Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 14 March 2024



TikTok, the Clock Winds Down to Election Day


(7 min)

Donald Trump in Clinton, Iowa, Jan. 6, and Joe Biden in Rehoboth Beach, Del., Nov. 4, 2023. Photo: tannen maurybrendan smialowski/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The heartening story this week was the House vote to force TikTok, the video sharing platform, to stop acting as what U.S. officials have long warned it is, a true and grave security threat to the United States.

In this, the House showed what it rarely shows, self-respect. Its members said: You can’t harm America without our at least trying to resist. They signaled to China that it can’t bank forever on America’s stupidity and carelessness. Maybe they signaled to Big Tech outfits here that Congress will eventually move against their abuses, too.

The vote was bipartisan and overwhelming, 352-65. Nancy Pelosi backed it, as did Elise Stefanik. Against it were many on the fringes of each party, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Matt Gaetz.

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, which is connected to the Chinese Communist Party. If the bill becomes law, ByteDance will be required to sell TikTok to non-Chinese owners or face a ban in the U.S. At least one prospective buyer has expressed an interest.

Here is part of the case against TikTok:

It uses its algorithms to suck up information about America’s 170 million users, giving it the potential to create dossiers. Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray has warned that China, through ByteDance, has the ability to control software on millions of devices in the U.S.

Photo: Jakub Porzycki/Zuma Press

TikTok demonstrably suppresses content that China doesn’t like and promotes posts injurious to America. It can flood the U.S. in an election year with information that can be used to toy with us and further drive us apart. Here it should be said that if you’ve been watching things for a while you have a strong sense that the Chinese, and our other competitors, aren’t pulling for Donald Trump or Joe Biden; they think both are jokes. They want to hurt America. They want to bring it down as a power. It’s not about favoring one party or the other, it’s about hurting us. You could see China’s commitment to its efforts in the language it used before the House voted. A proposed ban would “come back to bite the United States,” its Foreign Ministry warned.

TikTok fought back hard and lost, which seems to me the first such loss for a tech company. It pulled out all the stops, alerting its U.S. users, who jammed phone lines on Capitol Hill. TikTok paid expenses for “creators” to go to Washington.

quoted a creator called Giovanna González, who posted in a video: “So old white people boomers we call congresspeople are trying to ban TikTok, but I’m not having it.” You are having it.

I don’t know if what TikTok did backfired, exactly, but it didn’t work. It overplayed its hand.

U.S. security agencies have been warning the American people since 2020 that TikTok is an espionage tool. Since the warnings began, use of the social-media app has exploded. It seemed to me a seminal event when agencies of Republican and Democratic administrations in turn told the people that a platform was threatening their own safety and security—and Americans not only don’t turn it off; they clamored for it. At some point we have to admit that something is wrong not only with Congress but also with us. People make their living on TikTok, it is true, but they can make their living in a lot of places, not only one that can do damage to their fellow citizens and, old-fashioned concept coming, their country. Independence and entrepreneurship are beautiful but can tip into sheer dumbness and lack of care for others.

The bill now goes to the Senate. Senators would be impressed by the size of the House win and its ideological mix, but I wonder if Big Tech money is flowing in or being withheld. Will they slow things down until people forget? Victory will take vigilance. Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley on Thursday told Axios he doesn’t expect the Senate to vote for it. “Nothing that Big Tech doesn’t want moves across the Senate floor,” he said. “My observation is that people say, ‘I agree with the idea in principle but have concerns.’ That basically means we should never do anything.”

The second most important story this week was the clincher nobody noticed.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden sewed up their respective parties’ presidential nominations in primaries on Tuesday, each receiving the threshold number of delegates needed to win in coming conventions. By the latest count, Mr. Biden has received a combined total of 8.5 million votes. Another 1.3 million voters cast Democratic ballots for other candidates or no candidate.

In all Republican contests combined, Donald Trump received 10.3 million votes, and Nikki Haley drew 3.3 million, and 500,000 other ballots were cast.

Does the disparity in turnout—9.8 million Democrats showed up and 13.7 million Republicans—suggest which party has the energy and hunger? I suspect so.

But overall this is an absurd moment. Everything’s settled but nothing feels stable. A nation now knows who its two major party candidates will be, after relatively easy contests, and that nation doesn’t want those candidates! The polls show it. The general feeling: We’re stuck with these crazy old coots.

Neither candidate can, as they say in politics, do optimism. Neither can make you see a better tomorrow. Mr. Trump is American carnage; everything’s terrible and only he can repair it; the worse things are, the better his chances. That’s why he didn’t want the recent bipartisan immigration bill. On a problem that’s, say, a foot long, it offered 2 inches of progress. Can’t have that! Mr. Biden can’t do optimism because when he speaks of the sunny side he sounds out of touch. He’s not believable and does not have a plan beyond keep on keepin’ on. He sounds like a politician who’s just word-saying.

But you can also connect a little of the general unhappiness and dissatisfaction to the TikTok story itself. President Trump was the first to call it a security risk, and he did it with vivid, concrete language. His 2020 executive order banning it warned that TikTok could funnel American users’ personal data to the Communist Party, “potentially allowing China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.” The order was enjoined in court, and Mr. Biden later rescinded it. The bill passed this week was aimed at redressing those grievances. But Mr. Trump has now reversed his stand, saying this week that banning TikTok would make

happy. Can’t have that! Also a major ByteDance investor is a major Republican donor. His former adviser Steve Bannon said on the social-media site Gettr that it is the “coin.”

As for Mr. Biden, his administration continued the warning of TikTok’s threat and backed a ban. Then, his approval ratings sinking, he decided to open an account on TikTok to sway its young hep-cat users. (He says he’ll sign a final bill.)


What a crew. How mutually swampy. It is a cliché that it’s not what’s done in secret in Washington that’s a scandal but what’s done in public, right under your nose. It’s a cliché because it’s true.

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