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On Tik Tok and the Value of Taking Things Slowly…

On Tik Tok and the Value of Taking Things Slowly…

Young people have been paying attention to Tik Tok for a long time… lawmakers are rushing to catch up.

There are two main reasons why Tik Tok has become increasingly controversial. First, because Tik Tok’s parent company has strong ties to the Chinese government- this presents a privacy risk for Americans who wish to avoid the CCP’s prying eyes. Second, because of the threat posed by allowing a potential foreign adversary influence over the content viewed by young Americans.

In truth, these matters are only made acute due to long-standing shortcomings in American policy regarding privacy and civic education. American lawmakers have the ability to put to bed the most pressing issues posed by Tik Tok by passing regulation addressing the upstream causes rather than the downstream consequences.

Yes, Tik Tok does violate the privacy of its users in a way that goes beyond the “new normal” established by Facebook’s and Google’s privacy agreements. Not long ago, it was revealed that Tik Tok had access to users “front facing cameras”. The data collected through the front-facing camera, reportedly, was being used to further hone the app’s algorithm. Additionally, there is ample evidence that the sort of content directed towards Chinese youth is of a seriously different nature than the content that is generated for young Americans. While young Chinese netizens are shown a regular stream of athletic and scientific accomplishments, young Americans are presented with, in the best case scenario, dance trends and practical jokes.

Only by looking at the issue directly can policymakers determine how to apply the scalpel rather than scissors.

Legislators might begin by protecting citizen’s online privacy a priori- in a way that has nothing to do with Tik Tok specifically. For example, policy makers might follow the guidelines put in place in parts of the EU, ensuring that Americans own the trackable data they produce online. 

Such a policy would –ban– Tik Tok in a way that has nothing to do with China in particular, but instead focuses on protecting the rights of American citizens.

In this way, Americans will not only be protected from the risk posed by Tik Tok, but also by the same security risks that will come from the next hip app that originates from an untrustworthy source.

In the same sort of way, Americans would be better protected from misinformation, on Tik Tok or elsewhere, through improved civic education rather than through state action. This is especially true when the forced sale of Tik Tok could, in the lowest light, be understood as censorship disguised as industrial policy. Even for those with less confidence in the wisdom of the average American citizen, surely there is a more Liberal way to address the threat posed by propaganda than simply prohibiting the material. After all, each of us has the opportunity to promote civic wellbeing through having healthy, well moderated, conversations about political issues with our friends and colleagues both young and old.

These hypothetical measures promoting privacy and civic education should be strictly enforced, and if Tik Tok, or other similar apps, violate these terms, consequences ought go beyond a simple fine.

Forcing the sale of Tik Tok is something like Sun Tzu’s “the worst is to storm a walled city”- it is the clumsiest and costliest way of addressing an important problem. Instead, legislators should look to more elegant solutions- guaranteeing the privacy rights of all Americans through appropriate legislation, and promoting civil wellbeing both through their own example and through promoting civic education in public spaces like schools and libraries. Perhaps if our educational system focused more on reading, writing and arithmetic with a bit of civic learning thrown in, this issue might be self correcting. 

Parents and friends have a similar role to play- even if legislators fail to act, we have a social obligation to steer our fellows away from platforms that waste their time and pollute their intelligence.

In a healthy society, legislators would pass laws protecting the common rights of citizens, and citizens would make the most of those rights by educating themselves and participating in political life. Some might say that we do not live in such a society, and that as a consequence, the best option is to address the problem of insecurity and disinformation with a blunt legislative instrument.

Fine, it might be better to apply the blunt instrument than to suffer Tik Tok’s continued use. Taking this route, however, moves the United States further away from its foundational Liberal values and makes a passive concession to Autocratic regimes that might look to censor American media. My proposed policy approach will take time and might be somewhat aspirational. Unfortunately, this leaves policy makers with a difficult choice between civil liberties and continuing today’s unfortunate state of affairs.

Even as I have personal confidence in the intelligence of the average American, the evidence suggests that high profile officials in American media lack that same belief. Whether it comes in the form of NBC’s hiring and quick firing of Ronna McDaniel, or Elon Musk’s decision to can Don Lemon’s show on X, it is not obvious the powers that be have an appreciation for a more challenging Socratic discussion.  This sort of self-censorship is, in the clear majority of cases, a self-inflicted wound. To propose that sunlight is an insufficient disinfectant is to suggest that the audience is to stupid to know Good from Bad.

Many suggest that Tik Tok’s focus on short form content is one of the app’s most dangerous features. American policy makers need to avoid this same trap. Tik Tok poses a serious problem, only by taking out the roots with precise public policy can the problem be solved over the long term.  Maybe it is time to relook at our foundation before we attempt to solve the problem top-down.  


Peter Scaturro is the Director of Studies at the Foreign Policy Association