It’s an odd premise to ask whether America is a freer place with TikTok or without TikTok, but these days it’s on social media where personal satisfaction and national interest collide most strangely.
On Thursday, the US House Committee on Commerce and Energy held a bipartisan display of Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew during his controversial testimony on the app’s corporate ties to China, among other issues. At stake is the company’s continued access to its roughly 150 million monthly US users, whose data US officials worry could be obtained by Chinese Communist Party officials. (“ByteDance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government,” Chew told Congress.)
Many of those US users were unimpressed with their leaders’ performance, which included perplexing questions about whether TikTok connects to your home WiFi network. “If you’ve ever watched a congressional hearing, it’s less about answers and more about bragging and doing soundbites for the media in the hopes that members of Congress get plenty of screen time after the game,” said one. TikTok user @photogsteve81 in a post commenting on images of the testimonial in a post with the hashtags #keeptiktokalive and #savetiktok.
A little cynicism is in order. America’s vaunted social media companies, despite almost every advantage they could muster, were outclassed by a Chinese upstart who came up with a better product. (If the masses really wanted to spend our lives on Instagram Reels, we would have already done so.) In a battle of the free market and the free world, American social media users voted with their eyes. “What TikTok discovered in a way that other platforms haven’t is that you can actually engage the user with mostly positive content and experiences without having to try to provoke their anger and division, like we see on apps like Twitter or Facebook.” . said @photogsteve81.
This is also the kind of thing advertisers love to hear about; Nike especially doesn’t want to sell shoe ads alongside its manifesto about taking over the US Capitol. Many TikTok users are indifferent whether a foreign government knows their feelings about maine coon cats.
But the defenses of TikTok and other social media platforms also deserve scrutiny, for much more than national security reasons.
Like many Americans, I’m a regular TikTok user who can make 45 minutes of my life disappear at any time by gobbling up whatever video the app chooses to show me about cats, birds, politics, history, books, and (I guess I’m learning something about myself) video games and military life. I have bought new albums because of songs i heard on tiktok; there is bits of comedy that I now treat as mental insights. It’s one of the few portions of the internet where the comment section is often the most rewarding part of the overall experience. In these small ways, the app has transformed my life. Without a doubt, the effect of the app is much greater for many other users who have found a genuine community on the service. Here’s what you’d lose if TikTok was banned.
However, we have to be realistic about the fact that TikTok is perhaps the most temperamental form of media created yet, where users have the least control over what we find, and that we swim through this vast wasteland of mayflies, as in everyone else. social media platform, with the ultimate goal of displaying as many ads as possible. Do we fully understand the effects on our attention span, our psychological health, our body image, our children? If the answer is no (and the answer is no), it seems prudent to be patient with even clumsy attempts to challenge the radical business experiment we’ve all been participating in, which touches not just every corner of our personal lives but every corner of our lives. layer of our society.
For example: How many American TikTok users view Congress as a legitimate institution to regulate their private use of social media? If you want to take the long view, any adult TikTok user who has survived the last two decades of American life has lived in a world where our relationships with knowledge, culture, and politics have been less and less mediated by the bored, out of touch, corrupt, watchful main institutions such as newspapers, churches, unions, clubs and political parties that used to order, organize and rationally channel public opinion. wandering spirits.
Although social anomie preceded social mediaOne of the big and probably unintended original insights from Facebook when it first introduced News Feed in 2006 was that the experience of being a free-thinking, free person in this country often felt like being passed with sandpaper. for the skin After all, since we are reasonable people who can think for ourselves, why ought Did we listen to the New York Times when their coverage got so wrong on the 2003 invasion of Iraq? Because ought Are we still going to Mass when the Catholic Church covered up abuse by priests? Because ought Do we trust politicians who seem bought and sold by the 1%? And why should we trust an institution that has shown even an ounce of contempt for our race, gender identity, or political orientation?
It seems reasonable and even rational to complain in such circumstances, to build our evidence and present our cases against the people in charge, in order to reorganize ourselves into better organized and less geographically dependent social formations. Despite extensive propagandaPlatforms like Twitter have not finished giving us direct democracy. But we got a lot of direct action. Through the cunning of the democratic spirit, it is now impossible to imagine going back to a world where authority figures talk all the time. social media feel like freedom, while it seems like our non-TikTok-loving elected representatives are just bashing our vibe in one of the few places where the vibe feels pretty good.
But we have to do better than the sentiments and definitions of freedom that consist of blindly being pushed around by environments that corporations built solely to profit from our impulses. Many online conversations don’t really seem to encourage the kind of thoughtful or empathetic sharing that many of us would probably prefer. We should really support having representative and accountable institutions that fight for our interests but nonetheless dispassionately seek the truth with some isolation from distractions, emotions and fads. Sorry if it sounds boring, but we need spaces that favor patience, detachment, dialogue and a long-term vision. Around the world, governments and authoritarian leaders have long been happy to harness the atomized passions of social media to circumvent and undermine the newspapers, churches, unions and political parties that historically keep them in check. It is possible for a platform to give the feeling of freedom while depriving us of its substance.
“Modern technology has created a kind of monster, a communications system that bypasses the once authoritarian institutions that used to structure democratic discourse and provide citizens with a common base of factual knowledge on which they could deliberate,” the philosopher politician Francis Fukuyama wrote in 2021 in the Democracy Journal. “The private companies responsible for this result are now among the largest in the world. They have not only enormous wealth that they can use to protect their interests, but also a kind of control over the communication channels that facilitate democratic politics.” Fukuyama wasn’t even talking about TikTok. He talked about American companies like Google, Meta and Twitter.
The strength of civil society is in its down-to-earth pluralism, in its fine solidarity between public and private, where the big meets the small and the individual meets the majority. After then-President Trump was banned by Facebook and Twitter executives for undermining the peaceful transfer of power in the US in 2021, their hyper-concentrated power and centralized decision-making structures raised the uncomfortable question of who elected them to maintain the American public square and safeguard the conditions of the republic. That sort of thing is supposed to be everyone’s job. Paraphrasing Hegel, democracy is supposed to have no heroes because heroes appear only in their absence. Social media CEOs shouldn’t be heroes.
So unless you’re really happy with the time you can spend without looking at your phone, and you’re satisfied that all this connectivity is the same as connection, and you feel like you’re in control, there’s no such thing as social media. Giant America should love.