In August 2020, Donald Trump shocked the technology world by announcing a plan to ban TikTok from the United States if it didn’t find an American buyer in a matter of weeks. The Trump administration argued that TikTok’s popularity was a national security risk given that the app is owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance.
TikTok challenged the order in court, but it also scrambled to line up a deal. By September, TikTok was reportedly preparing to sell a stake in TikTok’s US operations to database giant Oracle (and also maybe Walmart) to comply with Trump’s demands. But then Donald Trump lost reelection. That removed pressure for ByteDance to complete a shotgun marriage, and the Oracle deal fell apart.
Last June, the Biden administration rescinded Trump’s order. But notably, Biden didn’t drop the issue entirely. Instead, he ordered his commerce secretary to investigate the national security implications of apps like TikTok being owned by hostile countries like China.
Officially, not much has happened over the last nine months. But action seems to have continued behind the scenes. In recent weeks, Buzzfeed and Reuters have both reported that TikTok is working to shift US user data to Oracle servers that are physically based in the US. This could enable TikTok to credibly promise not to turn the data over to its Chinese parent company. That, in turn, could pave the way for a settlement with the Biden administration.
There’s plenty to criticize about the way Trump handled the issue. Trump started talking about TikTok shortly after young people used TikTok to organize a prank against the Trump campaign. Critics suggested that his motive may have been revenge rather than national security. Trump also demanded that TikTok pay the US government billions as part of any divestiture plan—a demand that doesn’t seem to have any basis in law.
But Trump’s lawless and erratic behavior shouldn’t blind us to the substance of the issue. TikTok is one of the most popular social networks in the United States, with tens of millions of American users. That gives TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, a lot of power here in America. And because China is an authoritarian one-party state, there’s a risk the Chinese government could use that power for its own ends. You don’t have to be a fan of Donald Trump to be nervous about that.
The main issue is propaganda, not privacy
In his August 2020 executive order, Donald Trump laid out two major concerns:
- TikTok “automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users.” Trump worried that data could be used to “track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.”
- TikTok “censors content that the Chinese Communist Party deems politically sensitive” and “may also be used for disinformation campaigns that benefit the Chinese Communist Party.”
Since then, most discussion of TikTok and national security has focused on the first issue. But Adam Segal, a foreign policy expert at the Council of Foreign Relations, sees that as a bit of a red herring. In a Tuesday phone interview, he told me that when it comes to TikTok and privacy, “I don't see the security risk as being particularly high.”
Segal points out that there are a lot of other ways the Chinese government can get information about Americans. The United States is an open society with few formal privacy protections. So the Chinese government can buy a lot of information about Americans from commercial vendors. In addition, the Chinese government has been blamed for the 2015 hack of the Office of Personnel Management, which exposed private information on 20 million Americans, including federal employees, contractors, and their relatives.
Additional privacy safeguards, like moving TikTok user data to US-based Oracle servers, wouldn’t hurt. But the larger concern is the way TikTok gives ByteDance—and, perhaps, the Chinese government—power to shape the media diets of millions of Americans.
Social media networks have a lot of influence
To see how big a deal this could be, it’s useful to think about recent debates over content moderation decisions on other social media platforms.
Take this September 2020 story by NPR’s Shannon Bond, for example. “Facebook and Twitter said on Thursday they had removed several hundred fake accounts linked to Russian military intelligence and other Kremlin-backed actors,” Bond wrote.” These actors were “involved in previous efforts to interfere in U.S. politics, including the 2016 presidential election.”
This kind of activity violates the rules of Facebook and Twitter, and the companies are playing a constant game of whack-a-mole against it. Presumably, Russia’s efforts could have had a bigger impact with help from the leadership of Facebook or Twitter.
Beyond content moderation decisions, Facebook and Twitter have a fairly direct ability to influence elections. A 2012 study found that pro-voting Facebook ads induced 340,000 extra people to vote in the 2010 Congressional elections. The company’s influence is probably much larger today; the company says it registered more than 2.5 million people to vote during the 2020 election cycle.
Facebook, of course, portrays these efforts as scrupulously non-partisan—and I have no reason to doubt it. But a less scrupulous company could show voter registration ads selectively to people likely to vote for a particular party.
Or consider Twitter’s 2021 decision to ban Donald Trump from Twitter. It’s hard to measure these things precisely, but it seemed like the move greatly diminished Trump’s ability to drive the news cycle.
Incidents like these have prompted a lot of debate over how these companies use their power and whether there should be more government oversight. But at this point hardly anyone disputes that Facebook and Twitter have a fair amount of power.
TikTok isn’t important to US politics—yet
So far, TikTok does not seem to have as much influence over public debates in the United States as Facebook or Twitter. People mainly use TikTok to consume lighter fare, from pet escapades to dance routines.
But TikTok is a fairly new platform. It is growing more quickly than Facebook and Twitter, and people may just not have figured out how to use it for political organizing yet. The fact that TikTok attracts a lot of people who aren’t very interested in politics could actually make it more valuable for people trying to influence public opinion, since people who don’t follow the news closely are less likely to have preconceived views, and hence may be more open to persuasion.
Moreover, politics is hardly absent from the platform. The platform features first-person monologues on everything from race in America to monetary policy. It also includes a significant amount of content about the war in Ukraine. One recent study found that “TikTok is feeding false and misleading content about the war in Ukraine to users within 40 minutes of their signing up to the app.”
To be fair, the study didn’t find that TikTok was pushing any particular viewpoint. Researchers found videos with misinformation from both sides in the conflict. But that suggests that TikTok could influence how the American public views the war if it wanted to.
Moreover, if we wait until TikTok does become an important force in American politics, it may be too late to do anything about it. Right now, neither political party gets an obvious benefit from TikTok, making it possible to form a bipartisan consensus on the issue. Once TikTok becomes politically important, the issue is likely to take on a partisan valence, making action more difficult.
TikTok can’t credibly promise independence from Beijing
To help TikTok succeed outside of China, ByteDance created two versions of the app. The Chinese version, Douyin, complies with China’s heavy-handed censorship rules. ByteDance says the international version, TikTok, isn’t subject to the same restrictions.
In 2019, leaked documents called that into question, suggesting that TikTok was censoring videos on topics like the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the Falun Gong religious movement.
ByteDance responded by restructuring the company to create more separation between Douyin and TikTok. For example, the Washington Post reported late in 2019 that “TikTok says its U.S. operation doesn’t censor political content or take instructions from its parent company, the Chinese tech giant ByteDance.”
It’s at least true that TikTok allows some videos that wouldn’t be allowed in mainland China. This week I did TikTok searches for “Taiwan independence,” “falun gong,” and “tiananmen square 1989.” All three queries turned up videos critical of the Chinese government.
Still, if TikTok's recommendation algorithm was heavily recommending some videos and limiting distribution of others, there wouldn’t necessarily be any way for outsiders to tell.
More importantly, TikTok could change its behavior in the future.
Earlier this month, Buzzfeed’s Emily Baker-White published an excellent investigative piece that sheds light on TikTok’s relationship to its parent company. Here’s a key paragraph:
Interviews with 19 current and former TikTok employees show that ByteDance’s control over TikTok is not merely structural. Employee accounts portray the companies as sometimes so closely entwined that it is unclear where TikTok stops and ByteDance begins. Some workers described instances where senior leadership decisions were made by unknown actors in Beijing. Others said their managers handed down key product decisions after they had “talked to Beijing.” One employee described hesitation after being asked to enter sensitive information into a .cn domain. Two others said they’d occasionally been tasked with work on other ByteDance products, though their employment agreement was with TikTok. Others noted the opacity of the company’s org chart: 10 employees who spoke to BuzzFeed News did not know the identities of the people that their managers (or their managers’ managers) reported to.
To be clear, none of this proves that TikTok is doing anything wrong today or will necessarily do anything wrong in the future. TikTok may be telling the truth when it says its operations are independent of its Chinese parent company.
But given the current corporate structure, there’s no way for TikTok to credibly promise that won’t change. At any time, ByteDance could install new TikTok executives to push different policies. If ByteDance did this in the midst of a presidential election or a crisis in the Taiwan Strait, American leaders might not discover the change until it's too late.
Adam Segal argues that a fundamental restructuring is needed to shield the American version of TikTok from Beijing. Segal argues that TikTok America should have “an American board, and very clear reporting lines that don't go back to ByteDance.” In this arrangement, ByteDance could retain an investment stake in the company and sell technology to its American subsidiary. But American users could have confidence that editorial and operational decisions were being made independently of ByteDance, and hence of the Chinese government.
The end of the global internet?
Not everyone thinks this kind of forced divestiture is a good idea. I talked to Anupam Chander, a legal scholar at Georgetown University. He harshly criticized Donald Trump’s attacks on TikTok back in 2020 and he continues to view the TikTok threat as overblown.
Chander argues that forcing ByteDance to spin off TikTok would set a dangerous precedent.
The theory underlying such a divestiture “would really foreclose any Chinese company from having any significant presence in the United States,” he told me in a phone interview this week. “And that same theory will be used to foreclose US companies from operating in foreign markets also.”
The obvious retort is that China banned American social media platforms years ago. So there’s little reason to worry about direct retaliation from China. But Chander worries about setting a precedent for other countries.
If the US forced TikTok to create an American subsidiary accountable to an American board, it’s not that hard to imagine a country like India or Brazil demanding the same of Facebook. If a foreign country decided it didn’t want Mark Zuckerberg to have an outsized influence over its domestic political debates, I’m not sure I could blame them.
Even America’s European allies have taken a few tentative steps in this direction. France and Germany have been pursuing “cloud sovereignty” policies designed to ensure that data on European citizens is stored on servers that are physically located inside the country. European governments have also passed various laws regarding the moderation of content accessible in their countries.
A balkanized Internet isn’t great for economic efficiency. And rules like this obviously aren’t good if you like the soft power that comes with America’s technology leadership. But changes like this don’t seem like a disaster. The ideal of a global, borderless Internet was never quite realistic.
At the same time, it’s not obvious that an aggressive US response to TikTok would set a precedent for how other democracies treat American companies. China has an authoritarian political system with no meaningful separation between the public and private sectors. It would be perfectly coherent for the US to say Chinese social media apps aren’t welcome in the US market but social media apps from most other countries are.