Why are the Biden administration and Big Tech waging war on Elon Musk, while leaving TikTok in peace?
On the one hand, we have the American owner of a social media platform who is trying to use it to widen the range of public debate, even if it includes voices that some or many disagree with, and divergent views that others find it all too easy to dismiss as misinformation.
On the other, we have a platform controlled by China and maintained by Chinese engineers, that collects data for use by Chinese military and intelligence services.
In a column last month I predicted that TikTok and Musk’s Twitter offer two sharply contrasting models for the future of social media.
“On the one hand, it can shape and manipulate the mindset of users under the guise of preferences and entertainment, while funneling data to the government to use against its enemies and to silence dissent. On the other hand, it can be a free and open forum for the exchange of ideas and opinions, that imposes limits on free speech with a light hand, but which is also geared to protect the privacy of users, including their freedom to speak out.”
It's time that Americans demand some answers about which model their government and Big Tech masters prefer, and how they actually view the future of democracy.
For example, while Elon Musk has been upfront about what he’s doing at Twitter, including lifting the ban on users like Babylon Bee and even former President Trump, TikTok has lied about what data it is collecting about Americans, and who’s using it. The fear that I and others have expressed for the past two years that this data is being fed to Chinese military and espionage services, to help them gain strategic advantage via their artificial intelligence capability, grows more real every week.
But the threat goes beyond data collection. The hugely popular Chinese-owned platform—especially popular with younger Americans—has been described as a Trojan Horse. If it is, it’s a highly addictive one. The Wall Street Journal found this out, when they discovered how fast TikTok could identify what a person’s preferences are with just a few visual clues based on a user’s watch time on a given video. The algorithm moves quickly to identify “the piece of content that you’re vulnerable to, that will make you click, that will make you watch,” data scientist Guillaume Chaslot told WSJ, “but it doesn’t mean that you really like it and that it’s the content you enjoy the most.” Instead, it’s what the algorithm decides you are prone to like, and will get hooked on.
In short, it’s crack for the mind.
Seen correctly, then, TikTok’s algorithm is highly addictive but also highly invasive. As Eugene Wei has observed in his blogspot, “When you gaze into TikTok, TikTok gazes into you.” That makes it the perfect social media platform for the total surveillance state. Even if it’s not being used to broadcast pro-Beijing propaganda per se, it can manipulate preferences in ways that turn its users into unthinking Pavlov-like responders to the visual stimuli supplied by the algorithm, that could be dangerous for a nation that depends on an informed and engaged citizenry—even as TikTok gathers more and more data for China’s AI/ML mills.
Contrast this with what Musk is doing at Twitter. He’s looking to return accountability for how Twitter oversees content on the platform (for example, why it decided to suppress stories about Hunter Biden’s laptop just before the 2020 election) but also to restore intellectual responsibility to users, whose duty it is to find and engage with the truth on their own, rather than at the behest of government and other self-proclaimed authorities. This is the definition of an active and open public square, the “marketplace of ideas” celebrated by the great liberal philosophers. It also meshes with the ideal of an informed and engaged citizenry that the Founding Fathers saw as necessary to sustain the American experiment in liberty.
If this active citizenry is what Musk critics truly fear; which also explains why TikTok seems less dangerous to them than a Musk-remade Twitter; then we have two other, more important issues, to face.
What is the true nature of democracy and self-government; and why are those who fulminate against Twitter but don’t see TikTok as a threat, ready to crash the American experiment in liberty?
There is no such thing as a double standard, only a single, hidden standard. We need to find out what that hidden standard is when it comes to trashing Elon Musk but letting TikTok continue to brainwash the next generation of American citizens.