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Digital degradation

TikTok’s problems are deeper than China

TikTok building in Culver City, Calif. Associated Press/Photo by Damian Dovarganes

Digital degradation
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Sometimes the only way to stop a notorious gangster like Al Capone is not to catch him in the act of murder or obtain ironclad evidence of extortion. Sometimes, you just have to charge him with tax fraud.

That seems to be the spirit at work in Congress regarding TikTok, the social video app owned by a Chinese firm and the subject of seemingly endless controversy throughout its lightning-fast rise to the top of the technology world. On March 13, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to ban the app unless its current owner, ByteDance, sells it. Both parties have expressed dismay at ByteDance’s connections with the Chinese Communist Party and the evidence that user data from the United States may have been handed over to the CCP. The law passed 352-65, a shocking unanimity for an often-sclerotic legislative branch.

The bill may very well die in the Senate. But for the moment, it’s worth reflecting on one of the most surprising bipartisan moments in recent congressional history—more specifically, on why it was Big Tech that elicited such left-right cooperation. For all the real urgency in closing such an obviously dangerous national security hole, the problems with TikTok go much deeper than its ownership.

Washington’s relationship with social media firms has been rocky, to say the least. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been dragged in front of Congress more than once to answer pointed questions on everything from election interference to disinformation to the mental health effects of Instagram. Founders and executives from Twitter and Google have done the same in recent years.

All of those apps and websites are vulnerable to robust critique (such as the critiques I’ve offered here and elsewhere). But TikTok is different, and not just because of its handling of user data.

For one thing, TikTok’s algorithm has been unusually effective in putting weird, fringe, and toxic content in front of users. The Wall Street Journal’s famous investigation, which prompted changes to TikTok’s algorithm, revealed an app that was seemingly primed to push depressing or sexually explicit videos to the top of user timelines. Last year, Bloomberg reported on TikTok’s handling of suicidal content, including evidence that teens searching the app for mental health videos can instead find messages softening or even encouraging self-harm.

It's now become a near-consensus that heavy social media use correlates with a host of mental and emotional problems in teens. Oddly, this might seem to give companies like ByteDance a little bit of cover, like a fast-food chain whose sandwiches may or may not cause cancer. If all fast food is bad for you, how fair is it to single out just one chain?

TikTok’s worst tendencies are not accidental or arbitrary.

But this ignores the reality that TikTok’s worst tendencies are not accidental or arbitrary. TikTok’s format of very short videos, which are usually without any larger context or explanation, is an example of the attention economy at its most naked. The goal of every video is to be watched, and in an app with millions of bite-sized clips that all assault the attention span, getting the views means constantly needing to attract instant emotional responses—responses like humor or curiosity, yes, but also more reliable click-magnets like lust, anger, and despair.

Can people, particularly young people, inhabit such a mental space for hours each day without being significantly shaped by it? The answer to that is suggested by what happened in the hours leading up to that lopsided House vote. “Many of the calls to lawmakers about the app were emotional and personal,” reports USA Today, before adding that “some callers threatened to die by suicide if Congress banned the app.” Of course, hardly anyone can know how many of those threats were jokes, sarcasm, and so forth. But that confusion is the point. TikTok is a content machine where the lines between true and false, seriousness and jest, and even hope and despair are relentlessly blurred.

TikTok’s golden era has at least helped to clarify two facts about our digital age. The first is that social media’s formative power is greater than almost anyone believed back when Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007. Its potential to shape and reshape beliefs, intuitions, and habits in the image of the algorithm is clear, if not yet fully understood. Christians and conservatives are past due to seriously interrogate the digital age, not only for its inappropriate or ideological content but for its form.

Second, whether elected representatives will use the power of law to hold technology firms accountable for their products and the world their products create is not a question of legitimacy but of political will. The House vote is clear evidence that Washington can, when it desires, push back on Big Tech. It’s not hard to imagine why there may be bipartisan energy to avoid looking like a patron of the Chinese Communist Party. But the question should be asked: Does that same energy exist to help American teens and adults not be the kind of persons that talk of suicide when their favorite digital distractions are taken away?

Because that sounds like a national security issue, too.

Samuel D. James

Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books. He is a regular contributor to First Things and The Gospel Coalition, and his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and National Review. Samuel and his wife Emily live in Louisville, Ky., with their two children.

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