I’ve lost half an hour on TikTok, time I’ll never get back. I wouldn’t say there haven’t been moments. I’ve seen some super breakdancing, useful cleaning tricks and a cat that works with a door knocker. But the rolling short videos get boring after a short while. At least to me.
Not for others, of course. TikTok has 100 million users in the US. They tend to be younger people and their attachment to the social media platform seems surgical. Last year, TikTok scored more watch minutes in this country than YouTube.
TikTok’s magic potion is its ability to ingeniously identify the videos that users like and keep sending out more of the same through its secret “For You” algorithm. The site is so addictive that it has been compared to “digital fentanyl.”
TikTok’s role in burning so many American brain cells would seem reason enough to get rid of it. But that’s not why national security experts and politicians from both parties want it banned in the United States.
Their objections center on the tools TikTok gives China to spy on Americans, drown them in government propaganda and spread misinformation. FBI Director Christopher Wray says he is “extremely concerned” about TikTok’s operations in this country.
Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr sees TikTok as a sophisticated surveillance tool that could soon vacuum up such biometric data as fingerprints and facial recognition. He wants Google and Apple to kick it out of their app stores.
TikTok, you see, is owned by ByteDance, and ByteDance is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. A few years ago, the Chinese military hacked Equifax, the consumer credit reporting agency, and stole the personal information of nearly 150 million Americans.
The bifurcated nature of the alarm over TikTok strongly suggests that there are very good reasons to take it seriously. How bipartisan? Democratic Senator Mark Warner has said: “As painful as it is for me to say, if Donald Trump was right and we could have taken action then, it would have been a lot easier than trying to take action in November 2022.”
Trump issued an order in 2020 to have TikTok expelled or sold to an American buyer — something China would surely not do. Regardless, the courts blocked it. At least five states have banned TikTok, and now Congress may have voted to ban its use on all government-issued phones.
Warner is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and his desire to expel TikTok from the United States is more than shared by his deputy chairman, Republican Marco Rubio.
Can Americans live without this freewheeling platform called TikTok? The Chinese do. China does not allow our version of TikTok, but allows another ByteDance app that the government has the right to propagate and censor. While TikTok spreads videos of self-harm to young Americans, Carr complains, the Chinese surrogate sends children educational food and limits their time on the site.
The ability to edit the news is an enormously powerful weapon. Since 2020, the share of US adults who say they regularly get news from TikTok has more than tripled, from 3% to 10%, according to the Pew Research Center. About a quarter of Americans under 30 say they regularly get news there.
The only real downside to cutting off TikTok might be how it would increase tensions with China, but you know, it’s a two-way street. After all, China blocks Facebook and Twitter.
What about the millions of consumers who really like TikTok? Well, other less toxic apps can be developed to do much of the same thing. The videos – silly or educational – can continue to roll without threatening national security. TikTok must go.