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The Cool Kids Are Wrong About TikTok
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The Cool Kids Are Wrong About TikTok

And, at least this once, Congress is right.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew listens to questions from U.S. representatives during his testimony at a congressional hearing on TikTok in Washington, D.C., on March 23rd, 2023. (Photo by Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In a remarkable display of bipartisanship, Congress went to war with the social media app TikTok last week. The House Energy and Commerce Committee grilled TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew about its independence—or lack thereof—from the Chinese Communist Party.

The five-hour-long hearing was contentious. Chew did his best to dodge loaded questions about alleged spying on U.S. users by TikTok and its China-based parent company ByteDance. The questioning also delved into Chinese persecution of Uyghurs and whether the Chinese Communist Party could weaponize its access to massive amounts of data generated by the 150 million Americans who use TikTok.

Outside the hearing room, TikTok’s lobbying efforts were somewhat more successful. TikTok “influencers” flooded the halls, the press, and of course TikTok feeds, with scorn about how out of touch American political leaders are. “This is so embarrassing,” one user wrote in a caption to a clip that garnered more than 10 million views. “I swear to god we need to get competent and younger people in office.”   

“Congress is kinda lame, TikTok-verse decides,” read a Politico headline.  

Maybe, for a change, Congress isn’t the one being lame?

Finding a historical precedent for our rivalry with China is difficult. Pundits and politicians like to talk about a “new Cold War” but the analogy is misleading. The Soviet Union had moderate success peddling ideologically seductive ideas about politics and economics to American activists and intellectuals partly because it tried to put those ideas into practice, but it didn’t have much to sell us in terms of goods and services. It’s not like Russian caviar, never mind Russian wheat, was a “must-have” for cool kids.

It’s almost the other way around for China. Outside of some ideological backwaters, few people envy China’s political system, but many like to buy or use Chinese stuff.

That’s fine. And if China had a different political system, and different political ambitions, few would care about the national security issues raised by TikTok.

Its ambitions, however, are obvious. It’s been less than two months since the U.S. caught China using a spy balloon for surveillance.  

Does having TikTok on your phone mean having a spy balloon in your pocket? Defenders of the app argue that the government hasn’t provided evidence of TikTok user data being accessible to China-based employees of ByteDance. But there is such evidence. “Everything is seen in China,” a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety department said in leaked audio from the company. ByteDance admitted to using TikTok to track and spy on journalists.

But focusing on TikTok as if it’s just like an autonomous company misses the point. By law, ByteDance is a resource of the Chinese state, which has been stealing intellectual property, hacking government systems, and using other Chinese firms, such as telecom giant Huawei, for espionage for years.

The evidence of China’s brutal political system is even more obvious—for those not distracted by cool dance videos. China has forced up to 1 million Uyghurs into massive “reeducation” camps. It has crushed democracy in Hong Kong. Human rights abuses and cultural cleansing in Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and other ethnic minority regions have been documented for years.

We didn’t have social media when I was in high school in the 1980s, but it would have been unimaginable to use anything like TikTok if it had been made in apartheid South Africa. Well, China has its own system of apartheid, but it’s apparently uncool to care much about that.

Fortunately, some policymakers still care about such things. The British Parliament exposed TikTok for its efforts to censor any mention of China’s persecution of Uyghurs. They even tried to ban any use of the Uyghur language on the platform.    

This is worth keeping in mind when TikTok’s defenders try to paint themselves as champions of free expression. It’s no coincidence that China bans TikTok (and Facebook and Twitter) inside China in favor of state propaganda-compliant platforms.

Still, there are some plausible First Amendment issues implicated in trying to ban or force the sale of TikTok, just as there were when the U.S. government forced Russia Today, a state-controlled television network, to register as a “foreign agent” under U.S. law, because foreign powers determined to sow discord in the U.S. do not have carte blanche access to our Constitution’s protections.  

TikTok defenders wave all that away, mostly because they just like TikTok. But some, like New York Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman, are trying to make the case that TikTok is a victim of American bigotry toward the Chinese.

I’m sorry, but such water-carrying for China is what’s truly lame.  

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.