It seems to me that the discussion of TikTok is distorted by the kind of xenophobic paranoia that frequently gets in the way. It’s not that there isn’t a problem, it’s that the real problem is not solved by a fixation on nasty foreigners.
There are two frequently discussed problems (that often get confused with each other):
- We’re giving a whole lot of information to TikTok that could be used by the Chinese government for nefarious purposes.
- The Chinese government could use their state-sanctioned control of TikTok to propagandize to TikTok’s base of customers.
The first point is pretty close to nonsense. Monumental amounts of information on the American population are already being collected, organized, and merchandized by companies who do this for a living. The last time I looked at this issue, more than ten years ago, you could already match what TikTok knows. Today it’s far worse. We need legal controls on information gathering. The fixation on TikTok for this issue is a distraction.
The second point is a more serious issue, as we’ve had more than enough experience with the coercive effects of social media. The problem, however, is that the dangers from TikTok are not an awful lot different than the dangers from good old American social media. There’s nothing that stops the Chinese government from putting propaganda on TikTok, but we’ve already had the Russians (and the Koch people) doing the same thing on Facebook. Unless we put up legal barriers to deliberate manipulation, social media are for sale to the highest bidder. Banning TikTok is just plain not the issue. (To my mind, any network operator that selects content for unsolicited distribution to users should be legally responsible for that content.)
You can even say flatly that the reason there is such bipartisan agreement on banning TikTok is that it is a handy way to make it seem that you’re doing something about a serious problem–without upsetting the real perpetrators much at all.