The ubiquitous social video app TikTok did not have a great day yesterday when CEO Shou Zi Chew was brought before Congress to testify ostensibly, but was actually reprimanded, by bloodthirsty lawmakers. In more than five hours of testimonythey painted the company as some kind of infamous Chinese government sleeper agent, plotting against an unsuspecting public.
There are many reasons for concern about TikTok’s corporate practices and overall social impact. The company is opaque about its algorithms and encourages the development of sometimes harmful online subcultures that often target children, causing damage to their mental health, spreading misinformation, and prioritizing engagement above all else.
It mines data and creates profiles of users and likely non-users, which can be exploited for everything from targeted advertising to more nefarious political manipulation and conspiracy. However, those undesirable attributes also apply to a good chunk of Silicon Valley companies, and certainly almost all of the popular social media platforms. Hell, it’s pretty much their business model, and they’ve fought tooth and nail to preserve it.
So TikTok could be used to manipulate political audiences? Facebook and Twitter have a lot of experience with that. Does it encourage adolescents to adopt distorted perceptions of healthy bodies and lifestyles? from instagram got you covered. Does your algorithm lead people to hateful content? That is YouTube territory. Did you take user data to spy on journalists? uber has done just that and worse.
The point is not to ignore the misdeeds of others, but to point out that the entire tech sector is unregulated, and pointing fingers at TikTok is to scapegoat it and divert attention from the sorry state of our modern public squares. And we have seen no evidence that TikTok, which is not available in China, is the advanced cadre of the People’s Liberation Army.
By all means, have bipartisan outrage at TikTok and your contemporaries too. But lawmakers who move to just ban TikTok under some rather tense and conspiratorial arguments about its ties to Beijing and then call it quits are burying their heads in the sand.