“You know the Chinese are watching you, right?” Your grandfather says, side-eyeing your phone as you pull up TikTok.
This type of fear-centric rhetoric is woefully naive and, frankly, a little xenophobic. It’s assuming a few things:
The Chinese government is actively snooping on you out of all 135 million United States users
“Watching” U.S. users is the worst thing TikTok can do
This is a foreign threat and not a scape-goat for our internal data-breaches
That we can actually do anything to stop it
The Chinese government is actively snooping on you:
The chances of a 20-something college student living in Lawrence holding national secrets are slim to none. The same goes for the over one billion active users TikTok has. While the freakishly tailored “For You Page” may be a little off-putting at some points, this is nothing new in America’s cyber world. It takes an algorithm to create that page, not your own personal spy.
The main issue lawmakers cite (though rather elusively, with no actual citations) is that their extensive collection of data is a threat to national security, though TikTok has already been banned on federal employees' government devices – the population most likely to hold that type of information. This fear comes from the Chinese government’s history of legally forcing tech companies to send over the data they have on users, with the most apparent example being WeChat – a heavily censored, closely monitored Chinese app.
But this example hasn’t come to fruition. Over the summer, nine Republican senators sent a letter to ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company, voicing their concerns over the Chinese government accessing U.S user’s data. Tik Tok CEO Shou Zi Chew responded that employees in China could only access U.S. user data after a “series of robust cybersecurity controls and authorization approval protocols overseen by our U.S.-based security team.”
Chew also brought up Project Texas, a project started back in 2020 to move all U.S. user data to Oracle – a U.S.-based server. Though no official movements have been made, he alluded that progress is being made.
Chew made clear that though there may be a future transfer of U.S. user data to Oracle, Chinese employees would still be in charge of the TikTok algorithm. Though this seems facially neutral, it is not.
“Watching” U.S users is the worst thing TikTok can do:
What lawmakers seem to be disregarding is TikTok’s most powerful tool: the algorithm. They’re the big brother of what gets watched and created.
Though this is a little conspiratorial, TikTok’s algorithm could be used as a silent propaganda outlet. Amongst the dance videos and story times, TikTok has been accused of silencing anti-Chinese-government content. Though, once again, this example hasn’t come to fruition. TikTok promoted videos of the recent Chinese balloon, a good counter-argument.
The fear around this point is more of a what-if situation, especially for the future and especially for children. About 27% of TikTok users are under 18, which is around the age at which political loyalty forms. Malleable brains would have a harder time discerning propaganda from facts, which could potentially shape future political outcomes.
But these powerful, non-neutral social media algorithms holding political weight are nothing new in American politics. Facebook has been doing it for years.
This is a foreign threat and not a scape-goat for our internal data breaches:
Though TikTok does take and share more of your data than any other social media app, our data has already been exploited for years. Almost all social media apps have faced a similar type of scrutiny, especially Facebook. The most notable being in March of 2022 when Facebook received an $18.6 million fine for breaching the General Data Protection Regulation, which affected up to 30 million Facebook users in the European Union. While this type of surveillance is frowned upon in the U.S., even the government does it.
“It’s important for us to acknowledge that the U.S. government has its own shadowy national security surveillance authorities,” Kian Vestinsson, a research analyst for the think tank Freedom House, said for WIRED. “And in recent years, U.S. government agencies have monitored social media accounts of people coordinating protests in the U.S. and done things like searched electronic devices throughout the country and at the border. These sorts of tactics undermine the idea that this is only a foreign threat.”
The interrogation light first shone on TikTok in 2020 was spearheaded by former President Donald Trump. Trump famously took the nation in the wrong direction with cybersecurity according to the Washington Post. The former president famously took a sledgehammer to U.S-China relations. The singing-in on a singular Chinese app seems like a distraction with a dash of xenophobia.
That we can actually do anything to stop it:
Back in 2020, Trump tried to ban TikTok. Chaos ensued.
It would be one thing if this app were a C-level celebrity, but TikTok is the fastest-growing social media app. We’re conditioned to the dopamine cycle of a “For You Page,” and ripping that away from a population would cause even more chaos. In 2020, users were already developing a plan of action if the app got banned – VPNs, trap phones, you name it. TikTok is not something people would give up easily.
It’s easy to scare a population when you reduce anything to the absurd. Couple that with underlying xenophobia and the disregard for TikTok’s efforts to fix the problems, and you’ll have a bunch of Americans scared of some dancing videos. TikTok has some issues – with their flimsy data security and power of the algorithm. Still, with government efforts to relocate that data and parental supervision, those problems can be on the mend. Though I’ll be watching, I’m not deleting the app.