Imagine a world where the United States has a contested presidential election, like in 2020 (not to mention 2000). If a candidate were kinder to Chinese interests, could the Chinese Communist Party demand that ByteDance give a boost to content that favors that candidate? Or if they wanted to weaken America rather than shape the outcome, TikTok may start serving up more and more election-conspiracy videos and wreaking havoc at a time when the country is about to fall apart.
None of this is far-fetched. We know that TikTok’s content moderation guidelines restrict videos and topics at the request of the Chinese government, although it says the rules have changed since then. We know that other foreign countries – think Russia – have used American social networks to cause division and doubt.
Significantly, China sees such dangers as obvious enough to build a firewall against them internally: They’ve banned Facebook and Google and Twitter and, yes, TikTok. ByteDance had to manage another version of the app, known as Douyin, for a Chinese audience, a version that adheres to the rules of Chinese censors. China has long viewed these platforms as potential weapons. As China’s authoritarian turn continues and relations between our countries deteriorate, it is not far-fetched to suspect that they would do to us what they always feared we would do to them.
“No analogy is perfect, but the best analogy I can think of is to imagine that the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union had decided to use some of its oil export profits to buy up television channels in the US. said my former colleague Matthew Yglesias. wrote in his newsletter, Slow Boring. “The FCC wouldn’t have allowed them. And if the FCC had allowed them for some reason, the Commerce Department would have blocked it. And if a judge were to say that the Department of Commerce was wrong and that its control over the information ecosystem did not meet the relevant national security standard, Congress would have passed a new law.”
As analogies go, I think that’s a good starting point. But if the Soviet Union had bought up local television stations across the country, we’d know they’d done it, and there’d be an understanding of what those stations were and what they were trying to do, just as there was with Russia Today. The propaganda would be known as propaganda.
TikTok’s billion users don’t think they’re watching a Chinese government propaganda operation because for the most part, they aren’t. They watch makeup tutorials and recipes, lip sync videos, and funny dances. But that would make it all the more powerful of a propaganda channel, if it were deployed. And because every TikTok feed is different, we don’t really know what people are seeing. It would be trivially easy to use it to shape or distort public opinion, and to do so quietly, perhaps untraceably.
In all of this, I’m suggesting a simple principle, though not easy to apply: our collective attention is important. Whoever (or whatever) controls our attention, controls our future to a great extent. The social media platforms that hold and shape our attention must be managed in the public interest. That means you need to know who really controls them and how they control them.
Not sure which of the social network owners is currently emptying that bar. But I’m sure ByteDance doesn’t. In this, Donald Trump was right, and the Biden administration should finish what he started.
The Times is committed to publication a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d love to hear what you think of this or any of our articles. Here are a few tips† And here’s our email: letters.†
Follow the Opinion section of the DailyExpertNews at: facebook† Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram†