Ban TikTok? Reconsider (2023 Jul)

by Barry A. Liebling

TikTok is a fabulously successful video hosting service. Users, mostly younger people, can upload their short videos for others to view. A huge number of Americans visit frequently and consume its content. Opinions regarding the merits of the service are mixed. Obviously, those who habitually take in TikTok videos regard the site as valuable, fascinating, and lots of fun. And on the other side, there are critics who regard TikTok videos as potentially (or actually) harmful and the TikTok company as a malevolent agent.

A distinguishing characteristic of TikTok is that it is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This means that all of TikTok’s policies and procedures are monitored and approved by officials in Beijing.

What should the American policy toward TikTok be? There are a significant number of critics who are urging the federal government to ban the service. They assert that it is in the national interest to prevent TikTok from legally operating within the United States. Opposing this view, there are citizens who consistently endorse the principle of free speech and free association (essential to those who cherish individual liberty and autonomy), and recognize that a ban coming from the government is a dangerous step that can have terrible consequences.

Two influential conservative commentators, Rebeccah L. Heinrichs of the Hudson Institute and Clare Morell, a member of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, have presented what they consider to be a strong case for barring TikTok from operating in the United States. Essentially, they assert that banning is justified because the video service is controlled by the CCP and it delivers content that they regard as vile.

The critics calling for action explain that “Beijing has access to TikTok’s US user data by default; it doesn’t even need to ask for it.” It is not obvious that access to user data is a threat to the security of the United States. What would a malevolent foreign power do with information about which (cute, funny, offensive, foolish, promote bad behavior, many other categories) short videos are most popular?

I understand that the CCP intends to work against the interests of the United States. And I have no sympathy for communist parties (regardless of their country of origin). Still, I need more information before I become alarmed.

It has been said that if you do not like TikTok, refrain from using it. But there is more that can be done instead of a legal ban. TikTok critics can use advertising and public relations efforts to inform Americans that the company is an instrument of a government that intends to do harm. This could convince some users to seek entertainment from alternative sites. Those who enjoy TikTok videos can be reminded that if they like viewing them – and are also concerned about security – they can use the privacy setting on their browser so their personal identification is not captured by the site.

Recently a number of states have enacted rules that forbid the TikTok app (and presumably TikTok content) on government computers and smart phones. Putting restrictions on government behavior is likely a step in the right direction. Keep in mind that preventing people on federal or state business from visiting TikTok is one thing. Blocking private citizens from viewing material they find amusing is entirely different.

What about the “pernicious effects” TikTok is having on its young viewers? Heinrichs and Morrell assert that “The app is essentially psychological warfare against America’s kids” and “It’s been linked to mental illness, anxiety, depression, attention disorders, even physical tics, especially in teen girls.” Again, even if there is a “link,” concluding that the app causes harm is not obvious. Are young people who use TikTok pushed to becoming disturbed, or do disturbed young people gravitate to TikTok? Perhaps it works in both directions. But to the extent that there is a problem the solution is parental intervention and the creation of content on American sites that is both compelling and benign – not government decree.

By the way, if content on TikTok is injurious to young viewers, what about similar material on American-controlled high tech sites? Think of Facebook, Google, Google’s YouTube, and Twitter. Once you take legal action to block content you do not like, it is easy to find additional offensive material that needs to be stamped out. That is a key trait of authoritarianism.

The conservative authors Heinrichs and Morrell worry that malicious agents are influencing American politics – and not in a good way. They complain with justification that “it’s doing it in part by using TikTok and to influence narratives about world and national events.” They also assert that bad actors used “TikTok to push divisive content during the 2022 midterm elections, promoting videos that attacked specific US politicians and hit hot-button social issues without disclosing those videos were coming from Chinese state-controlled accounts.” And they lament that “The platform also suppresses information.”

Note well that all of these activities are routinely done by the most powerful American high tech companies (again, look at Facebook, Google, Google’s YouTube, Twitter, and smaller leftist-dominated players). The antidote to American high tech mischief is to recognize it for what it is, to discount (to zero) the trustworthiness of their partisan assertions, and to make high quality material available as an alternative. The harm done by CCP-controlled TikTok is probably no worse than the damage that is routinely caused by US-based woke institutions.

The dismayed writers lament that through TikTok the “CCP could tailor its propaganda to specific factions in our country, turning Americans on one another at a time when national unity would be required.” It is difficult to interpret what these policy experts are thinking. At least since the 1960s, there has not been “national unity.” The Viet Nam war was a time where Americans were bitterly split. Every United States president (especially the Republicans) was vilified by the opposing party as being illegitimate, foolish, and behaving either by accident or deliberately to undermine the country. Since the beginning of this century, the chasm between the leftist ruling elite and those who reject the woke world-view has grown wider, and mutual contempt has ballooned. How could TikTok “turn Americans on one another” if Americans are already steeped in animosity?

I do not use TikTok, and I do not recommend it to Americans of any age. There are lots of ways those who do not approve of the site can express themselves and convince others to refrain from consuming its content. Employing the heavy hand of government censorship is not the solution.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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