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Will TikTok be banned?

by on July 8, 2020

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Does that make TikTok the new Huawei?

When it comes to social media, TikTok is different. Not necessarily in a good way, but that difference is notable and arguably an element of the platform’s success.

As an AI company, what makes TikTok different is not just that their algorithms are better, but that they’re configured differently, which is what may make them (seem) better. The content is more responsive, more geographically relevant, and also relatively easy to produce.

There’s a paradox to AI in that it requires a steady stream of diverse and high quality data to train and improve the machine learning models it depends upon. TikTok has a huge advantage due to their rapidly growing global user base, and the relative accessibility to becoming famous, that appeals to many users. As a meta culture TikTok is incredibly active, with a wide range of sub-cultures that drive increased usage and content creation.

As a Chinese company, TikTok also represents a geopolitical threat, not just due to the economics of social media platforms, but the surveillance potential as well. While it may seem a little late, governments, most notably the United States, are considering a ban on the app.

No doubt a good part of the concern being expressed is related to economics and the ongoing trade dispute between the US and China. However surveillance and national security are also a factor. Not just because TikTok, like Huawei, is in a position to engage in massive widespread, but also targeted, surveillance. The other issue is the development of AI, the role that AI will play, politically, economically, and militarily.

Whether espionage or geopolitics, the concern in Washington regarding the rise of TikTok is not new but has been brewing for many months.

Although the timing of this (contemplation of a) ban cannot be decoupled from the broader electoral campaign.

TikTok like all social media is a factor in this current US Presidential election, and while all sides of the political spectrum are active on TikTok, the left is using it to organize and mobilize in greater numbers and diversity than the right, who are more active on other platforms.

It is however important to note that the US is not the only government openly considering a ban on TikTok.

Australia, an American ally, is also concerned about espionage and strategic advantages afforded by increasingly powerful AI.

As a company, TikTok’s parent, ByteDance, has gone out of its way to present itself as independent from the Chinese Communist Party and the broader Chinese government. One way they’ve attempted to do this is have TikTok distinct from the Chinese version of the app, and have TikTok’s data stored in Singapore, even though the AI for all their apps and services is based in China.

The new security law in Hong Kong has rattled many tech companies operating there, as the government now has and is exercising the power to demand companies in Hong Kong turn over user data. Western tech companies are currently resisting this, it’s doubtful that TikTok would be able to do the same. Therefore for legal but arguably public relations purposes, the company has moved out of Hong Kong.

While ByteDance continues to do the dance that they hope will make others think they’re not closely associated with (or subject to the control of) the Chinese government, it’s not clear that other governments will ever believe this or care.

Perhaps original credit for this move to ban TikTok rests with the Indian government. They banned the app and many other Chinese digital services in response to an ongoing border dispute between the two countries.

However that was not the first time that the Indian government banned TikTok. The app is hugely popular in India, and has been a source of political controversy and instability, which is why the government has temporarily banned the app in the past. Although this current ban does not seem temporary, and like the proposed US ban, seems to have economic intent as the primary motive.

For those who wish to indulge in conspiracy, this is where you can draw the line between Facebook (and their subsidiary Instagram) being the primary beneficiary of any TikTok ban, while also (indirectly) supporting the incumbent US President’s election campaign by allowing lies in political ads.

Is this why Pompeo, the Secretary of State, is releasing the TikTok ban trial balloon? Not just to see if it is viable in the US, but because it has been a part of US diplomacy efforts to counter China’s digital power and influence?

Of course on a technical level, it is worth reflecting on whether any of these efforts to ban TikTok will be successful given the myriad of ways people can use to get around them?

Word about this potential ban is making the rounds on TikTok, and while most people are using this as an opportunity to plug their profiles on other platforms, many are also spreading word on how to circumvent bans and why they will do so.

As we’ve previously discussed in this newsletter, the chance to curb or limit TikTok is arguably already past us. Like Facebook, it has become an entity unto itself, with a meta culture that transcends any national or isolated attempt to combat it.

Similarly part of what makes Facebook and other digital platforms so powerful, is their use of automation. It’s been rather comical watching the evolution of the TikTok advertising market, which started from scratch with the most basic and crude of ads, to what is quickly becoming just as insidious and creepy as Facebook, with the potential to be even worse.

The irony of course is that this isn’t our first rodeo. TikTok is not really blazing a new trail, but rather taking the well trodden path that other digital platforms have taken previously.

The larger question is whether the US will formally adopt a kind of digital protectionism, or even better, digital imperialism, in which rather than seriously engage in anti-trust action, instead choose (national) champions that (eventually) serve the national interests.

I don’t actually think a ban on TikTok is politically or technically possible, but I would not underestimate the stupidity or desperation of the current US administration.

Instead I think that just the talk of a ban, let alone an actual attempt, would only serve to make TikTok more powerful and more popular.

Marshall McLuhan argued that the third world war would be an information war and the battleground would be our minds. TikTok is a great example. See you on the front lines.

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