The US Takes On TikTok

Listen to this episode

S1: Over the weekend, Tick Tock began filling up with these testimonials, some of them were emotional, a lot of them were just silly.

S2: Hi, Grandma Sandy here, and I’m hanging out with one of my grandbabies. Jordan, hi.

S1: This one is from a grandma who is best known for putting some Mentos in a soda bottle and letting the concoction explode all over her face. She was filming the whole time. She’s got 2.5 million followers.

Advertisement

S2: Well, we all love to talk. And, of course, we’re all hoping Tick Tock stays with us for a very, very, very long time because it brings us so much joy. It’s brought so much joy to these videos.

S1: They were spurred on by the president’s assertion on Friday that he was going to ban tick tock. He’s alleged the Chinese owned company is a security threat.

S2: Tick tock. We love you. We all want you to stay around for a long time.

S1: I called up Bethanie Alan Abrahamson because I wanted to know whether this bad idea made any sense.

S3: So, Bethany, I have a question for you. Do you have Tic-Tac on your phone?

Advertisement

S4: I do not have talk on my phone.

S1: Bethany covers China for axios.

S4: So I’ll tell you, I actually did download Tic TAC about one year ago, and then I went to go open up an account and it was asking for all this information. And I thought, you know what, I’m just going to go ahead and delete ticktock from my phone. Why I was really concerned about about data collection. I was really concerned that the Chinese authorities would be able to recognize somehow that that I was using it because I know that I am a target.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: As a journalist, Bethany’s already had her email hacked by the Chinese government, she worries about her sources, but watching the Trump administration debate the idea of deleting Tick-Tock for everyone else in the U.S., Bethanie thinks you got to understand how he got to this point and what the risks are.

Advertisement

S3: Whatever we end up doing, you know, over the weekend, the president got a lot of attention for suggesting he wanted to ban Tic-Tac. And it sounds like you’re not sure that’s like a really far out idea.

S4: The idea of our government taking action to protect our society from talk is absolutely not a far out idea and is, I think, appropriate. The problem with banning something is, first of all, we don’t have any kind of special legal or decision making structure about how to ban a social media app. This is kind of uncharted territory for the US. And it’s a really delicate thing, because if you look at China, you know, 10 years ago when they were banning Facebook and Twitter and lots of other websites, that was universally viewed as censorship, as a threat to free speech and as a threat to an open world, and for the U.S. to ban tick talk to ban, it would, in a sense, be emulating that.

Advertisement

S5: The president might be backing off his initial threat to ban Tic-Tac, but that still leaves open this question, what do we do about this app? Today on the show, the debate over ticktock and what it can tell you about how the U.S. China relationship is evolving. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S3: This weekend, I’ve kind of been struck by all the folks out there putting out memes, preemptively mourning Tock, and I think I think the issue is that it’s hard for people to square in their minds, like how could the platform that hosts Walter the dog videos, you know, silly videos, how is that a national security threat?

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: Definitely. And I think there’s a couple of reasons for that. One of them is related to China and one of them isn’t. And the larger picture here, you know, and this is a sort of a separate discussion of how much data do we want these these big companies to have and what do they do with that data and how do we govern that as a society. But the other part of it that’s specific to tick tock is that the Chinese government and not the US government would be the one that would have access to that data. And that’s very deeply concerning from from the ticktock side. So you take that framework and apply it to individual users. And you can think I as an individual don’t want the Chinese government to have my information. But there’s a there’s a larger society wide concern that is this. We know that the Russian government sought to meddle in the 2016 elections by manipulating social media through their understanding of how Americans interact with social media posts, interact with the information environment. We have seen over the past year that the Chinese government is learning from Russia. They have undertaken several campaigns on Twitter, most notably to feed and disinformation to use bots. So they’re actively seeking to change narratives to feed conspiracy theories into societies outside of their country. This is now known and having access direct access to 160 million Americans, social media accounts. So how they interact with information, what they make go viral and having access to that data on a mass scale makes us as a society very vulnerable to Chinese disinformation, Chinese government disinformation and disinformation campaigns, especially as we’re coming up to our elections. But at any time. Right.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: So I wonder if we can talk a little bit about some of the evidence that Tick-Tock is being used for data harvesting. Like, haven’t they been involved with the situation in China?

S4: Yes. So I believe that byte dance, which is the Chinese parent company that owns tick tock assisted Chinese government efforts to identify and locate wigger women of childbearing age. And once they were located, they were rounded up and some of them were put into camps and some of them were went through a forced sterilization process as part of the campaign of genocide that the Chinese government is perpetrating. And chignon. Why did bite dance assist with that? I’m not speculating as to the personal moral beliefs of anyone at Fight Dance. I don’t have to bite. Dance is required by law to hand over any data to the Chinese government if requested, and to hand over any information and to provide any kind of assistance to the Chinese government if requested. And they have essentially no power to fight back. And the other part of that is that according to China’s cybersecurity and intelligence laws, if you are if you are the subject of this request, if you have to comply with the Chinese government request to hand over data information and provide assistance, you were also required to keep that assistance a secret. Hmm. So that’s that’s the that’s the legal side of the problem.

S1: Bethanie says there’s another problem with tick tock. It’s not just that they’re owned by a Chinese company. They’ve got employees who are physically working in China, employees who have to abide by the Chinese laws about forking information over to the government whenever they ask for it.

S4: This is the same situation as Zoome by which we are currently talking. And Zoom. Zoom is definitely an American company, no question about it. It’s an American company, but they have seven hundred employees in China. Seven hundred research and development employee employees in China. The CEO of Zoom has previously said that that is key to their to their revenue, to their profit model, because it’s cheaper for them to have them there. And it would be incredibly expensive to move that team or to replace that team with a team outside of China. What does that mean? Well, all seven hundred of those employees are subject to China’s intelligence and cybersecurity laws, which means that. Any one of them could be approached and asked for him to give assistance. Let me be clear here. I’m speculating. I’m not saying this has happened, but I’m saying that the laws make this possible, that they could put in a back door or they could give any kind of data that they have access to to the Chinese government. And again, they’re required by law to keep that assistance. A secret to that is that that’s one severe weakness that Tick-Tock also has. In addition, you know, the Chinese government could put pressure on the company by saying, look, we’re going to, I don’t know, kick you out of your building. We’re going to, you know, make life difficult for you because they have leverage over the company. If they have that many employees there, you know, they have all kinds of leverage, so they have leverage over you, then they can force you to do what they want you to do.

Advertisement

S3: One of the solutions that’s been put forward for the issue of Tick-Tock is what if an American company just purchased Tic-Tac and took over its operation and reportedly Microsoft has been in talks to do that. Would that solve the problem here?

Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: It would alleviate the problem. It wouldn’t solve the entire problem. So in the short term, it would you know, it would remove that legal pressure that any Chinese company is under, you know, from these laws that I’ve mentioned. However, there are there are two things that it wouldn’t relieve. And one of them is the ten time employees who are based in China. And second, it doesn’t solve the structural problem, you know, which is this data still exists. It’s still being collected. We don’t have you know, we don’t have a sweeping data privacy law. So let me say that, you know, I do think that a sale of the company would be the best possible way of, you know, any way that any anyone has so far suggested. Unless someone wants to create an entire new sort of regulatory framework or something, that’s that would be the best way, because it would allow influencers who have put time and effort and money into building up their platform. And some of them, their livelihoods are dependent upon it. It would not take that away from them with, you know, without without due process, which is what banning the company would do, banning the act would do.

Advertisement

S6: So it would allow them to continue to use it and it would remove that sort of systemic or it would greatly mitigate that systemic risk, but it wouldn’t eliminate it.

S3: Hmm. It doesn’t do anything about the American companies that are also collecting data on you.

S4: Oh, right. No, of course. Yeah, of course it doesn’t. I mean, we still have this basic fundamental problem.

S3: Do you think the average American should delete? Ticktock.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: No. And the reason for that is that this is this cannot and should not be left to decisions by average Americans. This is a structural concern. This is a data privacy concern. This is a corporate governance concern and it’s a national security concern. It’s I would say, you know, it’s not unlike wearing a mask during a pandemic. People have to do it all together. It’s public health, right? It’s it’s something that’s greater than ourselves. And if you want to talk about the public health of our information, environment in the integrity of our society and our information, this is something that the government needs to help us do together.

Advertisement

S3: If what’s happening with Tic-Tac is a kind of indicator of what’s happening in the wider US China relationship, because China is really your focus, I wonder what it’s telling you.

S4: Well, one thing it’s telling me, if you want to look at the past six months, the U.S. China relationship, over the past six months, there has been a rapid deterioration of bilateral relations. You know, the trade deal has really sort of unraveled and there has been a vicious downward spiral of tit for tat behavior with the media, you know, kicking out each other’s journalists now with closing the consulates and, you know, some other some other areas where there’s been this rapid deterioration. What we’re seeing right now over the past month has a China journalist. I’ve just been, you know, insanely busy because I can’t keep up with the news cycle, you know, the pace at which major things are happening. It just can’t keep up with that. Part of the reason for that, I think, is that the super hawks, the China super hawks in the administration have been tempered for several years by the need the government of the administration to keep reasonably good ties with China in order to work on the negotiations for the trade deal. Since the trade deal has fallen apart and since the Trump campaign seems to have made China’s role in the coronavirus as a major platform of, you know, the re-election strategy. And blaming China for the coronavirus in order to deflect from the administration’s own failures here in the U.S., that barrier or that sort of like tempering force has been removed. And so you have people who have long been concerned about China and long come up the list of, you know, dream policies, you know, a wish list of policies that they want to be implemented. They have been able to present these, you know, to presumably President Trump or other decision or other top decision makers and say, look, how about this? How about this? And what you’re seeing is the top decision makers and President Trump saying, OK, sure, OK, sure. And I would put tick tock in that same basket of policies that people want and that President Trump is now OK with has no particular reason not to adopt them.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: It’s funny because you’ve really made the case that dealing with ticktock is essential and also, of course, dealing with the weaker human rights abuses is essential. So while everything is happening very fast and very chaotically, is this a positive outcome or a negative outcome?

S6: What’s so difficult is, you know, despite the perhaps lack of strategy, the dangerous lack of strategy in how the administration appears to be rolling out some of these initiatives, they’re not wrong to view the Chinese Communist Party as a very serious threat to global freedom. And I say that simply by looking at what what Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping has said himself. I mean, he’s basically said that himself, that, you know, they want to expand, they want to promote their model around the world. They want to take center stage or approach center stage in global affairs. And they have shown time and again that they are very willing to treat the citizens of other countries the way they treat their own people, which is with profound suppression. And I personally don’t want that future. So what do we do?

S3: You must have friends and colleagues in China. I do. When you speak to them about this moment that you see developing right now. What’s the tenor of those conversations like, what are those conversations feel like?

S6: Depends on who I’m speaking to. I’m speaking to non Chinese person, a foreigner, particularly a Westerner. There’s really a sense of darkness. And I’m not going to say despair, but I think a sense of grief for the direction that China has headed, the openness and the brightness of it, that people of us, you know, those of us who were living in China and the early 2000s, as I was, and later I also lived in China later. But there was a sense of openness and freedom, not freedom, but a hope, you know, that isn’t nearly as widespread now. And it’s been replaced a lot with a very, very strong nationalism and an anger at the West and a belief that the you know, the Chinese Communist Party’s approach is the right one. You know, when you speak to Chinese nationals, is it a different conversation? Well, it depends. Like, again, who you speak to. You know, one point four billion people in China, many, many different opinions. I have actually lost some friends. I have lost some Chinese friends who, you know, we are just no longer able to see eye to eye on very many things, you know, especially because of the reporting that I do. And they get really angry about it. And there’s these incredible barriers that now exist between people where those barriers didn’t exist before.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: That’s so interesting to me that you’re seeing it at this personal level, too, because it’s not just the government’s barking at each other. You know, it trickles down.

S6: That’s right. There’s a lot of complexities here. It’s tough. It’s really tough.

S5: Bethany Allen Ibrahim, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you for having me. Bethany Allen Abrahamian covers China for Axios, and that’s the show, What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Jason de Leon, Daniel Hewett and Daniel Eavis. We get a little help this week and every week from Alicia Montgomery and Allison Benedikt. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll be back with more. What next? Tomorrow.