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An app for destruction

Government exists to protect society from entities like TikTok

A woman uses her phone as she passes by ByteDance headquarters in Beijing, China. Associated Press/Photo by Ng Han Guan

An app for destruction
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On Feb. 27, the United States became only the latest Western country to ban TikTok from government devices. Next up? A complete nationwide ban, if some senators get their way. In an age where we have grown accustomed to sacrificing almost every other human good on the altar of “freedom of expression,” such censorship may seem almost unthinkable. From a broader historical vantage point, however, what’s shocking is simply that it’s taking us so long.

TikTok, which burst onto the scene in 2016 as something of a cross between Instagram and YouTube, soon took the youth market by storm with its highly-addictive feeds of short video clips featuring everything from cute cat videos to user-generated porn. It is now the most popular social media app in America as measured by new downloads, and boasts around 140 million monthly users. Unfortunately, it is the app that is using us, not we who are using it.

This comes as little surprise to those who have kept an eye on the emergence over the past two decades of what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism”—the basic business model behind most digital technology. The idea is simple: In a world of consumers, whoever can most influence the most people (and gather the most information) can make the most money. And the secret to influence is knowledge: If I know your habits, your loves, your hates, and your dirty little secrets, I will know how to make you do what I want.

For many digital media companies, the imperative is to gather as much data as possible on their users, with as little concern for privacy as they can get away with—and use this data to addict users to their products or sell their users’ attention to advertisers.

No one has been better at this game the last six years than TikTok, because almost no one has been so aggressive in harvesting user data. Recent revelations have shown that TikTok doesn’t merely track and record everything you do inside the app, but everything you do outside of it too—including logging your keystrokes as you browse the web or type in passwords, as well as monitoring your location. All of this, of course, has helped TikTok to build an interface so addictive it would make a Vegas casino owner blush, since it knows exactly what sort of content will keep you scrolling.

TikTok offers an almost effortless mechanism for systematic espionage and influence on vast swathes of American government, industry, and society.

While such godlike power is ripe for abuse in the hands of any private company, TikTok’s creator, ByteDance, is not just any company. It is a Beijing-based tech behemoth with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party, and it is required by law to make all of the data it gathers available to the CCP. It is hard to imagine that any major government would forego access to such a treasure trove, and the CCP has never shown any scruples when it comes to surveillance. With what American Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Klon Kitchen has called “perhaps the most powerful tool for geopolitical influence ever built” at its disposal, we can reasonably assume that the CCP is gleefully employing TikTok against the American people in at least three ways.

First, TikTok offers an almost effortless mechanism for systematic espionage and influence on vast swathes of American government, industry, and society. Seen in this light, the recent ban on TikTok for federal workers is just basic national security policy, but a wider ban is almost certainly wise as well.

Second, for many of its users, TikTok has become a primary source of news and information, so much so that Democrats used TikTok influencers as a key part of their 2020 election strategy. What the Biden administration has done ham-handedly, you can bet the Chinese government knows how to do surreptitiously. Indeed, with just a few tweaks of an algorithm it could ensure that most young people get the Communist Party’s perspective on tensions with Taiwan or protests in Hong Kong.

Third, while the previous two points are speculative (but likely true), we already know for a fact that TikTok, even more than most social media apps, is visiting terrible destruction on the lives of America’s youth. Teenage girls in particular have exhibited steep rises in eating disorders and Tourette’s syndrome, while TikTok’s role as a vehicle for sexual exploitation has also been well-documented. TikTok’s Chinese creators know just how dangerous the app can be; maybe that’s why the Chinese version of the app has strict usage limits not present on the exported version (although in a recent PR move, TikTok announced the addition of an easily overridden default time limit to the app).

Some of these concerns might be addressed by the Biden administration’s new proposal to force ByteDance to sell TikTok to a U.S.-owned company, although without broader reforms the app will remain predatory. But at the very least we should dispense with the nonsense about TikTok embodying American ideals of “freedom of expression.” Slavery to a foreign power or to sexual predators is not any rational person’s definition of freedom, and protection from such slavery is the main reason that we have a national government. It’s high time that our national government acts to fulfill its constitutional duty.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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