Tik Tok is All Fun and Games Until US Citizens Go Renegade

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Tik Tok might be permanently banned from the United States. Its existence now depends on a satisfactory business deal with Oracle, the presumptive computer-software company involved in the deal. President Trump, the man driving the banning of Tik Tok, chiefly cited national security concerns as his reason, claiming that US citizens’ data might become accessible to the Chinese government. Under the deal, Oracle does not seek to buy Tik Tok; it would only gain control over US data operations (Tik Tok is currently owned by Bytedance, a Chinese internet company). While data privacy indeed appears to be a pressing issue under the deal, it is only a minor squabble that belies a more exigent problem: China’s influence over a significant instrument of political expression for millions of US citizens. Our decision to ban Tik Tok must thus not be contingent upon whether our data is safe after the deal, but rather if Oracle is able to gain power over the app’s censorship policies. 

The precautions Tik Tok has taken, in addition to the current stipulations that would exist under the Tik Tok-Oracle deal, should provide enough safeguards in regard to data security. Tik Tok currently stores all of its data in the United States — with backups in Singapore. Furthermore, Oracle’s future control over all US data operations would prevent China from acquiring US data. The notion that China can freely access such information is misguided.

Therefore, the underlying problem lies not so much in whether China can obtain user data, but rather if China can control what we see. Since Oracle has purview mostly over data operations, the functionality of the app would still be maintained in China; this includes the aesthetics, the video formatting, and most importantly, the content. There are around 130 employees at Bytedance who are part of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Though Tik Tok refuses to admit it, the effects of such intricate ties to the CCP are disconcerting. In September 2019, a search for the #HongKongProtest yielded results that totaled a cumulative 5,000 views, whereas a search for #snails returned 6.6 million views. This ideological subservience to the CCP is blatantly manifested in Bytedance founder Zhang Yiming’s apology for not censoring videos that deviated from “socialist core values” when Tik Tok was first launched. It should come as no surprise, then, that teenage Tik Tok user Feroza Aziz’s account was suspended numerous times after she denounced China’s mistreatment of the Uigher muslims. 

The fact that nearly a third of the United States population uses Tik Tok —  upward of 100 million monthly US users according to CNBC —  underscores the extent to which the CCP can directly shape many US citizens’ perception of current events. If the internal party committee decides that a topic is not satisfactory to the image of the CCP, it can be immediately erased: the danger lies not only in the manipulation of truth, but also in its omission. What if China doesn’t want Tik Tok users to know about Hong Kong protests? Or about the Uigher Muslims? We would only exacerbate the problem of a highly uneducated adolescent group that severely lacks awareness of global news, which consequently decreases the chances that that group will act to change the present iniquities.

I wish I could claim this aforementioned problem wouldn’t be significant on the grounds that the US population can inform itself using reliable sources of media. But especially for teenagers — a group accounting for around 60 million of the monthly Tik Tok user base in the US — this is nothing more than a quixotic expectation. According to the Pew Research Center, social media surpassed print newspapers as the primary news source for Americans in 2017. So as Tik Tok continues to stretch its influence over the minds of the US population, especially among the younger demographic, China is gaining far too much control over the minds of our youth.  And despite TikTok contending that their app is supposed to be merely for “entertainment purposes,” they have clearly transcended the realm of entertainment; this year, from February to July, Tik Tok users liked videos with the #SleepyJoe hashtag upward of 3 million times. And the fact is, TikTok isn’t going to ban political commentaries in the near future. 

Additionally, Oracle is unlikely to gain significant control over censorship policies, because under the current deal, it would only control data operations. And in accordance with such a trajectory, there is no alternative other than to ban Tik Tok. If we don’t, it’s not going to end well when China believes that the Tik Tokers in the US are going Renegade.