I don’t know if you watched the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on March 23, when TikTok CEO Shou Chew was grilled by Democrats and Republicans alike about the potential dangers of a Chinese-owned, super-successful social media platform.
The committee members pounded themselves on the chest for agreeing across the political divide on their concern about -- and for some, outright hatred of -- TikTok. But what did we really learn?
First of all, what was TikTok thinking? I guess not showing up wasn’t really an option, but here was Chew, a Singaporean national, being subjected to not very polite questioning from U.S. lawmakers, whose tone was mostly “My mind is made up, but let me see if I can embarrass you.”
In general, the issues seem to come down to the following:
-- TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company. ByteDance has a board and a number of company leaders who are “card-carrying members of the Chinese Communist Party,” as one of the committee members called it. This is true.
-- TikTok’s data could end up in the hands of Chinese government-controlled data manipulators who could use said data to create and target content with the aim to misinform the American public -- especially its youth.
-- TikTok is not doing enough to ensure its content is appropriately moderated, as evidenced by examples showing that porn, drugs for sale, access to guns, etc. was easily findable. The safeguards that ARE in place do not work, because one representative said his 15- and 17-year-old sons could easily get around those safeguards when they were tested.
-- TikTok is being influenced by the Chinese Communist party, because content critical of China and its content creators outside of China is actively muffled or banned.
Now call me naïve, but replace TikTok with Meta or Alphabet, and all of the above, minus the Chinese Communist Party membership, holds true. We have experienced what happens when data falls into the hands of politically motivated operators. Remember the Cambridge Analytica scandal? Remember the Russian content misinformation factories? They did not need TikTok. The U.S.-based, owned-and-operated platforms did just fine. In fact, many of the hearing committee members probably owe their seat in Congress to some of that manipulation. And these same fine American companies have themselves made grand concessions to the Chinese government.
So forget the foreign operators. We are doing misinformation and questionable content really well ourselves. The amount our own country manages to produce has been more than enough to feed the great political divide. Just think about COVID vaccines and masks, school curricula, transgender and LGBTQ issues, abortion, pineapple on pizza… the list goes on and on.
Is the Chinese ownership of TikTok’s parent problematic? Yes. And the fact that I like BBQ and meat-smoker videos, as well as travel content, must not fall into the hands of the Chinese Communist party. In all seriousness, that is the one aspect of the debate that I get: Potential easy access to data is indeed problematic.
But the solutions, nay, guarantees that the lawmakers are seeking to address this and all other highlighted issues is a completely different set of assurances compared to what they seek from Meta or Alphabet. That is hypocritical, and not realistic. It could kill TikTok. But it won’t address problematic social media issues highlighted during the hearing. It will just make them… American-owned?
Dave M, you are not at all naive, your critique of Congress is on point. A superior product created and owned by a company from another nation has out performed America's finest, Meta and Alphabet. From the BA/Air France Concorde to Mobile GSM innovators like Nokia and Ericsson, American always employs regulation against competition.
Congress's failure to regulate what we should now call the legacy social media is astonishing, as the damage they caused to social cohesion and young lives is demonstrables and devastating.
In case anyone needed to see evidence of the "great takedown": https://mashable.com/article/tiktok-congressional-hearing