What does TikTok have in common with 9/11?
On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked airplanes and committed suicide attacks on the World Trade Center’s twin towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. These terrorists took advantage of the freedoms in the U.S. to be trained as pilots and organize the attacks. In responding to this new type of terrorist attack, the U.S. instituted several new measures.
The CCP is the de facto owner of all companies.
For example, we enacted many more measures in airports and other public places, making traveling more of a hassle. We used to be able to check into a hotel without showing ID, and we were proud of it. But we now must show ID at hotels. In this sense, the 9/11 terrorists attacked the very core values of the land of the free. We have lost some freedoms since 9/11, but all Americans think this is necessary and support these measures.
Now a new form of threat is looming over our heads: TikTok. TikTok poses the following threats to America.
First, there is a data-privacy issue. Anecdotal evidence suggests that data collected by TikTok have been compromised and shared with external entities.
Second, it can influence youth in a harmful way. TikTok is known to host dangerous viral trends, such as the “blackout challenge.” Fatal accidents have been reported resulting from competing in such challenges.
Third, it spreads misinformation. TikTok has become a hotbed for organized efforts to brainwash people, such as spreading false information, conspiracy theories, and hate speech.
Fourth, it employs an aggressive algorithm to make people addicted to it. TikTok’s highly engaging content and algorithm-driven feed can make it difficult for other platforms to compete for users’ attention, harming fair and free competition.
Last but not least, it poses national security concerns. TikTok is developed and owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance. In China, all companies must support the Chinese Communist Party, and ByteDance — and, therefore, TikTok — is no exception. The CCP is the de facto owner of all companies, including privately owned companies.
Because of these issues, there has been a worldwide debate about what governments should do about TikTok.
The U.S. Congress just conducted its hearing on TikTok by summoning the company’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, to testify.
Congressional hearing on important issues is a great institutional device that has played an instrumental role in safeguarding our country. Having said this, we must remember that a key assumption for the success of congressional hearings is that witnesses must be able to speak the truth. This means that witnesses must at least meet two conditions. First, they must have access to the truth; second, they must be able to speak the truth.
For the first condition, we do not know to what extent Chew has access to what the CCP plans for TikTok. He is simply an agent managing TikTok for the ultimate principle — the party. And precisely because he is a Harvard-educated young professional, the CCP props him up as a front to favorably impress Americans and win their hearts.
Chew himself does not know whether he is lying.
For the second condition, there is no doubt that Chew does not have the freedom to speak what he truly thinks. For his livelihood and safety, he must follow the party line, which means he must lie. In this sense, Congress was wasting its time organizing the hearing and listening to his useless answers.
Chew’s eloquent speeches, which were mostly lofty statements and evaded the tough questions asked by the lawmakers, are no different from the lies told by the Chinese government.
For example, the spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs attacked U.S. concerns about TikTok as a lack of confidence, and she boasted that the CCP “welcomes all countries in the world to come to China to enjoy the genuine freedom of speech, freely use TikTok and surf the internet. The Chinese government does not censor any voice, nor bans any apps.”
I could not help but laugh at this shameless lie. Below are the facts: China does not allow TikTok in China; numerous websites, including Google, Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter, are banned in China. Numerous people are banned or imprisoned for their opinions. For example, I sent links to my articles published in The American Spectator to my friends in China, and they told me that those links were banned.
While I think Chew did a terrible job answering the lawmakers’ questions, some of my colleagues at my school think otherwise.
A colleague of mine, a good scholar of international affairs, thinks that Chew spoke well and that the lawmakers attacked him unreasonably and terribly. This shows how naïve Americans are. They assume people speak the truth unless proven otherwise. And in this case, no one, including the lawmakers, can prove that Chew lies, as we do not have access to the inner workings of the CCP. Even Chew himself does not know whether he is lying.
In this sense, the hearing failed as a fact-finding mission.
So, what TikTok and 9/11 have in common is that both threaten America.
What should we do about TikTok?
Forcing the Chinese owners to sell their TikTok shares is not practical, nor does it alleviate concerns about TikTok. Its aggressive algorithm will still harm young people and the competition if the Chinese government allows the algorithm to be exported from ByteDance. And if the Chinese government bars the transfer of the algorithm to foreign owners, who will buy TikTok?
The real effective solution is to ban it altogether. But this will face strong criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and other liberal-minded people.
Where TikTok and the 9/11 attacks differ is the following: We have accepted the fact that in order to fight terrorists, we must sacrifice some of our freedoms, such as being searched at airports and being ordered to show ID when checking in at hotels.
But many Americans are not willing to sacrifice some freedoms when fighting the threat posed by social media from a dictatorial country. Many liberal-minded people are against the idea of banning TikTok because they view it as restricting the freedom of speech. They need to realize that it is necessary, just as we must submit to airport security checks and provide ID in certain public places. If we are not willing to do so, we may eventually lose our freedom of expression altogether when the CCP’s long arm settles in America through companies like TikTok.
Shaomin Li is professor of International Business at Old Dominion University and author of The Rise of China, Inc.: How the Chinese Communist Party Transformed China into a Giant Corporation.
Five Quick Things: Clock’s Ticking for TikTok