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The TikTok ban is censorship and should not be celebrated


It has been blamed for an entire generation losing its attention span. It has been accused of having addictive qualities. It is notorious for producing broad disinformation campaigns and sending users down rabbit holes.

And now, TikTok has been identified by the federal government as a national security threat, and a bill has passed the House with bipartisan support that would ban the app unless it is sold by ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns it, to an American company.

Inevitably, this has become a topic of wide-ranging discourse, with some people singing the praises of TikTok and denouncing the ban while others cheer for the app’s potential demise on the grounds that it is corrupting the youth or some similar refrain.

So let me be the one to say, as someone who does not like or use TikTok, that banning the platform would not be a solution to any of the problems with the app; it would be an act of government censorship.

I will readily criticize TikTok for its many, many, issues. It promotes the spread of damaging ideas, from outright bigotry and vitriol to more subtle falsehoods that are so sensational that they quickly go viral. Its format erodes attention spans and critical thinking skills. It has produced a crop of influencers who have occasionally faced major public scandals and have more generally just gotten on my nerves simply for being obnoxious.

That being said, it is a mistake to treat TikTok as exceptional in its flaws. YouTube and Facebook each have their own well-earned reputations for fostering conspiracy theories and disinformation. Instagram offers influencers similar opportunities to shill for their dubious sponsors and develop potentially inappropriate relationships with their followers.

And of course it must be said that the short-form video format that TikTok has pioneered is not going anywhere. Facebook, Instagram and YouTube (who, I might add, would all benefit from a ban on their main competitor) have all developed their own imitations of this style of social media, and having perused both Instagram’s Reels and YouTube’s Shorts, I can say that neither strikes me as likely to avoid the pitfalls of the TikTok blueprint.

But the primary motive behind the ban now up for consideration by the Senate is not the social ramifications of TikTok’s popularity but rather the possibility of Chinese authorities using American TikTok users’ data for some nefarious purpose. Concerns have been raised by the bill’s proponents about election interference or a vague threat of propaganda and influence.

I, for one, am skeptical of the scaremongering about the Chinese government’s sinister agenda to spy on Americans and manipulate them through social media. These claims are reminiscent of the Red Scare panic that led to decades of paranoid domestic and foreign policy and served to justify disastrous American interventions in formerly colonized nations.

Furthermore, the lawmakers that are pushing this bill have not provided evidence that Chinese authorities have sought access to TikTok user data to date. Theoretically, China could require ByteDance to provide them the data on request, but it seems to me that if an American company owned the app — which is what the bill would stipulate to allow the app to continue to operate in the US — Chinese authorities could simply purchase the data for the right price.

There is also the troubling undertone of Sinophobia that pervades the rhetoric of American politicians who demonize China. It is distinctly uncomfortable to watch Sen. Tom Cotton demand to know if TikTok CEO Shou Chew is a Chinese Communist Party member even after repeatedly being told that he is Singaporean.

Beyond the focus on China, legislators have also underscored the effects of the app on children who use it, pointing out its propensity for damaging the self-esteem of teenagers. I reiterate that this is not a problem unique to TikTok, and I must also add that restricting teens’ access to social media is a comically poor strategy that will not be any more helpful as policy than it is when authoritarian parents employ it against their children.

But my greatest concern about this bill is that it is part of a larger pattern of the US government expanding its own power to control and monitor information consumed by its citizens — ironic considering that it villainizes China for that same behavior.

A bill has recently passed the House to reauthorize a surveillance program that does not require warrants with bipartisan support, and politicians have similarly reached across the aisle to push the Kids Online Safety Act which, even after revision, would likely have a chilling effect on online speech and could present Republican state attorneys general with the opportunity to sue online platforms for providing information on LGBTQ+ issues to minors.

It would be hypocritical of me to tell anyone that they should not be concerned about being surveilled and influenced by a powerful government. What I will tell people instead is that their concern should not be limited to China. Data collected on the social media habits of Americans is not nearly as likely to be as consequential in the hands of Chinese officials as it would be (and probably already is) in the hands of American intelligence agencies.

I would like to make it very clear: I despise TikTok. It irritates me in a way that no other social media platform does, and I would go so far as to say it has been a detriment to society.

But worse than what TikTok has done to Americans is the precedent that would be set by banning it. If there is any meaning left in the First Amendment’s promise of free speech, this bill written to eliminate an entire platform of expression will not become law.

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