The CEO of TikTok, Kevin Mayer, resigned from his position this week, representing another development in an escalating showdown between the United States and the most popular social media platform among American youth.
In a year of a raging pandemic that has killed tens of thousands, the worst economic crash since the Great Recession, widespread social turmoil over racial justice and murder hornets no less, how does TikTok matter in what’s been a strange and concerning time for the United States?
Mayer’s decision to step down is, itself, the byproduct of President Donald Trump’s ultimatum earlier this month to ban TikTok in 90 days if the Asian social media giant doesn't sever ownership ties to ByteDance, a telecommunications company with close familial and financial roots in the government of the People’s Republic of China.
Opponents of TikTok have accused the company of being a complicit partner with the PRC in terms of its enormous, mind-boggling data-harvesting operations to suppress dissent that better fit a George Orwell novel than real life. Lawsuits are pending on whether or not TikTok is complicit in harvesting Americans’ personal data and feeding it to the PRC — though, it should be noted, there are many indications this is in fact true.
Shock value is a depreciating form of capital in this day and age, but for all that this was still an eye-opening move by this administration. Have we ever seen our government take a social media giant behind the woodshed like the Trump’s administration’s handling of TikTok? And, this, from an administration that’s taken great pains to appear hyper-capitalistic, even going so far as to press lawmakers to avoid antitrust questions during — wait for it — an antitrust hearing for Google, Facebook and Twitter earlier this year.
Well, it’s been a bit unusual, that’s for sure. There’s been plenty of hand-wringing over the threat to ban TikTok — mostly from TikTok-using teens, but also plenty from talking heads in the media.
As for me, I wasn’t all that surprised — not because I’m particularly prescient or in the know, but because I’ve been covering seminars on foreign policy and China for some time and one man in particular, Tom Hanson — a former diplomatic service officer, lecturer and expert on foreign policy — has been harping on the subject for nearly as long as TikTok’s been around. This isn’t a random development. This is an old and familiar bugaboo. It’s fair to be sceptical of Washington, D.C.’s stance, but it’s been no secret the feds have been deeply distrustful of TikTok for years.
Thus, it doesn’t strike me as another spontaneous move by Trump — at least, not one that’s premeditated to drive a partisan wedge in the electorate for election purposes, but then that’s not how it’s often interpreted.
Like anything else under the sun, the issue has split the American public down the middle. Critics have decried the decision to ban TikTok as a diversionary tactic to distract the American public from Trump’s handling of COVID-19, the economy, and societal unrest. Proponents will say Trump’s decision has been a long-time coming, born of a nonpartisan imperative to secure American lives and livelihoods in the face of a growing global power that’s been the definition of an Orwellian police state for decades.
The key question right now is this: Does a nationwide ban of TikTok represent an organized, concerted effort to curtail the growing threat of China, or is it political posturing by a president who’s shown a proclivity for framing domestic issues in an “us versus them,” nationalistic lens? If TikTok is boxed out of the North American, European and Indian markets, is it a victim of petty domestic politics, or is TikTok a flashpoint in a rapidly developing cold war?
That then begs a second question — what exactly is TikTok? Hailed as the defining social media craze of Gen Z — just as Facebook was, in many respects, the defining social media craze of Millenials — TikTok is a short-form video app where users are encouraged to film, edit and share clips less than 60 seconds in length. Like any social media platform, TikTok also demands its pound of flesh in terms of personal information to set up an account, to say little of the fact that users are continuously feeding it information in terms of their preferences, location, and personal communications while they post.
The nature and form of these clips is up to the platform’s burgeoning base of 1.5 billion users worldwide — the vast majority of them being young people and teenagers — which has grown leaps and bounds the last 18 months. The rise of TikTok has been staggering, considering its genesis as a relatively modest video-sharing app for pre-teens called Musical.ly, which was acquired by ByteDAnce in 2017 and revamped in its current TikTok form launched in mid-2018.
It’s important to remember that throughout its short existence social media has been predominantly an American phenomenon. Pinterist. Facebook. Instagram. Twitter. YouTube. Myspace. Etsy. Tumblr. These are all as American as apple pie and stand in stark contrast to the likes of TikTok, the first Asian social media powerhouse of global proportions and a product of the People’s Republic of China.
As such, the most popular social media platform among the world’s teenagers is indirectly tied to an authoritarian regime complicit in numerous human rights violations. Chinese markets largely do not function like their western counterparts. Whereas Facebook and Twitter exercise a great deal of autonomy — with little more than an occasional slap on the wrist from federal authorities — TikTok (and, by extension, it’s parent company ByteDance) are inextricable to the governing apparatus of the People’s Republic of China.
This is important to consider when the never-ending debate on privacy and the legal boundaries of data mining is raised. These are mounting concerns with TikTok — as it is with homegrown companies who have, repeatedly, shown a willingness to skirt the rule of law to rake in millions while they sell people’s personal information; often, unauthorized. With TikTok, these fears take on more nefarious dimensions.
There’s the timeless criticisms one might see about Facebook or Instagram. TikTok has been widely condemned for promoting a superficial, image-oriented culture that’s harmful for people’s mental health — going so far as to filter content based on the person’s perceived likeability and physical appearance, as it’s been proven by investigative reporting by outlets like the Guardian. But, it’s all downhill from there.
Does it actively remove any dissenting opinions on the Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibetan Independence or the ongoing genocide of Uygher Muslims by the Chinese state? Does it actively aid and abate draconian practices by foreign governments to identify, locate and harm their own citizens?
Could information harvested by TikTok be used to harm us?
And that is the crux of the issue, isn’t it? Because, while the United States has done woefully little to rein in the likes of Facebook, Twitter or Google, I don’t really see a reason why we should extend the same spineless leniency to TikTok. Does TikTok represent an imminent national security threat? That’s a matter for debate. Does it have deep ties and allegiances to an autocratic regime that’s actively persecuting its people by the hundreds of millions? Most definitely.
And Americans should shun any involvement in that, no matter how many degrees of separation come between us and them, no matter how uncomfortable it may be for some of us to leave TikTok behind. In my opinion, opposition to that — on the face of it — speaks more to political animus against Trump than it ever does to actual, real-life concerns about our national security in the world and what monsters we are inadvertently feeding.