On Wednesday, the House of Representatives will likely vote to force ByteDance to divest from TikTok, which sets the stage for a possible full ban of the platform in the United States (Update: it did). The move will come after a slow but steady drumbeat from politicians on both sides of the aisle to ban the platform for some combination of potential and real societal harms algorithmically inflicted upon American teens by a Chinese-owned company. 

The situation is an untenable mess. A TikTok ban will have the effect of further entrenching and empowering gigantic, monopolistic American social media companies that have nearly all of the same problems that TikTok does. A ban would highlight, again, that people who use mainstream social media platforms run by corporations do not actually own their followers or their audiences, and that any businesses/jobs/livelihoods created on these platforms can be stripped away at any moment by the platforms or, in this case, by the United States government. 

Bytedance and TikTok itself have been put into an essentially impossible situation that is perhaps most exemplified in a 60 Minutes clip from 2022 that went viral this weekend, in which Tristan Harris, a big tech whistleblower who has turned the attention he got from the documentary The Social Dilemma into a self-serving career as a guy who talks about how social media is bad, explains that China is exporting the “opium” version of TikTok to American children. 

In [the Chinese] version of TikTok, if you’re under 14 years old, they show you science experiments you can do at home, museum exhibits, patriotism videos, and educational videos,” Harris said. “And they also limit it to only 40 minutes per day. They don’t ship that version of TikTok to the rest of the world. So it’s almost like they recognize TikTok is influencing kids’ development, and they make their domestic version a spinach version of TikTok, while they ship the opium version to the rest of the world.” FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr quote tweeted this and said “In America, TikTok pushes videos to kids that promote self-harm, eating disorders, and suicide.” 

Put simply: Every social media platform pushes awful shit to users of all ages. This is not a defense of TikTok, but a simple fact that has made up a huge portion of tech reporting for the last decade. Mere weeks ago, the New York Times published an exposé on underage girls being pushed into “child influencing,” a world which is full of pedophiles. Instagram’s effects on teens has been widely documented by Meta’s own employees, and without really trying we have been able to document the sale of guns and drugs, hacking services, and counterfeit services in ads displayed on the platform. Discord is full of communities used for organizing by Neo Nazis and paramilitaries, criminal hackers, crypto scammers, deepfake peddlers, teens who kidnap each other, etc. Facebook is full of AI-generated bullshit that people think is real, was used by foreign adversaries to attempt to influence an election, was credibly accused of being abused to facilitate a genocide in Myanmar, and has had innumerable scandals over the years. Twitter is full of malware and has essentially gotten rid of all of its rules. YouTube is a place that has been used by ISIS terrorists, white supremacists, mass shooters, and child brainwashers. Telegram was founded by Russians, is now based in the United Arab Emirates, and is full of criminals, hackers, and Russian disinformation. We have reported endlessly that all of these platforms are monitored by governments, militaries, surveillance agencies, and commercial interests around the world using “social listening,” “social media monitoring,” and OSINT tools.

Meta, Google, and Twitter have all moved resources away from content moderation in recent years, and have laid off huge numbers of employees as Republicans have cried “social media censorship.” As Elon Musk’s Twitter has become more of a cesspool in the absence of good content moderation, Google and Meta have realized that they can keep advertisers as long as their platforms are ever so slightly less toxic than Twitter. I am unaware of any political pushes to ban Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter, and efforts to meaningfully regulate them to be less harmful seemingly have no political will. The only actual regulation of these platforms have been laws passed by conservatives in Florida and Texas which give them even less ability to moderate their platforms and which is the subject of a Supreme Court case. 

This is just to say that TikTok and the specter of China’s control of it has become a blank canvas for which anyone who has any complaint about social media to paint their argument on, and has become a punching bag receiving scrutiny we should also be applying to every other social media giant. 

When Uber, Airbnb, DoorDash and Bird ignore local laws or face the specter of bans or regulation, they use push notifications, email, and popups within their apps asking customers to complain to legislators. When these American apps do this, they are simply leveraging their popularity to “mobilize users.” When TikTok does the same, it is Chinese interference in American politics. When American TikTok users use their platform to share their progressive or leftist politics and TikTok’s algorithms allow them to go viral, that’s Chinese interference. When TikTok deletes content that violates its terms of service, that’s Chinese censorship. When Facebook and Google allow advertisers to create psychographic, biographic, and behavioral-based profiles of their users to target ads to them, that’s “personalized advertising.” When TikTok does ads, it’s Chinese spying. When TikTok users see content that promotes suicide, eating disorders, and makes people feel bad about themselves, it’s China brainwashing our children, undermining America, and threatening our existence. When Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube users see the same, it’s inconvenient and unfortunate, but can be solved with a blasé spokesperson statement that these platforms care about safety and will strive to do better.

In the clip above, Harris explains that polls show American children want to be “social media influencers” and that Chinese children want to be “astronauts,” the subtext being that it is like this because bad stuff is not allowed on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. Banning TikTok is not going to change this (and Harris does not mention that China has tons of social media influencers as well). Harris says this with some derision, the subtext being that we should not want our children to grow up to be social media influencers. 

This should not need to be explained, but because Harris and 60 Minutes did not explain it: Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok) is not actually a sterile place that consists only of people doing science experiments and math equations, just as TikTok and all social media in America is not only an unmitigated shithole devoid of intellectual value. But Harris has this idea of Douyin being a safe place for kids because China does not have a free internet. The internet is widely and famously censored by the Chinese government, and ByteDance is complying with Chinese law in China. It is possible to argue (though I would not), that this makes the internet “safer,” and it is possible to argue (though I would not) that a “safer” internet is “better.” If Harris wants Chinese-style censorship of the internet in the United States, then he should argue for that. But in the United States, we have the First Amendment and a host of other regulations that have fostered something resembling an open internet. That open internet allowed for the rise of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. 

This general principle of not censoring the global internet also allowed for the rise of TikTok, which has millions of users in the United States because people like using it. TikTok is not perfect—in fact, I believe lots of the things on TikTok are very bad. Despite what I have just written, I understand that Chinese interference via algorithmic warfare or spying or any other tactic is a possible threat. China has been accused of using accounts on TikTok to spread influence, in the exact same way as the U.S. government has been caught spreading pro-U.S. influence abroad on Facebook and Twitter. 

Like I mentioned, I think that this entire situation is actually very complicated, and is in fact a huge mess. I can understand why some people want to ban TikTok, but I am not sure how the government can do so without violating the free speech rights of millions of Americans and setting us on a path where a relatively open, global internet becomes one that is increasingly geographically siloed. I don’t think we should ban a platform because it competed too hard and became popular, especially when the direct beneficiaries of a ban are companies that are doing most of the same apparent algorithmic poisoning of America, just from within America’s borders. I also do not think it is constitutional, ethical, or good for the government to decide to unilaterally cut millions of Americans off from one of the largest social media platforms in the world and to effectively force its users and more importantly the people who make a living on TikTok to use a balkanized internet dominated by American megacorporations. {read}