Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 14 March 2024


TikTok ban distracts from hobbled US military

The Times

In the new Cold War between the US and China, it seems the first casualty may be Americans’ access to their main source of videos of teenagers dancing, cats falling off kitchen tables and strangers expounding their latest conspiracy theories about what is supposed to have happened to Catherine, Princess of Wales.

On Wednesday in a rare act of bipartisan unity, Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives voted by a wide margin — 352 to 65 — to force the sale of the wildly popular TikTok social media video app.

More than 170 million Americans — half the population — have downloaded TikTok. It started out as a cleverly designed platform for teenagers mainly to post videos of themselves cavorting for their friends (and if the cavorting was especially good, for a wider audience of potentially millions). But in the past few years, as younger Americans especially have come to get much of their information and opinions about current events from their social media feeds, it has also become a source of viral news and comment.

The problem with TikTok is that while — like Instagram, Facebook and other social media platforms — its diet of mostly mindless bilge may be doing irreparable harm to the minds of young people, unlike these other platforms it is owned by a Chinese company. ByteDance, like almost all big Chinese firms, has close ties to the ruling communist party, and US security officials and policymakers have long fretted over the potential opportunities that offers Beijing for mischief.

At first glance it seems improbable that TikTok could pose a serious threat to US national security. A scroll through the videos its algorithms channel in your direction will have you looking fruitlessly for propaganda promoting Xi Jinping or the inevitability of the dictatorship of the proletariat. But intelligence agencies have assessed that there are three ways in which TikTok could pose a risk to the US.


First, they say, it gathers huge amounts of data on Americans that it could use for the nefarious benefit of Beijing. Second, it can exploit the ubiquity and popularity of TikTok to subtly promote Chinese interests and influence US political debate. Third, users who download TikTok could be opening up their devices to malicious software and allowing the Chinese government to spy on them.

The first two arguments are thin. Like all apps it’s true that TikTok has gazillions of bytes of user data — but it’s not at all clear how exactly it could use them for national security advantage. The propaganda claim is also overblown. It was striking that in their public testimony (much of it was closed-door) to members of Congress this week, intelligence officials were unable to say with confidence that Americans were vulnerable to Chinese influence, only that they “could not rule out the possibility that the Chinese government will use TikTok to influence the 2024 elections”.

But tech experts generally agree that the potential threat from having Beijing’s software on hundreds of millions of Americans’ phones is real. “TikTok users are voluntarily downloading Chinese software into which they have minimal insight,” wrote James Andrew Lewis, director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, this week.

Lawmakers hope that forcing China to divest and sell the business to a US company will keep the popular app going but eliminate the security risk. But the app’s runaway success is built on the genius of its particular algorithms, designed by Chinese engineers, and China has made it clear that if the bill goes ahead, it will cut off access to those codes.

In effect, the forced sale will destroy TikTok — to what we can assume would be the disgruntlement of up to half the US population, and that could complicate politics in an election year.

In 2020 when he was president, Donald Trump tried to ban TikTok but was unsuccessful. Last week he made an unexpected backflip, saying he opposed the forced sale on the grounds that it would help Meta, the company run by Mark Zuckerberg, which owns Facebook. “If you get rid of TikTok, Facebook and Zuckerschmuck will double their business. I don’t want Facebook, who cheated in the last Election, doing better. They are a true Enemy of the People”, he wrote on his own social media platform, Truth Social.

Cynics noted Trump’s U-turn came right after he had met a big campaign donor, who is also one of the largest US investors in TikTok. And for once, Trump’s declaration was not enough to sway House Republicans, who voted overwhelmingly for the bill.

The measure now moves to the Senate, where its fate is less certain. A number of senators on both sides, opposed on free speech and libertarian grounds, may tie it up in procedural knots. Even if it passes, it could face legal challenges. Still, in a divided country, it’s an unusual moment of bipartisan activism. What should we make of it?


The threat from TikTok is not negligible and concerns seem justified. Imagine if, during the first Cold War, a Soviet-backed entity owned a business that had a similarly deep reach into Americans’ lives.

But something else is also clear. The same week that US legislators roused themselves to eliminate the Chinese threat from TikTok, the Biden administration released its annual budget. As wars proliferate around the globe, and the challenge across the Pacific grows ever more real, it plans an increase in defence spending of just 1 per cent — a cut in real terms after inflation, and the fourth such cut in a row.

It’s hard to resist the conclusion that, in this Cold War, dealing with social media — in all kinds of ways — is what American policymakers do best. Making hard choices about higher taxes or reduced social spending to shore up the nation’s flagging military is another thing entirely.

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