| Detail from BreakThrough News video on TikTok 102823 about a pro Palestine march in Dallasthe kind of content a new law is aimed at suppressing | MR Online Detail from BreakThrough News video on TikTok (10/28/23) about a pro-Palestine march in Dallas—the kind of content a new law is aimed at suppressing.

TikTok law is an attempt to censor, not a warning to Big Tech

Originally published: FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) on May 8, 2024 by Julianne Tveten (more by FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting))  | (Posted May 10, 2024)
| Did the TikTok law really break the tech law logjam as the headline New York Times 42524 asserts Probably not the story acknowledges | MR Online

Did the TikTok law really break the “tech law logjam,” as the headline (New York Times, 4/25/24) asserts? Probably not, the story acknowledges.

As U.S. lawmakers’ agitation over TikTok culminates in a law that threatens a nationwide ban if the social media platform isn’t sold to a U.S. buyer within nine months, an emergent media narrative finds a silver lining. Every legislative move targeting TikTok, the story goes, has the potential to inspire much-needed regulation of tech behemoths like Meta, Amazon, Google and Apple.

But by conflating the U.S.’s legal treatment of TikTok—a subsidiary of the Beijing-based ByteDance—with that of its own tech industry, media obscure the real reasons for the law’s passage.

False comparisons

This was apparent in a New York Times piece (4/25/24) headlined “TikTok Broke the Tech Law Logjam. Can That Success Be Repeated?” Author Cecilia Kang described the recently instated divest-or-ban law—passed as part of a package with aid to Israel and Ukraine—as an instance of “reining in the tech giants.” The article suggested that the ban might be a harbinger of broader regulation of the tech industry in the public interest, such as antitrust legislation or mental-health guardrails.

Kang cited multiple sources who doubted that the ultimatum would spur regulation of U.S. tech companies, arguing that lawmakers influenced by industry lobbying and 2024 campaign strategies would balk at the notion of curtailing U.S. corporate power.

It’s fair to note that the TikTok law was unlikely to have this effect. But lobbying and campaigning aren’t the only, or even the primary, explanations for this. A simple review of the legislation shows that it’s not a form of good-faith regulation meant to protect the populace, but an effort to either seize or severely weaken TikTok in the name of U.S. interests.

Kang’s thesis was premised on years’ worth of media and policymaker fearmongering that TikTok user data was susceptible to surveillance by the Chinese government (BuzzFeed News, 6/17/22; Forbes, 10/20/22; Guardian, 11/7/22). According to Kang’s colleagues, the law’s enactment was prompted by “concerns that the Chinese government could access sensitive user data” (New York Times, 4/26/24). In 2023, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte sought to prohibit TikTok throughout his state on the grounds that “the Chinese Communist Party” was “collecting U.S. users’ personal, private and sensitive information” (Montana Free Press, 5/17/23). (Gianforte’s attempt was later thwarted by a federal judge.)

| Mitt Romney on Gaza Common Dreams 5624 The way this has played out on social mediahas a very very challenging effect on the narrative | MR Online

Mitt Romney on Gaza (Common Dreams, 5/6/24): “The way this has played out on social media…has a very, very challenging effect on the narrative.”

If such fears were officials’ genuine motivation, one could hope that broader data-privacy regulation might follow. Yet, as the Times neglected to mention, the spying accusations are tenuous—and deeply cynical. As even U.S. intelligence officials concede, apprehensions about China’s access to TikTok user data are strictly hypothetical (Intercept, 3/16/24). And, despite its bombshell headline “Analysis: There Is Now Some Public Evidence That China Viewed TikTok Data,” CNN (6/8/23) cautioned that said evidence—a sworn statement from a former ByteDance employee—“remains rather thin.”

Pretext for censorship

Given their dubious nature, it’s hard to see these data-privacy claims as anything other than a pretext for the U.S. to throttle TikTok. By forcing either divestment or a ban, the U.S., at least in theory, wins: It transfers a tremendously lucrative and influential company into its own hands, or it prevents that company from serving as a platform—albeit one with plenty of problems—on which people can engage in and learn from discourses that are critical of U.S. empire.

The censorial intentions of the legislation have been thrown into sharp relief by congressional Republicans. In an address on April 24, the day President Joe Biden made the ultimatum law, Sen. Pete Ricketts (R—Neb.) fretted that “nearly a third” of users between the ages of 18 and 29 used TikTok as a regular news source. (Results from a November 2023 Pew survey confirm this.) This was cause for alarm, according to the senator, because the platform featured a heightened concentration of “pro-Palestinian and pro-Hamas” videos as part of a dastardly plot by the Chinese government.

| With a big bipartisan push in both chambers to crack down on TikTok NBC 41623 sees a window of opportunity to pass new regulations inthe tech industry | MR Online

With “a big bipartisan push in both chambers to crack down on TikTok,” NBC (4/16/23) sees “a window of opportunity to pass new regulations in…the tech industry.”

Senator and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney (R—Utah) reinforced Ricketts’ fearmongering in early May, asserting at a forum with Secretary of State Antony Blinken that “the number of mentions of Palestinians” on TikTok generated “overwhelming support to shut [TikTok] down” (Common Dreams, 5/6/24). Romney’s source for this wasn’t clear, but his message was: TikTok simply wouldn’t be tolerated as a source of information that contradicted official narratives.

Likewise, Rep. Mike Lawler (R—NY) (Intercept, 5/4/24) told the centrist advocacy group No Labels that the Gaza protests are

exactly why we included the TikTok bill in the foreign supplemental aid package, because you’re seeing how these kids are being manipulated by certain groups or entities or countries to foment hate on their behalf and really create a hostile environment here in the U.S.

The right-wing lawmakers were far from the first to harbor this sentiment; criticisms like this had been simmering for months (FAIR.org, 11/13/23, 3/14/24). (These admissions that Congress went after TikTok based on its content will likely help the lawsuit ByteDance filed arguing that the law mandating either a sale or a ban is unconstitutional—Hollywood Reporter, 5/7/24).

Ignoring this context, Associated Press (3/24/24) presented the same inaccurate characterizations as the New York Times. Paraphrasing Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), AP reported that the TikTok law—which, at the time, was merely a bill the House had passed—“is the best chance to get something done after years of inaction” on tech regulation. The moral content of what, exactly, was being done didn’t seem to matter to the news agency. Instead, AP opted to uncritically publish Warner’s insinuation that young TikTok users urging their congressional representatives to vote against the ban were “manipulated” by the “Communist Party of China.”

| Facebook parent Meta paid a consulting firm to get out the message that TikTok is the real threat especially as a foreign owned app that is 1 in sharing data that young teens are using Washington Post 33022 | MR Online

Facebook parent Meta paid a consulting firm to get out the message that “TikTok is the real threat especially as a foreign owned app that is #1 in sharing data that young teens are using” (Washington Post, 3/30/22).

AP’s report echoed an equally faulty NBC News summary (4/16/23) of congressional approaches to the tech industry. Though the story was published prior to any TikTok legislation, it remarked on a “big bipartisan push” to “crack down” on the company. The piece went on to group what was then a more abstract—but thoroughly jingoistic—movement against TikTok with regulation regarding such unrelated user-protection concerns as “deep fakes, voice phishing scams and powerful chatbots like Chat GPT.”

Domestic rewards

Absent from these reports is yet another reason a ban or forced sale of TikTok won’t necessarily lead to domestic regulation: U.S. tech giants stand to benefit from the law. As the New York Times itself (4/24/24) reports, “Meta could draw up to 60% of TikTok’s American ad revenue, while YouTube could take another 25% or so.” Not coincidentally, at least one U.S. tech firm was involved in manufacturing public antipathy toward TikTok: According to the Washington Post (3/30/22), Meta, a direct TikTok competitor, paid a Republican consulting firm to orchestrate a smear campaign against TikTok. The effort included planted op-eds and letters to the editor in “major regional news outlets” nationwide.

Coupling this information with the US’s historical refusal to regulate its own tech industry, why, one might wonder, would the U.S. suddenly change course? And wouldn’t this mean that a U.S.-owned TikTok would operate effectively unchecked, just like current U.S. tech corporations?

But such questions aren’t meant to be asked in a narrative that launders reactionary policymaking as a potential regulatory boon. The TikTok ultimatum, we’re told, isn’t a drastic measure to stifle statements of support for Palestine or any other political speech to the left of the State Department line; it’s, to borrow from the New York Times (4/25/24), a “success.”

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