese national security data audits.”

It’s not all pro-China and anti-China, though.

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich poses and answers a potent question, and in doing so bells the cat on a contentious topic.

“Whom do you trust more with TikTok,” he asks rhetorically. “China, or American billionaires?”

He says he distrusts both. That’s why, he argues, Congress needs a new approach instead of pursuing the distracting fight over ownership to solve the issue.

“America’s billionaires aren’t in a global race with the United States for world dominance. But they’re in a race with the rest of America to dominate the United States,” Reich argues. “The real issue here isn’t whether China or some American billionaire should own these platforms. It’s how to make them publicly responsible, regardless of who owns them.”

Reich’s approach finds support among tech experts willing to look past nationalistic impulses.

“The problem with TikTok isn’t related to their ownership; it’s a problem of surveillance capitalism and it’s true of all social media companies,” said Bruce Schneier, a computer security expert interviewed by The Intercept. “In 2016 Russia did this with Facebook and they didn’t have to own Facebook — they just bought ads like everybody else.”

Julian Ku from Hofstra Law School debunks the Pollyanna argument about reducing the issue to free speech, acknowledging it is superficially appealing but wrong. “For well over one hundred years, U.S. law has blocked foreign (not just Chinese) control of certain crucial U.S. electronic media. The Protect Act fits comfortably within this long tradition.”

There’s a cogent argument to be made in favor of transcending the divide between the pro- and anti-China crowd by keeping the focus on the technology, not the race or nationality of the owners.

“These social media platforms have become so large and powerful they should be treated as public utilities or common carriers,” says former Beltway insider Robert Reich, “and regulated in the public interest.”

The problem isn’t the relative goodness or badness of the U.S. and China, it’s the brave new world of technology and big data and hidden surveillance. Google and Facebook and Microsoft and ByteDance, among others, have the world increasingly dancing to their tune, and it’s an algorithmically-generated one.

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