Is Tik Tok Really a National Security Threat?

Congress Tik Tok
Is Tik Tok Really a National Security Threat?

If you’ve been on TikTok lately, you might have gotten a notification to call your senator to tell them to vote against a ban on the social media app. But, for now, you can keep consuming content uninterrupted: the Senate is slow-rolling the bill that would force the sale of TikTok, despite an overwhelming bipartisan vote in the House earlier this month. 

The Senate is a bit more split on legislation, which would force ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese-owned parent company, to divest from the app or face a de facto ban in the United States. Lawmakers and some US intelligence officials worry that the Chinese Communist Party could use TikTok to access Americans’ data or spread propaganda or disinformation on the platform. The goal of the legislation is to put TikTok under the control of a US-approved buyer, who will probably still collect user data and struggle to control misinformation, but, hey, at least it’s not a perceived foreign adversary. 

A number of Republican and Democrat senators see TikTok as a national security threat, but the chamber’s current hesitation seems to be over the mechanics of the bill, which would put a six-month countdown on divestment, a rapid timeline for a multibillion-dollar sale that will inevitably get mired in court challenges. Critics are also concerned about free speech implications. And TikTok has some 170 million US monthly users, many of whom are young and whose votes politicians want this fall. The US has already restricted TikTok downloads on federal government phones over security risks, but plenty of lawmakers have personal or campaign accounts. Even President Joe Biden, who says he’d sign the divestment legislation, did a re-election TikTok.

That the bill has skidded in the Senate speaks to the tensions baked into this so-called TikTok ban. The US government, broadly, is struggling to figure out how to regulate social media, which does not have to be foreign-owned to be exploited or flooded with disinformation. But TikTok’s China connection places it within the framework of larger US-China competition around technology, and the bipartisan consensus in Washington is that China’s rise is an existential challenge to the US. TikTok is just the latest battlefield.

The national security concerns around TikTok are legitimate, although they’re mostly potential national security concerns. TikTok has tried to separate itself from ByteDance, but the parent company’s Chinese-based employees and engineers do reportedly have access to app data and its algorithm. TikTok says it has not shared, and would never share, user information with the Chinese government, but if Chinese authorities approached the company, it wouldn’t have a whole lot of freedom of power to say “no.” As Ausma Bernot, a lecturer at Australia’s Griffith University who has researched regulations on Chinese tech, wrote in an email, Chinese companies that internationalize often face dual pressure to comply with Chinese regulations domestically and national data protection scrutiny in other countries.” 

So even if ByteDance is not directly controlled or owned by the Chinese government, it’s not exactly a firewall. But as many experts pointed out, Beijing has other means of mining or obtaining Americans’ data. The Biden administration recently issued an executive order to help curtail that, but more robust protection would probably require Congress to pass stricter privacy or data protection laws. Still, some also fret China could use TikTok to spy on Americans, monitor communications, or in theory, recruit assets. But it’s also TikTok. If Chinese authorities want to sit through that 50-part video on who the eff that lady married, that’s honestly on them

Lawmakers and US intelligence officials also have warned of Chinese government influence operations. Last year, researchers published a study that showed topics suppressed in mainland China, such as human rights violations against the Uighurs and Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, tend to appear less on TikTok, a sign that Chinese authorities may be shaping what users see, and that may include more pro-China content. 

But it’s also a bit hard to show how significant such interference might be. America’s intel chief, Avril Haines told lawmakers earlier in March that she can’t “rule out” that China would use TikTok to influence the 2024 election. US intelligence said China increased information operations around the 2022 midterms alongside other foreign governments. But CCP’s foreign influence operations have tended to be pretty clunky and a bit lame; though the US thinks China is getting better, it’s not as practiced or skilled at these influence campaigns as, say, Russia. And you don’t need TikTok to spread foreign propaganda or fake news. This is social media we’re talking about, corners of which are cesspools of misinformation producing divisive rhetoric whose origins are very often homegrown. 

None of that negates concerns around TikTok, or dismisses the Chinese Communist Party’s track record of domestic electronic surveillance or its ability to run foreign influence operations. There has been some smoke, including evidence that TikTok spied on some reporters and a recent lawsuit from a former ByteDance engineer that claims ByteDance helped China surveil pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong. (TikTok no longer operates there following the 2020 national security law.) 

But a lot of this Congressional hand-wringing over TikTok’s China connection singles out one platform without doing much to tackle the challenges that persist across social platforms. The idea that somehow getting rid of TikTok will fix the problem, whatever it is that people are talking about – that’s nuts,” said Herb Lin, senior research scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. “It’s not nuts to say it’s a first step, but it is only a first step.” 

This TikTok legislation might correctly diagnose and even possibly mitigate some risks. But it’s also using the one thing lawmakers agree on right now – that China is a national security threat – to act. As The Wall Street Journal reported, videos around Gaza may have accelerated lawmakers’ action on the TikTok, though there’s very little evidence that China has anything to do with that. 

As experts said, adopting stronger protections for user data or implementing more guardrails to track and deter misinformation would address issues with TikTok, but also for other social apps, without the messy, messy fight that might ensure if this divestment bill succeeds. China is angry about this effort, but that likely won’t stop Beijing from using it as a propaganda tool against a hypocritical US – look at the human rights champion curtailing free speech – which could also do further damage to the US’s international standing. 

TikTok might pose some risks to Americans. But many of those challenges carry over to American-owned platforms and American-made disinformation, just without the foreign adversary to take the heat off. 

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