Libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is derailing a bipartisan effort to ban TikTok. He claims TikTok isn’t doing the Chinese Communist Party’s bidding and says if the United States bans it we’ll just be acting like the CCP and censoring citizens. He also says a ban will backfire on the GOP with young voters and lead to Republicans losing elections for a generation. He’s unpersuasive.
First, there’s a mountain of evidence showing China using TikTok as spyware and manipulation against Americans. The ties between ByteDance (TikTok’s owner) and the CCP are direct. More than 300 employees at TikTok and ByteDance previously worked for Chinese state media. Twenty-three of ByteDance’s directors previously worked for CCP propaganda outlets, and at least 15 ByteDance employees work for them now. Fundamentally, China is the world’s most sophisticated techno-authoritarian state, and Xi Jinping’s regime believes data and the control of information bestow power.
Chinese law explicitly requires businesses to operate and build their cybersecurity networks in a way that gives the CCP unfettered access to their data. So Beijing has access to TikTok’s US user data by default; it doesn’t even need to ask for it. And TikTok aggressively harvests a wide range of user data: names, contacts, networks, GPS locations, even keystrokes, outside-the-app monitoring like Internet browsing and encrypted data.
The result: The CCP is acquiring massive amounts of data on a third of the American population.
And it’s doing it in part by using TikTok and to influence narratives about world and national events. China used TikTok to push divisive content during the 2022 midterm elections, promoting videos that attacked specific US politicians and hit hot-button social issues without disclosing those videos were coming from Chinese state-controlled accounts.
TikTok itself pushes pro-CCP content to US users.
Employees of TikTok’s Top Buzz news app in the US were instructed to place specific pieces of pro-China messaging in the app and to “pin” it to the top. The platform also suppresses information: The Washington Post found only 20 videos available with the hashtag Tiananmen Square on TikTok, most of which say that the massacre never happened. TikTok is a dystopian reality-distorter that serves the interests of Xi’s CCP.
Make no mistake, the platform doesn’t exist so we can be entertained by cat videos. Its purpose is to capture and move audiences. Imagine: If the People’s Liberation Army were to invade or blockade democratic Taiwan and Washington sent US forces to defend Taipei, the invading force would have, via TikTok, direct access to how over a third of Americans would receive “news” stories about it and the ability to directly control the narrative.
With the data it’s been amassing, the CCP could tailor its propaganda to specific factions in our country, turning Americans on one another at a time when national unity would be required. Nor would a ban make our government more like the CCP, the ultimate enemy of our civil liberties.
Indeed, America’s No. 1 adversary uses TikTok to poison the conditions necessary for democratic self-government in the US. It distorts reality and therefore the ability to reason well and further inflames factions so it’s more difficult for Americans to peacefully debate, organize and vote. Banning TikTok doesn’t threaten civil liberties; permitting it does.
Then there are the pernicious effects on America’s youth. How young adults vote is far less important than the huge cost to their mental health and even physical well-being. The app is essentially psychological warfare against America’s kids, with its aggressive algorithms sending them down rabbit holes of sex- and drug-related content. It’s been linked to mental illness, anxiety, depression, attention disorders, even physical tics, especially in teen girls. We are in a reverse opium war.
Rand Paul’s solution is to say if you don’t like TikTok, don’t use it. That stems from the libertarian emphasis on the First Amendment, guaranteeing free speech and expression.
Yet the Constitution isn’t, as they say, a suicide pact; it doesn’t mean we must give a foreign enemy the right to poison and coerce Americans. Individuals on their own cannot solve a national-security threat. It’s the government’s duty “to provide for the common defence.”
Libertarians’ concern for privacy and civil liberties should lead them to get behind a TikTok ban; running interference for a Chinese spyware app should be anathema to them.
No, banning TikTok won’t win us the PRC surveillance and information war. But if our elected leaders can’t do at least this, how can we count on them to do the many other hard things needed to deter and counter China and protect our children from this hostile power?