Explain to Me Why China Has to Control TikTok

“Small-business owners, educators, activists, and young people who use TikTok were scrambling to respond Wednesday after the House approved a proposal to ban the popular app, with many arguing that it plays an increasingly crucial role in the national economy and American public life,” reports the Washington Post. (The bill would, in fact, require TikTok’s parent, Bytedance, to sell it, and allow it to continue operating, and would only ban the app if it does not.)

The story’s author, reporter Taylor Lorenz, has been on a posting jag of retweeting messages attacking the bill. (Sample Lorenz retweet: “Don’t ban TikTok. Pass a privacy law you absolute asshats.”) Lorenz’s Post story is built around repeating heartwarming stories of TikTok users mustered as part of the firm’s frantic lobbying campaign. And it is certainly true that many Americans do enjoy the app.

But this hardly settles the question. If the Senate passes a bill to force TikTok’s Chinese parent company to sell the app, there are two possible outcomes.

The first possibility is that TikTok is sold to a company free of control by the Chinese Communist Party. This outcome would avert all the sad outcomes that opponents of the sale have warned against. The adorable grandmothers posting yoga videos and earnest small-business owners pitching their wares that we’ve seen on the TikTok ads would continue as before.

The only difference is that TikTok’s algorithm would be controlled by somebody else — specifically, somebody not committed to China’s domestic and international agenda. But the teens and the yoga grandmothers don’t care about that, so why should we?

The second possible outcome, however, is that ByteDance refuses to sell TikTok. That would certainly cause disruptions for TikTok’s American user base. But it would raise some thorny questions about the app’s basic function. If TikTok is merely a well-designed social-media product with an enthusiastic user base, whose content reflects their organic interests, why wouldn’t ByteDance sell the business?

Faced with a choice between selling a profitable business for billions of dollars or closing it down and getting nothing, any normal business would choose the former. If TikTok closed down rather than relinquish Chinese control, it would suggest that political control is the central purpose of the business. It may make money — for all we know, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings’s travel agency in The Americans turned a profit — but that’s not what it’s for.

If that is the case, then we should really want to compel a sale. That would mean TikTok is far more nefarious than even its critics allege.

So in both scenarios, forcing China to give up control of TikTok produces a better outcome than the alternative. Either it’s not just a propaganda tool, in which case it can be run just fine by some other owner, or it is, in which case it shouldn’t be used on Americans.

You can tell a bad cause when its advocates resort to transparently desperate justifications. You have whataboutism, like TikTok lobbyist Kellyanne Conway insisting that there’s no reason to stop China from running a non-transparent propaganda app when we can simply use unspecified measures to stop it from persecuting the minorities and threatening its neighbors. (“If you want to hold China accountable, why are you starting with TikTok, and not the origins of the COVID crisis, the fentanyl crisis, the persecution of Uyghurs, and the vulnerability of Taiwan?”) Conway has not yet released her plan to accomplish this, but no doubt the plan is extremely simple to implement and somehow requires China to continue controlling TikTok.

And you have spurious charges of racism, from sources like the ACLU and Representative Jamaal Bowman, who urged his colleagues “not be racist towards China and express our xenophobia when it comes to TikTok.”

It’s incredibly strange to see opposition to the policies of the Chinese Communist Party described as axiomatically anti-Chinese and therefore anti-Asian, when many Asian people, many of them Chinese, also oppose China’s extremely non-elected government. It’s likewise a bit odd to see support for the Chinese Communist Party reframed as anti-racism when the same position is enjoying the support from Donald Trump, an actual racist.

A slightly more serious case against the ban is that, as the ACLU argues, “the administration has provided no specific and direct evidence of harm from TikTok and WeChat — only vague speculation and assertions.”

In fact, there’s plenty of direct evidence TikTok’s algorithm follows CCP political dictates. In 2019, leaked documents showed the app “instructs its moderators to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong.”

TikTok claimed it changed those instructions, but evidence of a political finger on the scale has continued. A Rutgers study last December compared the performance of general political topics (BLM, Trump, abortion) to topics sensitive to the CCP (Tiananmen Square massacre, the Hong Kong protests, etc.) on TikTok and Instagram. The disparity was stark:

Graphic: Network Contagion Research Institute

According to the experts conducting the study, it raises “a strong possibility that TikTok systematically promotes or demotes content on the basis of whether it is aligned with or opposed to the interests of the Chinese Government.”

The influence seems to extend to subjects outside China’s most intense interests. In 2022, Newsguard found TikTok users were “were almost exclusively populated with both accurate and false content related to the war in Ukraine — with no distinction made between disinformation and reliable sources.” A Wall Street Journal investigation found the app served up a stream of emotive videos about the Israel-Hamas conflict (depicting violence on both sides of the conflict). Shortly after, TikTok pulled down the tool that allowed outsiders to study its political-news algorithm.

So it’s true that critics have to rely on somewhat circumstantial evidence that TikTok serves a propagandistic purpose, that is because TikTok conceals its algorithm. The question is whether the ample circumstantial evidence should suffice or whether its ownership deserves the benefit of the doubt.

At the moment, support for forcing a sale breaks down along ideological lines that split both parties, but which have a discernible ideological pattern. Supporters of traditional Establishment American foreign policy want China to relinquish its influence. Opponents of that foreign policy on the right and left want China to continue controlling TikTok. China’s policy agenda is to boost the influence of the latter camp at the expense of the former, which seems hardly coincidental.

Of course, nobody is running around saying they oppose a TikTok forced sale because they want China to continue putting a thumb on the scale for their political agenda. They’re instead using the cuddly small-business owners. What nobody has convincingly explained is why those cuddly small-business owners need the Chinese Communist Party.

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