Opinion | TikTok can be more dangerous than it seems

Imagine a world where the United States has a contested presidential election, as it did in 2020 (not to mention 2000). If a candidate were more friendly to Chinese interests, could the Chinese Communist Party insist that ByteDance push content that favors that candidate? Or if they wanted to weaken America rather than shape the outcome, perhaps TikTok will start posting more and more election conspiracy videos, wreaking havoc at a time when the country is teetering on the brink of fracture.

None of this is far-fetched. We know that TikTok’s content moderation guidelines restricted videos and topics at the behest of the Chinese government, though it says its rules have since changed. We know that other foreign countries, Russia comes to mind, have used American social media to create division and doubt.

It is telling that China sees such dangers as obvious enough that they have built a firewall against them internally: they banned Facebook, Google, Twitter and, yes, TikTok. ByteDance has had to manage a different version of the app, known as Douyin, for the Chinese public, one that complies with the rules of Chinese censors. China has long viewed these platforms as potential weapons. As China’s authoritarian turn continues and relations between our countries worsen, it is not unreasonable to suspect that they might do to us what they always feared we would do to them.

“No analogy is perfect, but the closest analogy I can think of is to imagine if the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union had decided to invest some of its oil export earnings in buying television stations across the United States,” my former colleague Matthew Yglesias. wrote in his newsletter, Slow Boring. “The FCC would not have let them. And if the FCC for some reason let them, the Commerce Department would have blocked it. And if a judge said that the Commerce Department was wrong and that control over the information ecosystem did not meet the relevant national security standard, Congress would have passed a new law.”

As for the analogies, I think it’s a good starting point. But if the Soviet Union had bought local TV stations across the country, we would know that they have, and there would be an understanding of what those stations were and what they were trying to do, just as Russia Today did. . Propaganda would be known as propaganda.

TikTok’s billion users don’t think they’re looking at a Chinese government propaganda operation because, for the most part, they’re not. They are watching makeup tutorials and recipes and videos of lip syncs and fun dances. But that would make it an even more powerful means of propaganda, if deployed. And because every TikTok feed is different, we have no real way of knowing what people are watching. It would be trivially easy to use it to shape or distort public opinion, and to do so quietly, perhaps without a trace.

In all of this, I suggest a simple principle, though it will not be easy to apply: our collective attention matters. Whoever (or whatever) controls our attention largely controls our future. The social media platforms that hold and shape our attention must be governed by the public interest. That means knowing who really runs them and how they run them.

I’m not sure which of the social media owners currently tops that bar. But I’m sure ByteDance doesn’t. In this, Donald Trump was right and the Biden administration should finish what it started.

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