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Maybe we should let the TikTok ban happen

Illustration by Akhila Nadimpalli

I’m probably due a proper digital gabfest for this one, but banning TikTok might not be the big bad wolf we’re making it out to be.

As the House of Representatives debated the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act (H.R. 7521), the bureaucrats at ByteDance and TikTok were hard at work.

The bill would authorize the president to ban foreign-controlled social media apps if not divorced from their overseas parent companies. The nascent giant TikTok was the obvious target.

TikTok has been lobbying in Washington for years, but the volume of foot-traffic around the Capitol suddenly became overwhelming after the bipartisan bill was introduced. Panic ensued — not just in Singapore where TikTok is headquartered, but across the nation as millions of dog-eyed consumers watched helplessly.

The app prompted users to call their representatives — already identified with location data — and urged them to oppose the bill. CEO Shou Chew took to the app to chastise the lawmakers behind the potential ban. The internet went ablaze with a fury I haven’t seen since Kony 2012.

Call me a luddite, but maybe the outrage proves something nefarious about the app that might make banning it reasonable.

I am a proud, conscientious objector to the app. Before deleting it some years ago, I found myself sucked into its matrix for hours. Uninstalling might have been the best mental health decision I’ve ever made for myself.

Sponsors of the bill argue that TikTok, because it is parented by a Chinese state-owned company, is functionally spyware designed to influence American public opinion. This much is all but proven.

Chinese laws dictate that the government can recall private data for purposes of national security, subjecting American TikTok users to adversarial surveillance. TikTok vehemently denies that they would share American user data with China, but U.S. intelligence experts — who I am more inclined to believe — doubt that commitment.

I have little doubt, though, that the federal government could prove a concerted effort on the part of TikTok and ByteDance to survey and abuse American user data. They as much as admitted it in December 2022 after internal emails revealed they monitored the online activity of two American journalists. The Department of Justice has since opened an investigation.

Not to mention that TikTok engages in its own Chinese state-sanctioned censorship. ByteDance has functionally become an arm of the Chinese government, advancing its malignant political narratives.

And China’s domination of the media marketplace comes at a pretty big cost to consumers anywhere else. Creatives are forced to walk on eggshells around topics that might disrupt success in Chinese markets and American companies capitulate to the CCP’s oppression of Hong Kong and Taiwan for fear of bottom line losses.

That’s despite the fact that Beijing loves to ban American platforms and media. Instagram has been blocked there for ten years.

Malicious intent aside, the algorithm is notorious for creating echo chambers, sending users down rabbit holes that lead to fringe and radical beliefs. Entertain far-right content and each scroll will escalate to the point of endorsing hate speech and violence, MediaMatters found in a 2021 study.

Now, nearly a third of people in my generation rely on TikTok for news and information. What once was an innocent video sharing platform is now a multinational media conglomerate that boils its users into moldable putty.

If I seem harsh, it’s because the consequences of allowing an app like this into the American psyche have only just begun to reveal themselves. We’re still learning how consistent social media exposure shapes an adolescent mind, let alone how it warps a fully developed one.

Researchers have already observed increased levels of depression and anxiety coupled with excessive social media use. What sets TikTok apart is its addictiveness.

Its algorithm is specifically designed to draw people in and keep them in for extended periods of time. The average stay is about 46 minutes, and the average user opens the app around eight times a day.

If you find yourself tied at the hip to TikTok, your memory and attention may get dragged, too. Short form media preys on the instinct to constantly crave fresh, new content and rewires the brain toward boredom when that dopamine hit is revoked. This behavior reduces recall capabilities and fosters constant reward-seeking.

I imagine us all like lab mice, eating feed pellets when TikTok offers them and mauling our cagemates when they don’t.

A quarter of American teens have considered suicide, a trend the APA blames on heavy social media consumption. The inherent elements of TikTok are constructed specifically to exploit young peoples’ proclivity to over consume and failure to self-regulate. They own perhaps a bigger share of the blame for the youth mental health crisis than anyone else.

63% of American teens have integrated TikTok into their daily lives. We are barreling headlong into a dangerous new world and utterly inveterate to stop it.

Of course, many of these concerns are not unique to TikTok, and a reckoning will come for the rest of the market. But TikTok possesses some unique maleficent quality that rots at the core of the troubled internet era.

Realistically, what would happen if this bill makes it to the resolute desk? TikTok will plausibly just advance a sale with an American or European company, there are plenty of potential bidders.

If not, and President Biden decides to move forward with the ban, then millions of users will simply flock to the many other short form video services already available. The real world will keep turning, and one day we will all forget about the TikTok saga, much like we did with Vine.

Finally, I want to address a point made by my friend and colleague Peyton in her piece opposing H.R. 7521 in this paper. She raised concerns surrounding the viability of local businesses that use TikTok for marketing and the livelihoods of content creators endowed by the Creator Fund.

I encourage you to go read it and get both sides of this debate. It’s a great piece, too.

Realistically, I am unconcerned given the wealth of negatives associated with TikTok. But I haven’t been given any indication that businesses, and their followers, cannot simply migrate to another social media app. If they’re doing digital marketing right, they shouldn’t have all their eggs in the TikTok basket anyway.

TikTok is as powerful a marketing tool as it is for exactly the same reasons it’s harmful. Its AI driven algorithm that pushes growing children into conspiracy rabbit holes also feeds users advertising content that blends seamlessly into the content experience.

Perhaps Instagram isn’t the marketing powerhouse that TikTok is, but digital marketing is still an emergent field — I’m sure small businesses will adapt.

The wealth of content creators is something that I am supremely disinterested by. If TikTok’s biggest stars (Charlie D’Amelio’s estimated net worth is around $30 million) cannot conjure up funds elsewhere, then I’m sure they can subside off their many lucrative side hustles.

Its less affluent creators might lose their Creator Fund revenue stream, but their income usually comes from brand deals anyway, that are presumably transferable to other sites.

Policymakers have to make hard choices, especially when it comes to international dealings with an adversarial economic powerhouse. H.R. 7521 isn’t really about TikTok itself, but about how we do trade with China in the information age.

It will be impossible not to ruffle some feathers, especially given the attachment many seem to have to TikTok. I expect to be castigated immediately after this piece is published.

But we will be fine with and fine without. Just use reels. They’re funnier anyway.

NOTE: These views do not reflect those of my employers or any organizations I represent.

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    Gavin KazApr 15, 2024 at 7:14 am

    Yes make it it happen

  • A

    AnimekidApr 14, 2024 at 5:50 pm

    Yes pls make it happen