I’ve wiled away the half-hours on TikTok, time I’ll never get back. I won’t say there haven’t been moments. I’ve seen some super breakdancing, useful cleaning tricks and a cat working a door knocker. But the scrolling short videos do turn tedious after a short while. At least for me.
Not for others, obviously. TikTok has 100 million users in the United States. They tend to be younger people, and their attachment to the social media platform seems surgical. Last year, TikTok scored more watched 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 likened to “digital fentanyl.”
TikTok’s role in torching so many American brain cells would seem reason enough to get rid of it. But that’s not why national security experts and politicians of both parties want it banned in the United States.
Their objections center on the tools TikTok provides China to spy on Americans, drown them in government propaganda and spread misinformation. FBI director Christopher Wray says he’s “extremely concerned” about TikTok’s operations in this country.
Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr sees TikTok as a sophisticated surveillance tool that might soon vacuum such biometric data as fingerprints and face recognition. He wants Google and Apple to evict it from 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, stealing personal information on almost 150 million Americans.
The bipartisan nature of the alarm over TikTok strongly suggests there are very good reasons to take it seriously. How bipartisan? Democratic Sen. Mark Warner has said, “As painful as it is for me to say, if Donald Trump was right and we could’ve taken action then, that’d have been a heck of a lot easier than trying to take action in November of 2022.”
Trump did issue an executive order in 2020 to have TikTok expelled or sold to an American buyer — which China surely would not do. In any case, the courts blocked it. At least five states have banned TikTok, and by now, Congress may have voted to forbid its use on all government-issued phones.
Warner is chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and his desire to expel TikTok from the United States is more than shared by the vice chair, Republican Marco Rubio.
Can Americans live without this free-wheeling platform called TikTok? The Chinese do. China doesn’t allow our version of TikTok but permits another ByteDance app over which the government exercises a right to propagandize and censor. While TikTok spreads videos of self-harm to young Americans, Carr complains, the Chinese substitute sends kids educational fare and limits their time on the site.
The ability to edit the news is a massively powerful weapon. Since 2020, the share of U.S. adults who say they regularly get news from TikTok has more than tripled, from 3% to 10%, according to Pew Research Center. About a quarter of Americans under 30 say they regularly get their news there.
The only real downside to cutting off TikTok might be how it would raise tensions with China, but, you know, that’s a two-way street. After all, China blocks Facebook and Twitter.
How about the millions of consumers who really like TikTok? Well, other less toxic apps can be developed to do much the same thing. The videos — silly or educational — can keep rolling without threatening national security. TikTok must go.