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The TikTok Dilemma

By Lapo Mazzi

In the last few days, there has been much talking regarding the possible ban of the social media app TikTok in the United States. The debate has been stirred by the introduction of the RESTRICT Act (Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology) to the Senate. This bill would allow the US government to restrict foreign information and communication services that are considered a threat to national security. While TikTok is not specifically addressed in the text, the app was mentioned multiple times by the proposing senators during the presentation conference on March 7th. Therefore, should the proposal be approved, there is little doubt that the activity of the app would be severely affected. But why is the US Senate so much worried about this entertainment app?

If we look in detail at the characteristics of TikTok, we might see that the concerns of the Senate are not completely unjustified. For starters, the app is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance: meaning that all the data and activities of the platform are accessible to the CCP through an internal committee. In fact, ByteDance is actually compelled by China’s Security Law to hand over its data to the Chinese government when requested. Additionally, the app has been denounced many times for the excessive intrusion into the user’s personal data. TikTok’s own privacy policy states that the app has access to the user’s location, IP address, apps and filenames on the device, keystroke patterns and even biometrics data; all of this is further enhanced by third parties’ cookies that TikTok receives from over 28,000 other platforms and sites. Thus, given the amount of data this app provides to the Chinese government, it is no surprise that its use has already been banned on government devices both in the US and Belgium.

Apart from the data-security concerns, TikTok has also been accused of spreading Chinese propaganda and undermining the stability of Western societies. While these accusations are not yet confirmed, there are many signals in that direction. In 2019, The Guardian published leaked moderation guidelines from TikTok’s parent company ByteDance. According to the article, the platform was instructed to censor “controversial” topics such as Tiananmen Square or Tibet and Taiwan’s independence. The company didn’t deny the validity of the guidelines leaked, but it stated instead that these are outdated and no longer valid, leaving the censorship concerns afloat. Another case of censorship was reported by the Washington Post, which showed how footage of the protest in Hong Kong in 2019 was severely underrepresented on the app. Additionally, an investigation carried out by Forbes showed that more than 300 TikTok’s employees used to work in state-owned Chinese media outlets, which further hinders the claims of independence of the company.

Based on the evidence provided, it cannot be denied that TikTok represents a concern for the stability and functioning of our liberal democracies. However, what course of action we intend to take as a response to this threat is not an easy choice. In fact, we can say that we have two possible strategies ahead of us.

We could opt for a realpolitik approach and decide to ban the app usage. At the end of the day, this is what China did to most western platforms such as Meta and Twitter: putting us in a position of disadvantage in informational warfare. By banning TikTok and other “hostile” platforms we could achieve greater internal stability and prevent those forces that aim to destroy liberal democracy from gaining too much power. Of course, this strategy would knock us off our pedestal: we will have no moral authority to criticise the CCP, Russia or North Korea for restricting their citizen’s information. And it’s also possible that this approach could backfire. Freedom of speech is not an important part of these societies’ identities as it is for us: undermining this component of our culture might make us even more prone to external manipulation than before.

The other approach is the liberal one: let’s allow these platforms to be available to our citizens (at least those without key government positions) and let’s hope that our democratic antibodies are strong enough to protect us from authoritarian drifts. This is probably a riskier strategy, but it’s the only one that preserves our values and prevents us from falling into the never-ending slippery slope of censorship. Sure, we might experience some downsides: misinformation will probably spread faster and a considerable chunk of the population will be manipulated into despising the liberal democracies they live in; however, this is the only path that prevents us from becoming the very thing we were defending against. Personally, I hope we will choose the second option.


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