The Clock On the Wall

It’s Time for TikTok To Go

I never know which generation I’m supposed to belong to. It seems to pivot primarily on the people present when it comes up in conversation, or on the website I happen to find myself browsing when the question is posed — depending on who you ask, I’m either Gen Z or a Millennial. I think I personally identify more with Millennial sensibilities than with the attitudes and experiences of the younger cohort, but the only time I’ve ever felt truly generationally seen is in this 2019 tweet joking that anyone born between 1996 and 2005 is‌ actually an honorary member of the Black Eyed Peas.

Despite this unremitting confusion, I hold one particular opinion that I think most would probably agree reveals more of a Millennial mindset than it does any other: I hate TikTok, sincerely and with a passion. I just don’t get the hype. Of course, over the past few years I’ve become measurably more discerning with both how I spend my free time and the companies I choose to give my personal information to — but I still count myself among the early[ish] adopters of BeReal, I joined Bluesky back when people were still selling invite codes for outrageous prices on eBay, and I generally don’t have a problem with emerging social media or technology (Threads is another exception to that rule, but I’ll hold that critique for another time).

TikTok is different. And it’s different for reasons much more concerning than the surface-level complaints so often levied against the social media genre — accusations that these apps damage the mental health of their users, that hyper-personalized algorithms create concentrated echo chambers that reduce critical thinking capabilities, and that these digital ecosystems can become breeding grounds for extremist groups whose online behavior too often bleeds into real-world tragedy. While TikTok faces all of these challenges and more, the company’s core problems extend beyond those issues into a realm almost entirely their own.

TikTok Is Not Being Censored for Its Content

It should be clear by now that I am in no way a neutral party to this debate; I’m coming to the table with my mind relatively made up. Still, I have yet to hear a convincingly reasoned argument against a national TikTok ban — a friend recently pointed out that some people rely on the app for their paycheck and would therefore lose their primary income if the platform were to be taken offline, which is a concern I’m sympathetic to, but I just don’t believe that complication significantly changes the facts of the situation or adequately mitigates the broader risks of allowing TikTok to go unchecked and unmanaged. Moreover, this is always true and has always been true of every single social media platform that has ever existed; social media is inherently rented space, and relying exclusively on a single account or app for income has always meant running the risk of some outside force unexpectedly throttling that access at its discretion.

The most frequent argument I’ve heard from the pro-TikTok crowd to date is that a ban would amount to government censorship of a privately-owned company, or politically-motivated censorship of an ideological movement. I feel as if this misses the point almost entirely. Congress isn’t saying it wants to shut the platform down because it disapproves of or dislikes any specific kind of content shown across the app (though TikTok does inarguably have an enormous algorithmic content problem); proposed legislation is instead concerned with data privacy and an ownership structure that remains wildly susceptible to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence. Think of it this way: Nobody is talking about banning Facebook, Instagram, or Threads, even though the Meta network is just as perverted by political content and as bad (if not worse) with scraping and taking advantage of user information.

TikTok is under fire not because bad-faith authoritarian actors are looking for a way to oppress or suppress the American public — and frankly, between Chaya Raichik’s corruptively lethal Libs of TikTok account and pronouncedly left-wing pro-Palestine content, I'm not even really sure which party is supposed to benefit more from banning the platform at this point — but because it’s a clearly political tool of a competitive and often hostile foreign government that has infiltrated our national youth community at a worryingly fundamental level.

It Doesn’t Matter That ByteDance Is a Private Company

Earlier this year, TikTok CEO Shou Chew testified before Congress — alongside several other tech executives — on the ways in which social media may harm children. It’s likely you saw some of the fallout from that hearing; Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) made headlines for his tacit refusal to acknowledge Chew’s Singaporean nationality, repeatedly questioning the CEO on a supposed connection with the CCP in a manner The Washington Post later called “McCarthy-esque.” But while the Senator inarguably missed the mark with his behavior and treatment of Chew throughout that hearing, it does in fact make a certain amount of sense to question the relationship between ByteDance and the Chinese government, on several levels.

ByteDance is a private company, but that doesn’t mean it’s a fully independent entity. As a baseline, Chinese state law requires every single business operating within the nation’s borders to set up CCP “cells” that monitor their compliance with government values and views. Beyond that, the CCP has a bad habit of concealing government ownership of otherwise “private” companies through intentionally complex and murky corporate structures — and there’s just no guarantee that this isn’t also the case with ByteDance.

But even if we do accept the premise that ByteDance is its own distinct business that operates independently of government directives, the company is still exceedingly vulnerable to state interests. The CCP has a documented history of disappearing the executives of independent Chinese-owned companies that critique or disagree with their national government, returning them to public view only after they’ve been persuaded to reconsider their attitudes and ideologies (take the case of Jack Ma, founder of Ali Baba, as just one example of this dynamic).

This is the big difference between ByteDance and Meta and all the other tech companies we know and love (or hate, as the case may be). However you approach the situation, there’s no way to meaningfully rule out the chance that ByteDance functions or will one day function in service of a foreign government. We’ve collectively made it very clear that we’re not okay with Russian actors manipulating the psychology of the American electorate through the exploitation of Facebook ads and user data — why should we allow the CCP to do the same with TikTok?

TikTok Is As Much a Political Tool as It Is Social Media Platform

It’s clear that TikTok is as valuable a political weapon, if not more so, as it is a social media company. CCP officials have privately told ByteDance leadership that it would rather see TikTok banned in the United States than sold to outside investors, a clear indication that the Chinese government is prioritizing their ability to influence the platform and its users over the company’s profit margin. Moreover, it also says something that so many other foreign entities are interested in buying the app — if ByteDance is a purely for-profit social media business like any other, without political motive, why are the governments of Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates collectively willing to hand former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin upwards of $2.5B for just a fraction of control over this specific app?

It’s also evident from the company’s past behavior that ByteDance is more than willing to put TikTok to use as an overtly political tool at the relative drop of a hat. It’s no secret that the app looks markedly different in China — where it’s full of pro-government propaganda and not much else — than it does around the world, which should tell you something about how the CCP can exploit the platform. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; TikTok is a digital ecosystem rife with fake and illegitimate content that is more often than not selectively filtered to covertly shape public opinion. Consider the chaos of recent elections in Taiwan, where independent fact-checkers worked overtime to counter a flood of pro-China disinformation from countless poorly-identified accounts on the app. Or take the case of Russia, where TikTok made global content inaccessible to users in the country following the invasion of Ukraine, preventing the Russian public from watching the world react to the brutally unjust actions of the Putin regime. Most recently, the American intelligence community found that Chinese operatives used TikTok accounts run by propaganda arms of the CCP to target candidates in our own domestic 2022 midterm cycle, and warned that the CCP may attempt to run similar attacks ahead of our 2024 presidential election.

ByteDance and the CCP have shown their cards again and again when it comes to the value of TikTok as a pipeline for propaganda of all kinds. It would be an exceptionally reckless decision to ignore those demonstrations of power, at both the consumer and federal levels.

I won’t be as dramatic as to say that TikTok is a scourge on humanity, but it’s damnably close. Even on a shallower level, the company’s dust-up with Universal Music Group over sketchy AI and royalty payment policies — in concert with new studies finding that new TikTok users are shown eating disorder and self-harm content within minutes of first scrolling through the platform — underscores a serious and willful neglect of the key values that the average social media company should theoretically prioritize. I understand that TikTok can be used in a positive way, as can most social media, and I admit to enjoying content from the platform that people have shared with me or that has eventually made its way to Instagram Reels or even to YouTube Shorts, but those redeeming qualities pale in light of what widespread adoption of the app has meant and will mean for our collective national (and even global) community.

Join the conversation

or to participate.