Leave TikTok Alone

This is America, last I checked. Surely, the government would not force the sale of a social-media company or ban its app from the Google and Apple stores. Would it?

Well, yes, it would,  could (perhaps), and might. A bill in Congress, backed by the government’s nominal chief executive, could become law. The House of Representatives passed it last week by an overwhelming bipartisan majority — despite valiant efforts by Rep. Thomas Massie,  R-KY, plus a few others — and it is now before the Senate.

That bill would establish fuzzy criteria defining a “foreign adversary’s” alleged influence through a social media platform. It is aimed, for now, at requiring TikTok, used by 170 million mostly younger Americans, to be sold to a government-approved American buyer within a specified period. If not sold, Americans would be forbidden to get the app. I guess the app would have to be disabled for those who have it already.

In other words, TikTok would be banned from America — you know, just as China’s communist government bans or interferes with social media over there. Knowing how the government works, we must presume that the bill’s criteria will be applied to other cases later. It certainly would exist as a standing threat to the uncooperative.

The complaint against TikTok is that it’s a subsidiary of ByteDance, a widely owned company subject to Chinese government influence or control, although this is disputed by TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, a Singaporean businessman with substantial roots in — the United States. But let’s assume the worst and see where that leads. After all, the Chinese government is no respecter of individual rights. If the U.S. government is eager to interfere with social media, why not the Chinese government?

TikTok worriers say that China could harvest data on Americans while feeding them self-serving democracy-subverting messages. It has reportedly been caught suppressing unflattering information. Not good, but of course, the U.S. government has done the same thing; a lawsuit about this, Murthy v. Missouri, is now before the Supreme Court. As many critics of the bill have pointed out, the Chinese don’t need TikTok to acquire information that users readily give up to other platforms. It’s already on the market. Moreover, nobody should expect the news from any one online source to be complete; as one grows, one should learn to consult a variety of sources for a fuller picture.

Matthew Petti of Reason is right: “Competition is the strongest force keeping the internet free. Whenever users find a topic banned on TikTok, they can escape to Twitter or Instagram to discuss the censored content. And when Twitter or Instagram enforce politically motivated censorship on a different topic, users can continue that discussion on TikTok.”

Changing ownership or banishing TikTok would create a false sense of security. The problem of myopia would remain.

Moreover, as Matt Taibbi alerts us, the bill would give the executive branch “sweeping powers.” He writes: “As written, any ‘website, desktop application, mobile application, or augmented or immersive technology application’ that is ‘determined by the President to present a significant threat to the National Security of the United States’ is covered.’”

Taibbi continues: “A ‘foreign adversary controlled application,’ in other words, can be any company founded or run by someone living at the wrong foreign address, or containing a small minority ownership stake. Or it can be any company run by someone ‘subject to the direction’ of either of those entities. Or, it’s anything the president says it is. Vague enough?”

By this time, shouldn’t we expect the worst from letting legislators write the rules?

But those are not the only reasons for concern. According to Glenn Greenwald, the bill had been floating around for a few years but had not garnered enough support to get through Congress. That changed recently, according to Greenwald, citing articles in the Wall Street JournalEconomist, and Bari Weiss’s Free Press. Why? As Greenwald documents, anxiety about TikTok took a quantum leap beginning on Oct. 7, 2023, the day Hamas killed and kidnapped hundreds of Israeli civilians and Israel began retaliating against the people of the Gaza Strip.

What has this got to do with TikTok? you ask. Good question. Israel’s defenders in the United States, such as Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League, are upset that TikTok’s young users are being exposed to what he calls anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic disinformation. “It’s Al Jazeera on steroids,” Greenblatt said on MSNBC. During a leaked phone call, he complained, “We have a TikTok problem,” by which he means a generational problem. Younger people — including younger Jewish people — are appalled at what Israel’s military is doing in Gaza. (To complicate things, it looks like TikTok and Instagram have suppressed pro-Palestinian information.)

Would an American-owned TikTok be easier to control? Experience says yes. Have a look at the Twitter Files, which document how American officials, Chinese-style, pressured social media to censor or suppress dissenting views on important matters such as the COVID-19 response and the 2020 election. A federal judge likened the government’s efforts to the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Do we want to become more like China?

A final word. Defenders of free speech should not argue that ill-intentioned disinformation and well-intentioned misinformation from any source can cause no harm, broadly defined. Of course, it can. The proper answer to this legitimate concern is that government-produced “safetyism,” placing safety above every other value including freedom, will do more harm than good.

Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies; former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education; and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest books are Coming to Palestine and What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.