There is an emerging consensus in US foreign policy circles that a US/China cold war is either imminent or already underway (Foreign Policy, 12/29/22; New Yorker, 2/26/23; New York Times, 3/23/23; Fox News, 3/28/23; Reuters, 3/30/23). Domestically, the most recent and most intense iteration of this anti-China fervor is the move to ban the Chinese video app TikTok, which is both a sweeping assault on free speech movement and a dangerous sign that mere affiliation with China is grounds for vilification and loss of rights.
Several TikTok content creators are suing to overturn “Montana’s first-in-the-nation ban on the video sharing app, arguing the law is an unconstitutional violation of free speech rights,” on the grounds “that the state doesn’t have any authority over matters of national security” (AP, 5/18/23). TikTok followed up with a lawsuit of its own (New York Times, 5/22/23). The app is banned on government devices at the federal level and in some states (CBS, 3/1/23; AP, 3/1/23), but the Montana law is the first to bar its use outright.
Momentum for a wider ban
Republicans see this as momentum to push other state bans. Lawmakers of both major parties are pushing legislation that “would block all transactions from any social media company in or under the influence of a ‘country of concern,’ like China and Russia,” a move that would ban TikTok in the US (USA Today, 12/13/22). Such a sweeping ban is popular among voters, especially among Republicans (Pew, 3/31/23; Wall Street Journal, 4/24/23).
The reason for the swift action is the app’s Chinese ownership. Rep. Darrell Issa (R.-Calif.) said, “Having TikTok on our phones is like having 80 million Chinese spy balloons flying over America” (Twitter, 2/28/23)—a reference to one of the most overblown news stories of 2023 (CounterPunch, 2/7/23; FAIR.org, 2/10/23). FBI Director Christopher Wray (CNBC, 11/15/22) told Congress of his “national security concerns” about TikTok, warning that
the Chinese government could use it to control data collection on millions of users. Or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations…. Or to control software on millions of devices…to potentially technically compromise personal devices.
The New York Times (3/17/23) reported that the
Justice Department is investigating the surveillance of American citizens, including several journalists who cover the tech industry, by the Chinese company that owns TikTok.
Social spying hypocrisy
The funny thing here is that if the US government is worried about social media being used for surveillance, it should look inward. The Brennan Center (8/18/22), which is suing for Department of Homeland Security records on its use of social media surveillance tools, notes that “social media has become a significant source of information for US law enforcement and intelligence agencies.” The civil liberties organization notes that “there are myriad examples of the FBI and DHS using social media to surveil people speaking out on issues from racial justice to the treatment of immigrants.”
Even as Congress mulls a ban on TikTok, Al Jazeera (3/28/23) reported, the Biden administration is seeking “the renewal of powers that force firms like Google, Meta and Apple to facilitate untrammeled spying on non-US citizens located overseas.” Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) gives Washington the power to snoop on the social media conversations of users both foreign and, through the use of so-called “backdoor searches,” domestic. While many governments spy, the Qatari news site pointed out, “Washington enjoys an advantage not shared by other countries: jurisdiction over the handful of companies that effectively run the modern internet.”
“They’re making a big stink about TikTok and the Chinese collecting data when the US is collecting a great deal of data itself,” Seton Hall constitutional law expert Jonathan Hafetz told Al Jazeera. “It is a little bit ironic for the US to sort of trumpet citizens’ privacy concerns or worries about surveillance. It’s OK for them to collect the data, but they don’t want China to collect it.”
Accordingly, the Biden administration is demanding the platform be sold to rid itself of Chinese ownership, insisting that failure to do so would result in a nationwide ban. The New York Times (3/15/23) said this stance “harks back to the position of former President Donald J. Trump, who threatened to ban TikTok unless it was sold to an American company.” In 2020, FAIR (8/5/20) raised the possibility that Trump would leverage anti-Chinese sentiment to go after the app, but now a Democratic administration could finish what Trump started.
Don’t assume the president is bluffing, either; FAIR (7/1/21) reported that the Biden administration, citing “disinformation” as a reason, “shut down the websites of 33 foreign media outlets, including ones based in Iran, Bahrain, Yemen and Palestine,” a list that included Iranian state broadcaster Press TV.
An orchestrated campaign
TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a for-profit tech company headquartered in Beijing and incorporated in the Cayman Islands. ByteDance disputes that it has the ability to track US citizens (CNBC, 10/21/22), and the Chinese government denies that it pressures companies to engage in espionage (New York Times, 3/24/23). But TikTok, like other for-profit social media platforms, routinely collects data on users to sell to advertisers (MarketWatch, 10/25/22; CBC, 3/1/23).
Global Times (3/24/23), published by China’s Communist Party, declared that the “witch-hunting against TikTok portends US’s technological innovation is going downhill.” “The political farce against a tiny app has seriously shattered the US values of fair competition and its credibility,” the paper added.
The party paper (3/1/23) acknowledged that TikTok still has a profit “gap with Google, Facebook, etc.,” but maintained that “its growth momentum is rapid,” and thus “directly threatens the advertising revenue of several major social networks in the US.” The paper said that “if the US does not go after TikTok and curb its growth in the relevant market, several leading US high-tech and networking companies” would feel a competitive sting.
Chinese state and party media have hyperbolic tendencies, but this accusation of a financial motive for opposition to TikTok isn’t far-fetched. In fact, the Washington Post (3/30/22) reported that
Facebook parent company Meta is paying one of the biggest Republican consulting firms in the country to orchestrate a nationwide campaign seeking to turn the public against TikTok.
The campaign includes placing op-eds and letters to the editor in major regional news outlets, promoting dubious stories about alleged TikToktrends that actually originated on Facebook, and pushing to draw political reporters and local politicians into helping take down its biggest competitor.
Such a move might seem comically cynical, but it’s working. Corporate anti-competitive power has joined an alliance with Cold War fears about the Chinese to influence US policy, to the extent that the government is contemplating censoring media now available to 80 million Americans. (By comparison, CNN.com reportedly has 129 million unique monthly visitors in the US, the New York Times brand has 99 million and FoxNews.com has 76 million.)
A media silencing of that magnitude seems unprecedented; the Biden administration’s seizure of Middle Eastern media websites is troubling, but Press TV isn’t as central to US life as TikTok is. “In just two years, the share of US adults who say they regularly get news from TikTok has roughly tripled, from 3% in 2020 to 10% in 2022,” Pew Research (10/21/22) reported, which stands “in contrast with many other social media sites, where news consumption has either declined or stayed about the same in recent years.” TikTok has announced plans to share its ad revenue with its content creators (Variety, 5/4/22), and the platform played a role in the rebounding of US post-pandemic tourism markets (Wall Street Journal, 5/8/23).
The urge to cleanse the media landscape of anything related to China has been roiling at a smaller scale for some time. Rep. Brian Mast (R.-Fla.) wants to ban Chinese government and Communist Party officials from US social platforms (Mast press release, 3/22/23; Fox News, 6/14/22) because, as he said in a press statement, “Chinese officials lie through our social media.” Singling out the sinister duplicity of Chinese officials overlooks the reality that mendacity among politicians is a universal cross-cultural phenomenon.
The Trump administration required “five Chinese state-run media organizations to register their personnel and property with the US government, granting them a designation akin to diplomatic entities,” affecting “Xinhua News Agency; China Global Television Network, previously known as CCTV; China Radio International; the parent company of China Dailynewspaper; and the parent company of the People’s Daily newspaper” (Politico, 2/18/20).
In an effort to paint the Democratic Socialists of America-backed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D.-N.Y.) as some sort of shadowy foreign agent, Fox News (2/2/23) ran the headline, “AOC, Other Politicians Paid Thousands in Campaign Cash to Chinese Foreign Agent.” But buried in the clunky language of the news story is the fact Ocasio-Cortez and other politicians, including at least one Republican, simply ran campaign ads in Chinese-language newspapers owned by Sing Tao, a Hong Kong-based newspaper company. Candidates routinely buy ads in ethnic media to reach voters, but Fox offered this innocuous campaign act as evidence of Chinese treachery within our borders.
Fear of an Asian menace
It’s worth remembering that fear of an Asian menace in the United States led to the nation’s first major immigration restrictions (CNN, 5/6/23) and mass imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War II (NPR, 1/29/23; FAIR.org, 2/16/23). It continues to lead to racist murder (CNN, 6/23/22) and other anti-Asian crimes (Guardian, 7/21/22).
“Inflammatory rhetoric about China can exacerbate the sense that Asian Americans are ‘racialized outsiders,’” Asian-American advocates said during the Covid pandemic (Axios, 3/23/21). Florida’s recent ban on property ownership by Chinese nationals (Guardian, 5/9/23) shows that the impulse to scapegoat is alive and well.
If official fears about TikTok collection of user data—which is central to the business model of all major US social media companies—can override First Amendment guarantees and deprive Americans of a major communication platform, then one has to ask what more the states and the federal government that are already frothing with anti-China hysteria are willing to do next.
In this sense, the people suing to keep TikTok available in Montana aren’t simply fighting for their access to a content platform, but are repelling a political impulse that in the past has led us to blacklists and McCarthyism. Let’s hope these video makers are victorious.
Research assistance: Lara-Nour Walton