Killing Time for TikTok

Finally. The government of the United States finally passed a law that would allow it to force the sale of, or ban, software and websites from specific countries of concern. The target is obviously TikTok — it says so right in its text — but crafty lawmakers have tried to add enough caveats and clauses and qualifiers to, they hope, avoid it being characterized as a bill of attainder, and to permit future uses. This law is very bad. It is an ineffective and illiberal position that abandons democratic values over, effectively, a single app. Unfortunately, TikTok panic is a very popular position in the U.S. and, also, here in Canada.

The adversaries the U.S. is worried about are the “covered nationsdefined in 2018 to restrict the acquisition by the U.S. of key military materials from four countries: China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. The idea behind this definition was that it was too risky to procure magnets and other important components of, say, missiles and drones from a nation the U.S. considers an enemy, lest those parts be compromised in some way. So the U.S. wrote down its least favourite countries for military purposes, and that list is now being used in a bill intended to limit TikTok’s influence.

According to the law, it is illegal for any U.S. company to make available TikTok and any other ByteDance-owned app — or any app or website deemed a “foreign adversary controlled application” — to a user in the U.S. after about a year unless it is sold to a company outside the covered countries, and with no more than twenty percent ownership stake from any combination of entities in those four named countries. Theoretically, the parent company could be based nearly anywhere in the world; practically, if there is a buyer, it will likely be from the U.S. because of TikTok’s size. Also, the law specifically exempts e-commerce apps for some reason.

This could be interpreted as either creating an isolated version specifically for U.S. users or, as I read it, moving the global TikTok platform to a separate organization not connected to ByteDance or China.1 ByteDance’s ownership is messy, though mostly U.S.-based, but politicians worried about its Chinese origin have had enough, to the point they are acting with uncharacteristic vigour. The logic seems to be that it is necessary for the U.S. government to influence and restrict speech in order to prevent other countries from influencing or restricting speech in ways the U.S. thinks are harmful. That is, the problem is not so much that TikTok is foreign-owned, but that it has ownership ties to a country often antithetical to U.S. interests. TikTok’s popularity might, it would seem, be bad for reasons of espionage or influence — or both.


So far, I have focused on the U.S. because it is the country that has taken the first step to require non-Chinese control over TikTok — at least for U.S. users but, due to the scale of its influence, possibly worldwide. It could force a business to entirely change its ownership structure. So it may look funny for a Canadian to explain their views of what the U.S. ought to do in a case of foreign political interference. This is a matter of relevance in Canada as well. Our federal government raised the alarm on “hostile state-sponsored or influenced actors” influencing Canadian media and said it had ordered a security review of TikTok. There was recently a lengthy public inquiry into interference in Canadian elections, with a special focus on China, Russia, and India. Clearly, the popularity of a Chinese application is, in the eyes of these officials, a threat.

Yet it is very hard not to see the rush to kneecap TikTok’s success as a protectionist reaction to shaking the U.S. dominance of consumer technologies, as convincingly expressed by Paris Marx at Disconnect:

In Western discourses, China’s internet policies are often positioned solely as attempts to limit the freedoms of Chinese people — and that can be part of the motivation — but it’s a politically convenient explanation for Western governments that ignores the more important economic dimension of its protectionist approach. Chinese tech is the main competitor to Silicon Valley’s dominance today because China limited the ability of US tech to take over the Chinese market, similar to how Japan and South Korea protected their automotive and electronics industries in the decades after World War II. That gave domestic firms the time they needed to develop into rivals that could compete not just within China, but internationally as well. And that’s exactly why the United States is so focused not just on China’s rising power, but how its tech companies are cutting into the global market share of US tech giants.

This seems like one reason why the U.S. has so aggressively pursued a divestment or ban since TikTok’s explosive growth in 2019 and 2020. On its face it is similar to some reasons why the E.U. has regulated U.S. businesses that have, it argues, disadvantaged European competitors, and why Canadian officials have tried to boost local publications that have seen their ad revenue captured by U.S. firms. Some lawmakers make it easy to argue it is a purely xenophobic reaction, like Senator Tom Cotton, who spent an exhausting minute questioning TikTok’s Singaporean CEO Shou Zi Chew about where he is really from. But I do not think it is entirely a protectionist racket.

A mistake I have made in the past — and which I have seen some continue to make — is assuming those who are in favour of legislating against TikTok are opposed to the kinds of dirty tricks it is accused of on principle. This is false. Many of these same people would be all too happy to allow U.S. tech companies to do exactly the same. I think the most generous version of this argument is one in which it is framed as a dispute between the U.S. and its democratic allies, and anxieties about the government of China — ByteDance is necessarily connected to the autocratic state — spreading messaging that does not align with democratic government interests. This is why you see few attempts to reconcile common objections over TikTok with the quite similar behaviours of U.S. corporations, government arms, and intelligence agencies. To wit: U.S.-based social networks also suggest posts with opaque math which could, by the same logic, influence elections in other countries. They also collect enormous amounts of personal data that is routinely wiretapped, and are required to secretly cooperate with intelligence agencies. The U.S. is not authoritarian as China is, but the behaviours in question are not unique to authoritarians. Those specific actions are unfortunately not what the U.S. government is objecting to. What it is disputing, in a most generous reading, is a specifically antidemocratic government gaining any kind of influence.

Espionage and Influence

It is easiest to start by dismissing the espionage concerns because they are mostly misguided. The peek into Americans’ lives offered by TikTok is no greater than that offered by countless ad networks and data brokers — something the U.S. is also trying to restrict more effectively through a comprehensive federal privacy law. So long as online advertising is dominated by a privacy-hostile infrastructure, adversaries will be able to take advantage of it. If the goal is to restrict opportunities for spying on people, it is idiotic to pass legislation against TikTok specifically instead of limiting the data industry.

But the charge of influence seems to have more to it, even though nobody has yet shown that TikTok is warping users’ minds in a (presumably) pro-China direction. Some U.S. lawmakers described its danger as “theoretical”; others seem positively terrified. There are a few different levels to this concern: are TikTok users uniquely subjected to Chinese government propaganda? Is TikTok moderated in a way that boosts or buries videos to align with Chinese government views? Finally, even if both of these things are true, should the U.S. be able to revoke access to software if it promotes ideologies or viewpoints — and perhaps explicit propaganda? As we will see, it looks like TikTok sometimes tilts in ways beneficial — or, at least, less damaging — to Chinese government interests, but there is no evidence of overt government manipulation and, even if there were, it is objectionable to require it to be owned by a different company or ban it.

The main culprit, it seems, is TikTok’s “uncannily good” For You feed that feels as though it “reads your mind”. Instead of users telling TikTok what they want to see, it just begins showing videos and, as people use the app, it figures out what they are interested in. How it does this is not actually that mysterious. A 2021 Wall Street Journal investigation found recommendations were made mostly based on how long you spent watching each video. Deliberate actions — like sharing and liking — play a role, sure, but if you scroll past videos of people and spend more time with a video of a dog, it learns you want dog videos.

That is not so controversial compared to the opacity in how TikTok decides what specific videos are displayed and which ones are not. Why is this particular dog video in a user’s feed and not another similar one? Why is it promoting videos reflecting a particular political viewpoint or — so a popular narrative goes — burying those with viewpoints uncomfortable for its Chinese parent company? The mysterious nature of an algorithmic feed is the kind of thing into which you can read a story of your choosing. A whole bunch of X users are permanently convinced they are being “shadow banned” whenever a particular tweet does not get as many likes and retweets as they believe it deserved, for example, and were salivating at the thought of the company releasing its ranking code to solve a nonexistent mystery. There is a whole industry of people who say they can get your website to Google’s first page for a wide range of queries using techniques that are a mix of plausible and utterly ridiculous. Opaque algorithms make people believe in magic. An alarmist reaction to TikTok’s feed should be expected particularly as it was the first popular app designed around entirely recommended material instead of personal or professional connections. This has now been widely copied.

The mystery of that feed is a discussion which seems to have been ongoing basically since the 2018 merger of and TikTok, escalating rapidly to calls for it to be separated from its Chinese owner or banned altogether. In 2020, the White House attempted to force a sale by executive order. In response, TikTok created a plan to spin off an independent entity, but nothing materialized from this tense period.

March 2023 brought a renewed effort to divest or ban the platform. Chew, TikTok’s CEO, was called to a U.S. Congressional hearing and questioned for hours, to little effect. During that hearing, a report prepared for the Australian government was cited by some of the lawmakers, and I think it is a telling document. It is about eighty pages long — excluding its table of contents, appendices, and citations — and shows several examples of Chinese government influence on other products made by ByteDance. However, the authors found no such manipulation on TikTok itself, leading them to conclude:

In our view, ByteDance has demonstrated sufficient capability, intent, and precedent in promoting Party propaganda on its Chinese platforms to generate material risk that they could do the same on TikTok.

“They could do the same”, emphasis mine. In other words, if they had found TikTok was boosting topics and videos on behalf of the Chinese government, they would have said so — so they did not. The closest thing I could find to a covert propaganda campaign on TikTok anywhere in this report is this:

The company [ByteDance] tried to do the same on TikTok, too: In June 2022, Bloomberg reported that a Chinese government entity responsible for public relations attempted to open a stealth account on TikTok targeting Western audiences with propaganda”. [sic]

If we follow the Bloomberg citation — shown in the report as a link to the mysterious site — the fuller context of the article by Olivia Solon disproves the impression you might get from reading the report:

In an April 2020 message addressed to Elizabeth Kanter, TikTok’s head of government relations for the UK, Ireland, Netherlands and Israel, a colleague flagged a “Chinese government entity that’s interested in joining TikTok but would not want to be openly seen as a government account as the main purpose is for promoting content that showcase the best side of China (some sort of propaganda).”

The messages indicate that some of ByteDance’s most senior government relations team, including Kanter and US-based Erich Andersen, Global Head of Corporate Affairs and General Counsel, discussed the matter internally but pushed back on the request, which they described as “sensitive.” TikTok used the incident to spark an internal discussion about other sensitive requests, the messages state.

This is the opposite conclusion to how this story was set up in the report. Chinese government public relations wanted to set up a TikTok account without any visible state connection and, when TikTok management found out about this, it said no. This Bloomberg article makes TikTok look good in the face of government pressure, not like it capitulates. Yes, it is worth being skeptical of this reporting. Yet if TikTok acquiesced to the government’s demands, surely the report would provide some evidence.

While this report for the Australian Senate does not show direct platform manipulation, it does present plenty of examples where it seems like TikTok may be biased or self-censoring. Its authors cite stories from the Washington Post and Vice finding posts containing hashtags like #HongKong and #FreeXinjiang returned results favourable to the official Chinese government position. Sometimes, related posts did not appear in search results, which is not unique to TikTok — platforms regularly use crude search term filtering to restrict discovery for lots of reasons. I would not be surprised if there were bias or self-censorship to blame for TikTok minimizing the visibility of posts critical of the subjugation of Uyghurs in China. However, it is basically routine for every social media product to be accused of suppression. The Markup found different types of posts on Instagram, for example, had captions altered or would no longer appear in search results, though it is unclear to anyone why that is the case. Meta said it was a bug, an explanation also offered frequently by TikTok.

The authors of the Australian report conducted a limited quasi-study comparing results for certain topics on TikTok to results on other social networks like Instagram and YouTube, again finding a handful of topics which favoured the government line. But there was no consistent pattern, either. Search results for “China military” on Instagram were, according to the authors, “generally flattering”, and X searches for “PLA” scarcely returned unfavourable posts. Yet results on TikTok for “China human rights”, “Tianamen”, and “Uyghur” were overwhelmingly critical of Chinese official positions.

The Network Contagion Research Institute published its own report in December 2023, similarly finding disparities between the total number of posts with specific hashtags — like #DalaiLama and #TiananmenSquare — on TikTok and Instagram. However, the study contained some pretty fundamental errors, as pointed out by — and I cannot believe I am citing these losers — the Cato Institute. The study’s authors compared total lifetime posts on each social network and, while they say they expect 1.5–2.0× the posts on Instagram because of its larger user base, they do not factor in how many of those posts could have existed before TikTok was even launched. Furthermore, they assume similar cultures and a similar use of hashtags on each app. But even benign hashtags have ridiculous differences in how often they are used on each platform. There are, as of writing, 55.3 million posts tagged “#ThrowbackThursday” on Instagram compared to 390,000 on TikTok, a ratio of 141:1. If #ThrowbackThursday were part of this study, the disparity on the two platforms would rank similarly to #Tiananmen, one of the greatest in the Institute’s report.

The problem with most of these complaints, as their authors acknowledge, is that there is a known input and a perceived output, but there are oh-so-many unknown variables in the middle. It is impossible to know how much of what we see is a product of intentional censorship, unintentional biases, bugs, side effects of other decisions, or a desire to cultivate a less stressful and more saccharine environment for users. A report by Exovera (PDF) prepared for the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission indicates exactly the latter: “TikTok’s current content moderation strategy […] adheres to a strategy of ‘depoliticization’ (去政治化) and ‘localization’ (本土化) that seeks to downplay politically controversial speech and demobilize populist sentiment”, apparently avoiding “algorithmic optimization in order to promote content that evangelizes China’s culture as well as its economic and political systems” which “is liable to result in backlash”. Meta, on its own platforms, said it would not generally suggest “political” posts to users but did not define exactly what qualifies. It said its goal in limiting posts on social issues was because of user demand, but these types of posts have been difficult to moderate. A difference in which posts are found on each platform for specific search terms is not necessarily reflective of government pressure, deliberate or not. Besides, it is not as though there is no evidence for straightforward propaganda on TikTok. One just needs to look elsewhere to find it.


The Office of the Director of National Intelligence recently released its annual threat assessment summary (PDF). It is unclassified and has few details, so the only thing it notes about TikTok is “accounts run by a PRC propaganda arm reportedly targeted candidates from both political parties during the U.S. midterm election cycle in 2022”. It seems likely to me this is a reference to this article in Forbes, though this is a guess as there are no citations. The state-affiliated TikTok account in question — since made private — posted a bunch of news clips which portray the U.S. in an unflattering light. There is a related account, also marked as state-affiliated, which continues to post the same kinds of videos. It has over 33,000 followers, which sounds like a lot, but each post is typically getting only a few hundred views. Some have been viewed thousands of times, others as little as thirteen times as of writing — on a platform with exaggerated engagement numbers. Nonetheless, the conclusion is obvious: these accounts are government propaganda, and TikTok willingly hosts them.

But that is something it has in common with all social media platforms. The Russian RT News network and China’s People’s Daily newspaper have X and Facebook accounts with follower counts in the millions. Until recently, the North Korean newspaper Uriminzokkiri operated accounts on Instagram and X. It and other North Korean state-controlled media used to have YouTube channels, too, but they were shut down by YouTube in 2017 — a move that was protested by academics studying the regime’s activities. The irony of U.S.-based platforms helping to disseminate propaganda from the country’s adversaries is that it can be useful to understand them better. Merely making propaganda available — even promoting it — is a risk and also a benefit to generous speech permissions.

The DNI’s unclassified report has no details about whether TikTok is an actual threat, and the FBI has “nothing to add” in response to questions about whether TikTok is currently doing anything untoward. More secretive information was apparently provided to U.S. lawmakers ahead of their March vote and, though few details of what, exactly, was said, several were not persuaded by what they heard, including Rep. Sara Jacobs of California:

As a member of both the House Armed Services and House Foreign Affairs Committees, I am keenly aware of the threat that PRC information operations can pose, especially as they relate to our elections. However, after reviewing the intelligence, I do not believe that this bill is the answer to those threats. […] Instead, we need comprehensive data privacy legislation, alongside thoughtful guardrails for social media platforms – whether those platforms are funded by companies in the PRC, Russia, Saudi Arabia, or the United States.

Lawmakers like Rep. Jacobs were an exception among U.S. Congresspersons who, across party lines, were eager to make the case against TikTok. Ultimately, the divest-or-ban bill got wrapped up in a massive and politically popular spending package agreed to by both chambers of Congress. Its passage was enthusiastically received by the White House and it was signed into law within hours. Perhaps that outcome is the democratic one since polls so often find people in the U.S. support a sale or ban of TikTok.

I get it: TikTok scoops up private data, suggests posts based on opaque criteria, its moderation appears to be susceptible to biases, and it is a vehicle for propaganda. But you could replace “TikTok” in that sentence with any other mainstream social network and it would be just as true, albeit less scary to U.S. allies on its face.

A Principled Objection

Forcing TikTok to change its ownership structure whether worldwide or only for a U.S. audience is a betrayal of liberal democratic principles. To borrow from Jon Stewart, “if you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values, they’re hobbies”. It is not surprising that a Canadian intelligence analysis specifically pointed out how those very same values are being taken advantage of by bad actors. This is not new. It is true of basically all positions hostile to democracy — from domestic nationalist groups in Canada and the U.S., to those which originate elsewhere.

Julian G. Ku, for China File, offered a seemingly reasonable rebuttal to this line of thinking:

This argument, while superficially appealing, is wrong. For well over one hundred years, U.S. law has blocked foreign (not just Chinese) control of certain crucial U.S. electronic media. The Protect Act [sic] fits comfortably within this long tradition.

Yet this counterargument falls apart both in its details and if you think about its further consequences. As Martin Peers writes at the Information, the U.S. does not prohibit all foreign ownership of media. And governing the internet like public airwaves gets way more complicated if you stretch it any further. Canada has broadcasting laws, too, and it is not alone. Should every country begin requiring social media platforms comply with laws designed for ownership of broadcast media? Does TikTok need disconnected local versions of its product in each country in which it operates? It either fundamentally upsets the promise of the internet, or it is mandating the use of protocols instead of platforms.

It also looks hypocritical. Countries with a more authoritarian bent and which openly censor the web have responded to even modest U.S. speech rules with mockery. When RT Americatechnically a U.S. company with Russian funding — was required to register as a foreign agent, its editor-in-chief sarcastically applauded U.S. free speech standards. The response from Chinese government officials and media outlets to the proposed TikTok ban has been similarly scoffing. Perhaps U.S. lawmakers are unconcerned about the reception of their policies by adversarial states, but it is an indicator of how these policies are being portrayed in these countries — a real-life “we are not so different, you and I” setup — that, while falsely equivalent, makes it easy for authoritarian states to claim that democracies have no values and cannot work. Unless we want to contribute to the fracturing of the internet — please, no — we cannot govern social media platforms by mirroring policies we ostensibly find repellant.

The way the government of China seeks to shape the global narrative is understandably concerning given its poor track record on speech freedoms. An October 2023 U.S. State Department “special report” (PDF) explored several instances where it boosted favourable narratives, buried critical ones, and pressured other countries — sometimes overtly, sometimes quietly. The government of China and associated businesses reportedly use social media to create the impression of dissent toward human rights NGOs, and apparently everything from university funding to new construction is a vector for espionage. On the other hand, China is terribly ineffective in its disinformation campaigns, and many of the cases profiled in that State Department report end in failure for the Chinese government initiative. In Nigeria, a pitch for a technologically oppressive “safe city” was rejected; an interview published in the Jerusalem Post with Taiwan’s foreign minister was not pulled down despite threats from China’s embassy in Israel. The report’s authors speculate about “opportunities for PRC global censorship”. But their only evidence is a “list [maintained by ByteDance] identifying people who were likely blocked or restricted” from using the company’s many platforms, though the authors can only speculate about its purpose.

The problem is that trying to address this requires better media literacy and better recognition of propaganda. That is a notoriously daunting problem. We are exposed to a more destabilizing cocktail of facts and fiction, but there is declining trust in experts and institutions to help us sort it out. Trying to address TikTok as a symptomatic or even causal component of this is frustratingly myopic. This stuff is everywhere.

Also everywhere is corporate propaganda arguing regulations would impede competition in a global business race. I hate to be mean by picking on anyone in particular, but a post from Om Malik has shades of this corporate slant. Malik is generally very good on the issues I care about, but this is not one we appear to agree on. After a seemingly impressed observation of how quickly Chinese officials were able to eject popular messaging apps from the App Store in the country, Malik compares the posture of each country’s tech industries:

As an aside, while China considers all its tech companies (like Bytedance) as part of its national strategic infrastructure, the United States (and its allies) think of Apple and other technology companies as public enemies.

This is laughable. Presumably, Malik is referring to the chillier reception these companies have faced from lawmakers, and antitrust cases against Amazon, Apple, Google, and Meta. But that tougher impression is softened by the U.S. government’s actual behaviour. When the E.U. announced the Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act, U.S. officials sprang to the defence of tech companies. Even before these cases, Uber expanded in Europe thanks in part to its close relationship with Obama administration officials, as Marx pointed out. The U.S. unquestionably sees its tech industry dominance as a projection of its power around the world, hardly treating those companies as “public enemies”.

Far more explicit were the narratives peddled by lobbyists from Targeted Victory in 2022 about TikTok’s dangers, and American Edge beginning in 2020 about how regulations will cause the U.S. to become uncompetitive with China and allow TikTok to win. Both organizations were paid by Meta to spread those messages; the latter was reportedly founded after a single large contribution from Meta. Restrictions on TikTok would obviously be beneficial to Meta’s business.

If you wanted to boost the industry — and I am not saying Malik is — that is how you would describe the situation: the U.S. is fighting corporations instead of treating them as pals to win this supposed race. It is not the kind of framing one uses if they wanted to dissuade people from the notion this is a protectionist dispute over the popularity of TikTok. But it is the kind of thing you hear from corporations via their public relations staff and lobbyists, which gets trickled into public conversation.

This Is Not a TikTok Problem

TikTok’s divestment would not be unprecedented. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States — henceforth, CFIUS, pronounced “siff-ee-us” — demanded, after a 2019 review, that Beijing Kunlun Tech Co Ltd sell Grindr. CFIUS concluded the risk to users’ private data was too great for Chinese ownership given Grindr’s often stigmatized and ostracized user base. After its sale, now safe in U.S. hands, a priest was outed thanks to data Grindr had been selling since before it was acquired by the Chinese firm, and it is being sued for allegedly sharing users’ HIV status with third parties. Also, because it transacts with data brokers, it potentially still leaks users’ private information to Chinese companies (PDF), apparently violating the fundamental concern triggering this divestment.

Perhaps there is comfort in Grindr’s owner residing in a country where same-sex marriage is legal rather than in one where it is not. I think that makes a lot of sense, actually. But there remain plenty of problems unaddressed by its sale to a U.S. entity.

Similarly, this U.S. TikTok law does not actually solve potential espionage or influence for a few reasons. The first is that it has not been established that either are an actual problem with TikTok. Surely, if this were something we ought to be concerned about, there would be a pattern of evidence, instead of what we actually have which is a fear something bad could happen and there would be no way to stop it. But many things could happen. I am not opposed to prophylactic laws so long as they address reasonable objections. Yet it is hard not to see this law as an outgrowth of Cold War fears over leaflets of communist rhetoric. It seems completely reasonable to be less concerned about TikTok specifically while harbouring worries about democratic backsliding worldwide and the growing power of authoritarian states like China in international relations.

Second, the Chinese government does not need local ownership if it wants to exert pressure. The world wants the country’s labour and it wants its spending power, so businesses comply without a fight, and often preemptively. Hollywood films are routinely changed before, during, and after production to fit the expectations of state censors in China, a pattern which has been pointed out using the same “Red Dawn” anecdote in story after story after story. (Abram Dylan contrasted this phenomenon with U.S. military cooperation.) Apple is only too happy to acquiesce to the government’s many demands — see the messaging apps issue mentioned earlier — including, reportedly, in its media programming. Microsoft continues to operate Bing in China, and its censorship requirements have occasionally spilled elsewhere. Economic leverage over TikTok may seem different because it does not need access to the Chinese market — TikTok is banned in the country — but perhaps a new owner would be reliant upon China.

Third, the law permits an ownership stake no greater than twenty percent from a combination of any of the “covered nations”. I would be shocked if everyone who is alarmed by TikTok today would be totally cool if its parent company were only, say, nineteen percent owned by a Chinese firm.

If we are worried about bias in algorithmically sorted feeds, there should be transparency around how things are sorted, and more controls for users including wholly opting out. If we are worried about privacy, there should be laws governing the collection, storage, use, and sharing of personal information. If ownership ties to certain countries is concerning, there are more direct actions available to monitor behaviour. I am mystified why CFIUS and TikTok apparently abandoned (PDF) a draft agreement that would give U.S.-based entities full access to the company’s systems, software, and staff, and would allow the government to end U.S. access to TikTok at a moment’s notice.

Any of these options would be more productive than this legislation. It is a law which empowers the U.S. president — whoever that may be — to declare the owner of an app with a million users a “covered company” if it is from one of those four nations. And it has been passed. TikTok will head to court to dispute it on free speech grounds, and the U.S. may respond by justifying its national security concerns.

Obviously, the U.S. government has concerns about the connections between TikTok, ByteDance, and the government of China, which have been extensively reported. Rest of World says ByteDance put pressure on TikTok to improve its financial performance and has taken greater control by bringing in management from Douyin. The Wall Street Journal says U.S. user data is not fully separated. And, of course, Emily Baker-White has reported — first for Buzzfeed News and now for Forbes — a litany of stories about TikTok’s many troubling behaviours, including spying on her. TikTok is a well scrutinized app and reporters have found conduct that has understandably raised suspicions. But virtually all of these stories focus on data obtained from users, which Chinese agencies could do — and probably are doing — without relying on TikTok. None of them have shown evidence that TikTok’s suggestions are being manipulated at the behest or demand of Chinese officials. The closest they get is an article from Baker-White and Iain Martin which alleges TikTok “served up a flood of ads from Chinese state propaganda outlets”, yet waiting until the third-to-last paragraph before acknowledging “Meta and Google ad libraries show that both platforms continue to promote pro-China narratives through advertising”. All three platforms label state-run media outlets, albeit inconsistently. Meanwhile, U.S.-owned X no longer labels any outlets with state editorial control. It is not clear to me that TikTok would necessarily operate to serve the best interests of the U.S. even if it was owned by some well-financed individual or corporation based there.

For whatever it is worth, I am not particularly tied to the idea that the government of China would not use TikTok as a vehicle for influence. The government of China is clearly involved in propaganda efforts both overt and covert. I do not know how much of my concerns are a product of living somewhere with a government and a media environment that focuses intently on the country as particularly hostile, and not necessarily undeservedly. The best version of this argument is one which questions the platform’s possible anti-democratic influence. Yes, there are many versions of this which cross into moral panic territory — a new Red Scare. I have tried to put this in terms of a more reasonable discussion, and one which is not explicitly xenophobic or envious. But even this more even-handed position is not well served by the law passed in the U.S., one which was passed without evidence of influence much more substantial than some choice hashtag searches. TikTok’s response to these findings was, among other things, to limit its hashtag comparison tool, which is not a good look. (Meta is doing basically the same by shutting down CrowdTangle.)

I hope this is not the beginning of similar isolationist policies among democracies worldwide, and that my own government takes this opportunity to recognize the actual privacy and security threats at the heart of its own TikTok investigation. Unfortunately, the head of CSIS is really leaning on the espionage angle. For years, the Canadian government has been pitching sorely needed updates to privacy legislation, and it would be better to see real progress made to protect our private data. We can do better than being a perpetual recipient of decisions made by other governments. I mean, we cannot do much — we do not have the power of the U.S. or China or the E.U. — but we can do a little bit in our own polite Canadian way. If we are worried about the influence of these platforms, a good first step would be to strengthen the rights of users. We can do that without trying to governing apps individually, or treating the internet like we do broadcasting.

To put it more bluntly, the way we deal with a possible TikTok problem is by recognizing it is not a TikTok problem. If we care about espionage or foreign influence in elections, we should address those concerns directly instead of focusing on a single app or company that — at worst — may be a medium for those anxieties. These are important problems and it is inexcusable to think they would get lost in the distraction of whether TikTok is individually blameworthy.

  1. Because this piece has taken me so long to write, a whole bunch of great analyses have been published about this law. I thought the discussion on “Decoder” was a good overview, especially since two of the three panelists are former lawyers. ↥︎