What Should We Do About TikTok?
I am aware that there's more than a little hypocrisy lurking behind this post. I'm on TikTok. I use it. I send TikToks to the Missus and she sends Instagram reels to me. We're the perfect portrait of a married couple with four kids in 21st-century America that way. I also am a proponent of Free Speech. I don't have the legal knowledge to say with any certainty what the Constitutional issues might be. Montana's statewide ban was knocked down on the grounds of prior restraint and a few other things I hadn't considered. A ban would probably amount to the government picking and choosing platforms which probably runs afoul of the 1st Amendment in some way. A Federal Ban might be different-- as national security concerns would come into play and I would imagine, you'd have to balance those out in a way that might not preclude a ban.
But who knows? There are, after all, other platforms available to folks (Instagram Reels are pretty close to the same thing, imo) and there are legitimate national security concerns that I think might outweigh any Constitutional arguments, but I feel like we have to do something about this.
It's not even the latest viral love affair with Osama Bin Laden's Letter to America- which, by the way, hasn't been hidden from the public at all-- it's been on the ODNI website this whole time and when in like the second sentence he starts ranting about Jewish control of capital and the markets, I didn't bother to read the rest. But this isn't the first frankly sketch thing that TikTok has flung up, either: remember when the youths were floating the idea that Helen Keller wasn't real? It's awash in frankly sketchy conversations about mental health and it apparently was giving teen girls tics.
Weirdly enough, part of the problem is actually the thing I like the most about it. The algorithm is easy to see and easier to manipulate. If you watch a video about food, for instance, suddenly your feed is full of videos about food. If they're topics you're interested in, that's okay if it pulls your feed down the rabbit hole. But if you key up on something not so benign (say, Osama Bin Laden or viral Hamas propaganda or pick your conspiracy theory) then suddenly it's not a nice happy rabbit hole you've fallen down, it's a sewer pipe of shit and it's on fire. I like the fact that you can actually manipulate your feed (or at least you're given the impression that you can) yourself to a certain degree. I dislike the fact that it's so easy to get trapped in conspiracy tin-foil tok. Of all the social media platforms I've seen, TikTok might be the easiest to get just about any topic to go viral on and do so at incredible speed. Some of that might be okay, but the downsides of that are becoming clearer and clearer.
While it's true that the majority of the parent company (60%) is controlled by non-Chinese investment groups- this article says 20% is held by the employees and 20% by the Founders, forgive me for not exactly trusting the Chinese government not to have an oar into everybody's user data on the app. They can protest all the like, but if they have access to it, they're going to use it. Maybe it's my elder millennial/xennial brain at work with leftover whisps of the Cold War, but there's not a snowball's chance in hell that we would have allowed the Soviet Union to have up to 40% control of a company that has this much influence of our discourse. It's insane and while I may not rant about Communist China as much as Republican Presidential candidates do, they are a geopolitical rival. They're going to act in their own self-interest the same as we would and their self-interest and our self-interest are two very different things.
The problem is that I remain skeptical of our own government getting too heavily involved in the internet. Part of that is probably naive on my part. Anytime you use the internet- but especially social media, you have to assume that someone is hoovering up your data. You have to assume that while the United States might not be as CCTV-happy as say, the United Kingdom, the government can still find out a lot about you if it wants to or if you give them a reason to and what they do with it may or may not be good. Making your peace with that lack of privacy is sort of the price you pay for social media or internet use in general. Some people I know have downgraded their social media presence over the years because they're not willing to pay that price or they're just tired of the time suck of it all, but here I remain... blogging.
So far, both Federal and State governments seem to be nibbling around the edges of an outright ban. 34 states have banned its use on state devices. Montana has an outright ban. The Feds took a run at the issue this past spring-- the Data Act would have banned selling non-public personal data to 3rd party buyers. The Restrict Act would have given the Secretary of Commerce authority to review business transactions (and other stuff) of companies tied to designated 'foreign adversaries.' Senator Hawley of Missouri took a run and introduced an outright ban, but so far all of these efforts have gone nowhere quickly. Primarily because the government can't help itself and once people start breaking down and peeking under amendments to find out what's in the fine print, they find out that people want to use this to give the government all kinds of fun powers. So while I'm not unsympathetic to the idea, asking me to trust Congress to just do one thing (divestment, ban, restriction, whatever) and not use it as an excuse to slip in a power grab on the sly also strikes me as equally insane.
(I don't know how much money TikTok pumps into the economy, but it has made people a good chunk of change, but the one law of social media that I absolutely believe in is to not have your eggs all in one basket. If I'm a serious player on TikTok, I'd be looking to diversify my platforms because if a ban does come down, it's going to screw some people.)
I never really brought into the arguments in 2016 that those poor, poor voters were deluded into voting for Donald Trump by social media lies internet manipulations, and astroturfing run from Moscow. Surely, individual agency and accountability have some bearing on people's choices in the voting booth? This had to be a political establishment trying to rationalize an electoral disaster without wanting to admit that a. One party had run a highly polarizing (fairly or unfairly, it's true) and bad candidate, and b. Done nothing tangibly to reverse the economic devastation throughout the Rust Belt, despite being given plenty of opportunities to do so. Screaming about racism and white supremacy doesn't hold water with me either-- some of these counties voted for Obama, twice and then turned around and voted for Trump. I may not know that much, but I know enough to know that racism doesn't work that way. To me, this was an electorate desperate for anything other than business as usual and by 2016 they got pissed off and voted for the Tangerine Arsonist to burn it all down and they might just do it again, but... I'm no longer certain that individual agency matters more.
This clip is making the rounds today and I just have no words for it. There are people that actually believe some of this shit out there on the internet and it's a cross-ideological problem. Just look at how many people think the 2020 Election was stolen! Still! You can tune into one corner of the internet and hear about the ongoing War on Christmas (now entering its tenth year I'm sure) and people screaming about the Biden Crime Family-- (but suddenly Republicans don't want Hunter testifying in public? I wonder why).
That's the danger of TikTok, though. You can get dragged down truly toxic rabbit holes before you know what's happening and you can go all in before you know it and suddenly some unverified video with a source that's mysteriously blurred out will be convincing you that the Earth is flat, the frogs are gay and the wi-fi is microwaving your brain. The internet at large does all that to a certain degree to begin with- which is bad enough, but TikTok is like the internet on meth. You can be entertained for a while, but if you're not careful, you'll wind up with no teeth draining anhydrous from a tank in a field somewhere in the Boonies. Lies can now go around the world at the speed of the internet dozens of times before the truth can get its boots on (h/t Mark Twain) and it's no longer clear to me that anyone in charge is interested in the truth- just whichever versions of it serve whatever narrative matters in the current moment.
So what do we do?
It's going to get stupid because that's just how the government works these days. Any attempt by the Republicans to ban it outright will be seen as political, because the Zoomers are all about this app. But you can't take an outright ban off the table either-- other countries have banned it, so why not us? Option two would be to nationalize or force a divestment-- get the Chinese component out of the picture. That might be more palatable, but whoever takes over would have to prove that the Chinese government and China are well and truly out of the picture. (Also: Musk brought the wrong social media platform. Prove me wrong.) The last idea is probably the most interesting one of all and it just kind of floated by me on Twitter: ban social media apps for phones.
Think about that for a second. It's kind of brilliant if you think about it-- it would solve any number of issues and probably increase societal productivity as a whole. But the way these companies get you is by the ability to endlessly scroll for hours at a time. If you force people to get on a laptop to do that, it just won't work the same way. People use social media differently on their phones and desktops. It would be a fascinating thing to consider and one that gets around the uneasiness of banning an entire platform quite easily. We'd all be better off if that third option was the one they took.
But in the meantime, I guess we'll just have to keep on scrolling.