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In Defense of TikTok

Like most members of Generation X, I had never used TikTok, but when the political push to ban it intensified in 2023, I pulled out an old smartphone and installed TikTok to see what the fuss was all about.”

I teach a class called “Logical Reasoning in Human Genetics” all around the world, and one of the main messages in the class is to encourage everyone to think critically for themselves and not believe something just because “everyone knows that.” As Confucius wrote, “If everybody hates something, you’d better check into it. If everybody loves something, you’d better check into it.” I usually follow this up with an analogy that rings true for most Americans: In our politically divided country, sometimes Democrats are right, and sometimes Republicans are right, but when the two parties agree, we are almost always in big trouble. To wit, a wide bipartisan majority of the House of Representatives recently passed a bill banning TikTok (or at least forcing Chinese investors to divest their ownership of TikTok), which, for me, immediately raised a number of red flags.

One of the main arguments for banning TikTok is that TikTok, Inc is a subsidiary of Beijing-based company ByteDance operating in the United States. As such, there is the concern that Beijing might use TikTok to spread its views via an influence operation. Then, there is also the risk that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) might engage in data harvesting regarding the social media activities of American citizens. This has also been raised to defend the proposed ban. In this essay, I will focus on the first of these issues, which I find to be more worrying as a pro-free-speech Libertarian and will then deal briefly with the data privacy and national security concerns as well.

Like most members of Generation X, I had never used TikTok, but when the political push to ban it intensified in 2023, I pulled out an old smartphone and installed TikTok to see what the fuss was all about. Why did so many people want this app discontinued? When I posted a short video on TikTok about why I joined (and what I was trying to understand about the “dangers of TikTok”), the responses I received were mostly of the flavor of “On TikTok, I can say ‘F— Joe Biden’ or ‘Vaccines don’t work’” or “TikTok allows me to talk about Hunter Biden’s Laptop” without being censored. Personally, I think the Coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines performed surprisingly well, and I have no personal animus toward the Biden family, but it was clear to me from these comments that the federal government has less control over content moderation on TikTok than it has on Facebook, YouTube and X.  

I should note that a similar response was obtained when I asked Americans why they were using VK (ВКонтакте), the Russian analog of Facebook, where there was an uptick in American memberships subsequent to the push for censorship of “disinformation” on Facebook and Twitter posts during the 2020 trifecta of the COVID-19 pandemic, the George Floyd protests, and the 2020 presidential election. One thing TikTok and VK have in common is that, as foreign-owned entities, they are relatively out of reach of the federal government’s attempts to act as the “Ministry of Truth” to censor what our government determines to be potential “disinformation.”  

To be fair, Facebook and X are blocked in China and Russia because these companies refuse to cooperate with the Chinese and Russian government censors, in sharp contrast to VK and Douyin (China’s domestic analog of TikTok). Some have argued that a tit-for-tat ban on TikTok in the United States is justified in response to China and Russia blocking American social media platforms, but such action would be wholly inconsistent with American values and enshrined rights to freedom of expression.

Shortwave Radio

The proposed TikTok ban comes on the heels of intense American government pressure against foreign media sources like RT , Press TV, Al Jazeera, and China Global Television Network. Such attempts to censor foreign media entities reminds me of efforts by the Soviet Union to jam shortwave radio broadcasts during the Cold War era. (Shortwave radio broadcasts were the closest thing we had to the Internet for international communication and information exchange in the 1980s).  

Throughout the 20th century, the American government invested heavily in propaganda broadcasting with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Marti, Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and other such efforts to undermine foreign rivals through broadcasting the American worldview to their people. The United States would then complain bitterly about the efforts of the Soviet Union and other countries to jam these radio stations’ signals because “jamming is violative of the principle of freedom of information, a fundamental human right,” and “the West believes that global peace can be achieved only through open and informed discussion.” The United States relied on the following arguments, which are summarized in an article posted on Antentop.

  1. The Helsinki Final Act in 1975 declared: “The participating States make it their aim to facilitate the freer and wider dissemination of information of all kinds.”
  2. Article 45 of the Constitution of the International Telecommunication Union states: “All stations, whatever their purpose, must be established and operated in such a manner as not to cause harmful interference to the radio services or communications of other Members, recognized operating agencies, or other authorized operating agencies which carry on a radio service, and which operate in accordance with the Radio Regulations.”
  3. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right…to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
  4. United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 424(V) from 1950 “invites the governments of all Member States to refrain from such interference with the right of their peoples to freedom of information.”

Today, the American government is actively engaged in the same enterprise it criticized its geopolitical rivals for in the past. In the 21st century, the Internet has largely supplanted shortwave radio as the medium of choice for disseminating each nation’s ideas globally. Some have argued that because China blocks access to Western Internet outlets, the United States is justified in returning the favor by banning theirs, which would have been equivalent to the United States jamming Radio Moscow because the Soviet Union jammed Radio Free Europe. Notably, in the debate about aforementioned UNGA Resolution 424 (V), an American delegate to the UNGA, Edith Sampson, declared in 1950: “The American people were used to making up their own minds; anybody who asked for foreign propaganda directed at the United States to be jammed would certainly meet with a hostile reception.” Clearly, times have changed. 

We did not block Soviet propaganda because to do so would undermine the moral argument for the free exchange of information. The historical experiment in democracy that forms the basis of American society mandates that we not censor the press but, rather, that we encourage people to say and think what they want. The American government may not deny access to information or ideas because they are deemed to be “dangerous” or “inappropriate.”American society, after all, is based upon the revolutionary idea that citizens are smart enough to handle a free and open marketplace of ideas and draw their own conclusions.  

When I think about the current efforts to ban foreign media, I am reminded of that part of my life when, as a wide-eyed teenager, I would listen with curiosity to such stations as Radio Moscow, Radio Pyongyang, and even Radio Jamahiriya (“The Voice of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” from Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya). I used to find it amusing to hear what I perceived as “obvious propaganda,” believing what I heard on World News Tonight was the unbiased truth. Despite all of this exposure to “subversive ideas,” I have been a card-carrying Libertarian for most of my adult life. Of course, once I grew up and started traveling and spending time in some of these countries, I discovered that American news was not actually the unbiased truth either. News—in every country—tends to advance favored viewpoints. 

Foreign Propaganda by Mail

In high school and college, I enjoyed writing to all of these radio stations in search of QSL cards, which verified that I had received their station. I would send them reports on the reception quality of their broadcasts. The “foreign malign influence” countries of that era would typically send glossy magazines, newspapers, and books about the glorious state of life in their respective paradises. I have saved most of those pieces of foreign propaganda. I found them fascinating (and sometimes hilarious). Most importantly, though, they offered insight into how people try to convince others to believe unconventional ideas.  

My parents, having lived through the McCarthy era, were frightened when unexpected, large envelopes from North Korea or the Soviet Union would show up at our house in rural America (in Upstate New York). They feared that receiving such things by mail would get me blackballed from any future pursuits. How would anyone know I had received such things? In their generation, the post office would refuse to deliver foreign propaganda unless recipients had actively requested it be delivered to them.  

Section 305(a) of the Postal Service and Federal Employees Salary Act of 1962 read: “Mail matter, except sealed letters, which originates or which is printed or otherwise prepared in a foreign country and which is determined by the Secretary of the Treasury pursuant to rules and regulations to be promulgated by him to be ‘communist political propaganda’, shall be detained by the Postmaster General upon its arrival for delivery in the United States, or upon its subsequent deposit in the United States domestic mails, and the addressee shall be notified that such matter has been received and will be delivered only upon the addressee’s request, except that such detention shall not be required in the case of any matter which is furnished pursuant to subscription or which is otherwise ascertained by the Postmaster General to be desired by the addressee.” It should be noted that “communist political propaganda” was defined in this statute by reference to the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 (FARA), which is the same law now being used to pressure foreign media outlets such as RT, CGTN, PressTV, and the like.

  • 305(a) was found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the 1965 case Lamont v. Postmaster General. In the court’s unanimous decision, Justice Byron White cited Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes from a much earlier case, who wrote: “The United States may give up the post office when it sees fit, but, while it carries it on, the use of the mails is almost as much a part of free speech as the right to use our tongues…” The Justices concluded that “Public officials like schoolteachers who have no tenure might think they would invite disaster if they read what the Federal Government says contains the seeds of treason. Apart from them, any addressee is likely to feel some inhibition in sending for literature which federal officials have condemned as ‘communist political propaganda.’ The regime of this Act is at war with the ’uninhibited, robust, and wide-open’ debate and discussion that are contemplated by the First Amendment.”

As Justice William J. Brennan wrote in his concurring opinion, “The argument that the statute is justified by the object of avoiding the subsidization of propaganda of foreign governments which bar American propaganda needs little comment.” He continued: “That the governments which originate this propaganda themselves have no equivalent guarantees only highlights the cherished values of our constitutional framework; it can never justify emulating the practice of restrictive regimes in the name of expediency.” It seems clear that these statements and this precedent should apply every bit as much to the Internet as they did to “snail mail.”

Security Arguments Against TikTok

As to the alleged national security implications of TikTok, it is important to recount the experience of the Twitter Files, in which the United States federal government was revealed to be actively monitoring social media to spy on American citizens and was also directing private social media companies to censor, deplatform, or shadow ban certain accounts. Many users of TikTok are far more concerned about this well-documented invasion of privacy and encroachment on free expression by the American government than they are about potential Chinese government spying.  

Certain American officeholders have argued that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) might blackmail someone in the future over embarrassing posts he made on TikTok when he was younger and more foolish. Of course, the CCP could do the same, though, with material posted on Facebook, X, or LinkedIn. But the reality is that American political parties and operatives engage in this activity far more often than does the CCP, exemplified by the widespread investment in “oppo research.” This is a euphemism for scouring through every opposition party politician’s life with a fine-toothed comb looking for anything that could be held against them. This “politics of personal destruction” is more characteristic of domestic actors in modern politics than of foreign governments.  

As to the argument that we should not use TikTok because the CCP would receive lists of American users and would know what videos these Americans may have watched, it rings hollow. The Chinese have more important things to care about than whether or not a given American likes to watch women twerking. It does not pass the smell test, especially since the American government mines all of this information from Facebook and X on a continual basis with no shame whatsoever. The average American has vastly more to fear from his own government monitoring him than from what American intelligence describes as a purely theoretical Chinese threat from TikTok. Furthermore, TikTok, Inc has invested over a billion dollars in “Project Texas,” an initiative to ensure that all American user data collected by TikTok is stored on the Oracle cloud, where TikTok or Bytedance employees are prevented from accessing it.

Is China Ascendant?

The dramatic push by the American government to decouple economically from China in recent years appears to be a byproduct of its frustration that the United States cannot apply unilateral economic sanctions to pressure China without mutually assured economic destruction. The two economies are too intertwined. The American government is addicted to sanctions as a way to wage war against other countries without actually waging war, though the current intense tranche of sanctions against Russia is proving to be ineffective. It constitutes short-term thinking to conclude that because the United States currently retains more economic power than China that disengaging would give the Americans more power to force the Chinese to kneel before them, under the threat of sanctions. China’s economy is likely to continue to grow, despite its current difficulties, and what goes around comes around. The world is also likely much safer with the American and Chinese economies being as interdependent as they are.

Of course this is just one salvo in what promises to be a protracted war against Chinese influence. The American government now restricts grant funding to American universities that host Confucius Institutes, which are scholarly centers supported by the Chinese government to teach Chinese language and culture, and about the worldview of the Chinese government. This is an absurd restriction on speech, in my view, and undermines our own educational mission at universities. Our students are smart enough to distill truth from propaganda, just as I was when I listened to Radio Moscow as a teenager. I shudder at the thought that our next generation of diplomats and politicians will miss out on this opportunity to learn about what China thinks and why. Understanding one’s rivals is critical to negotiating and engaging with them in the future.  

China is certainly not an innocent and beneficent actor, and it absolutely wants to displace the United States as the world’s leading economy. China clearly also aspires to raise its people out of poverty. China has approximately four times the population of the United States, and, if China follows its current trajectory, it will eventually surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy, unless it is saddled by its own internal challenges. The United States should actually encourage this rather than aspire to a future in which the Chinese people—on average—continue to remain much poorer than Americans. As Chinese economic power grows, so does the size of the potential market for all of the technology products and services produced by American companies. 

That said, it is reasonable for Washington, D.C. to be concerned about the consequences of losing its economic hegemony as more and more countries begin trading internationally with Yuan instead of dollars (which is further driven by the widespread use of economic sanctions as an instrument of American foreign policy). In the long term, the United States needs to work with China if it desires to benefit from China’s economic growth. The United States will eventually have to adapt to a world in which it is no longer the only economic and military superpower, lest the United States ends up in a new and unsustainable Cold War of its own making.

It is important—meanwhile—to note that China is intensely engaged with the Global South through its Belt and Road Initiative and has been for decades. When I traveled around the Middle East in 2011, I was amazed that every flight I took had a Chinese-speaking flight attendant because so many rural Chinese people were over there doing business, selling goods arguably deemed unsuitable for American big box stores. Chinese entrepreneurs are actively engaged economically in many places where their American counterparts are not, from the Balkans to Africa to South America.

The truth is that China is an effective competitor who is playing a much longer game than the United States, with its eyes set on 2049 (the 100th anniversary of the founding of the PRC). All the while, many in the United States rarely think beyond the next presidential administration. Most Americans do not seem to comprehend fully just how good China has become at the practice of capitalism. China has even been developing a sophisticated patent system that protects the intellectual property rights of small inventors as well as or better than the American system does. 

The Struggle to Maintain Information Dominance

The ostrich-in-the-sand approach we have been following by banning cultural institutions like Confucius Institutes from American college campuses and attempting to wrest control of TikTok from its Chinese owners and developers seems ill-adapted to educating open-minded and thoughtful future diplomats and statesmen. It is more about “information dominance”: controlling the message and the medium to make certain that everyone is fully inculcated in the American government’s worldview alone. Perhaps the American government does not want to have students thinking freely about topics such as the war in Ukraine, the political status of Taiwan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the origins and mitigation of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), vaccine policy, and the like.

We used to champion this viewpoint when the United States dominated the information warfare space in the 20th century, but now that our rivals have upped their game, the American government no longer seems to view the free exchange of ideas as beneficial. The idea that the American government sees the right to free speech, as enshrined in the First Amendment, applying only to its own citizens is a bone-chilling argument, creating a hierarchy online where some people are more entitled to free speech than others, an idea wholly inconsistent with the fundamentally American value that “all men are created equal.”  

Following my own brief experiment with TikTok, I realized that I have no interest in continuing to use it. I am not a member, after all, of the “ADHD generation.” The never-ending sequence of brief video clips TikTok fed me from random strangers had absolutely no appeal to me, so I uninstalled the app and deleted my account. However, this is not an argument for banning it. Clearly, millions of Americans do not share my distaste for this product. If people believe that Chinese ownership of TikTok creates an untenable danger to their personal data privacy, they are free to delete it from their devices as well. But these are personal choices that Americans can make based on their own assessment of risk and benefit, without a paternalistic all-knowing government denying the fundamental freedom to make our own choices, “for our own good.”  

The American government has been increasingly restricting the scope and exercise of our “unalienable” rights and freedoms, from the ill-conceived Patriot Act, to the pandemic-era lockdowns and vaccine and mask mandates. Do not let TikTok be another example.

Joseph D. Terwilliger is a Professor of Neurobiology at Columbia University, focused on human genetics of isolated populations in such places as Venezuela, Finland, Libya, North Korea, Kazakhstan, and beyond. He is also a professional tuba player, an active sports and science diplomat, a board member of the Association of Libertarian Educators, and is still an active amateur radio operator (callsign WJ0ET).

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