Imagine a world in which the United States has a contested presidential election, as it did in 2020 (to say nothing of 2000). If one candidate was friendlier to Chinese interests, might the Chinese Communist Party insist that ByteDance give a nudge to content favoring that candidate? Or if they wanted to weaken America rather than shape the outcome, maybe TikTok begins serving up more and more videos with election conspiracies, sowing chaos at a moment when the country is near fracture.
None of this is far-fetched. We know that TikTok’s content moderation guidelines clamped down on videos and topics at the Chinese government’s behest, though it says its rules have changed since then. We know that other foreign countries — Russia comes to mind — have used American social networks to drive division and doubt.
It is telling that China sees such dangers as obvious enough to have built a firewall against them internally: They’ve banned Facebook and Google and Twitter and, yes, TikTok. ByteDance has had to manage a different version of the app, known as Douyin, for Chinese audiences, one that abides by the rules of Chinese censors. China has long seen these platforms as potential weapons. As China’s authoritarian turn continues, and as relations between our countries worsen, it is not far-fetched to suspect they might do unto us what they have always feared we would do unto them.
“No analogies are perfect, but the closest analogy I can think of is to imagine if the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union had decided to plow some of its oil export profits into buying up broadcast television stations across the U.S.,” my former colleague Matthew Yglesias wrote in his newsletter, Slow Boring. “The F.C.C. wouldn’t have let them. And if the F.C.C. for some reason did let them, the Commerce Department would have blocked it. And if a judge said the Commerce Department was wrong and control over the information ecosystem didn’t meet the relevant national security standard, Congress would have passed a new law.”
As analogies go, I think that’s a good starting point. But if the Soviet Union had bought up local television stations across the nation, we’d know they had done it, and there’d be an understanding of what those stations were, and what they were attempting, just as was true with Russia Today. The 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’re watching makeup tutorials and recipes and lip sync videos and funny dances. But that would make it all the more powerful a propaganda outlet, if deployed. And because each TikTok feed is different, we have no real way of knowing what people are seeing. It would be trivially easy to use it to shape or distort public opinion, and to do so quietly, perhaps untraceably.
In all of this, I’m suggesting a simple principle, albeit one that will not be simple to apply: Our collective attention is important. Whoever (or whatever) controls our attention controls, to a large degree, our future. The social media platforms that hold and shape our attention need to be governed in the public interest. That means knowing who’s truly running them and how they’re running them.
I’m not sure which of the social network owners currently clear that bar. But I’m certain ByteDance doesn’t. On this, Donald Trump was right, and the Biden administration should finish what he started.
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