TikTok: Five Cuts

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If anything is fair to say in this world, it is that presidential candidate Nikki Haley is not a fan of TikTok. She has been saying for quite some time now that the platform needs to be banned in the United States, and some unfortunate, if predictable outbursts last week provided a whole lot of grist for that particular mill. She is so sure of the correctness of her position that she has convinced herself that, once parents explain to their teenage children why TikTok had to go, they will understand.

I can’t believe it falls to me to say this, but that’s not how teenagers work.

Be that as it may, there are deeper problems with all of this, and they cut in a multitude of ways. 

But first, Haley’s contentions. “The reason we want to ban TikTok,” she recently said,  “and yes, I think we need to ban it — is because it’s an app that actually goes and has access to your contacts, to your financial information, to your camera, to your recorder, to everything. It’s infiltration; we know that.”

I would say that I would suspect Haley would be horrified if she knew how many apps she just described but, of course, she wouldn’t be. She knows she has just described many apps on every phone on her family plan. Many. The difference between TikTok and most of the rest of them is that TikTok is a Chinese product. And that’s the first cut. Sure, the Chinese don’t particularly look like a traditional ally. Surely, they spy on the United States. But is TikTok a security risk? Are the Chinese stealing sensitive state data one 34-second video at a time?

That seems silly, mostly because it is. TikTok is, in the end, a hopeless waste of time. And the American people were pretty much of that mind, no matter how hard Nikki Haley tried to chip away at the stone, right until fortune delivered a Hail Mary pass right into Haley’s outstretched hands. That happened when a number of TikTokers came rushing to the defense of…wait for it…Osama bin Laden.

What do Osama bin Laden and TikTok have to do with each other? Well, nothing. Right up until the United States got tangled up in Israel’s problem with Hamas. Once that happened, it was a foregone conclusion that any number of young people more conversant in keyboarding than American history were going to be taken in by the argument that everything Israel is presently doing is unnecessary at best, and mostly just evil, at worst. Thus, the reasoning goes, anyone who supports what Israel does is also evil, and anyone who stands up to that evil (which is the United States if you’ve kept up with the leaps of logic), is, by definition, good.

Thus, Osama bin Laden is good. 

And so the story went for a number of TikTok days. And this, the second cut, played out most fully when some misguided and poorly educated American TikTokers got ahold of bin Laden’s “Letter to America,” in which he explained why he attacked the United States, and which had been published in full by The Guardian in 2002. With more than 73 million Americans on the platform, it’s not surprising that some of them ended up pushing out this kind of nonsense. It’s more than a little sad that none of them knew enough to be ashamed of themselves, but so it goes.

TikTok, for its part, was ashamed. It moved to take down all posts supporting bin Laden, arguing that such posts were a clear violation of its terms of service, which prohibit supporting terrorism. And that’s the third cut. The fourth? The Guardian took down bin Laden’s “Letter,” even though it had been sitting there in plain view for more than two decades. 

So, we have a presidential candidate pushing to ban software being used by some 20 percent of all Americans because it is Chinese in origin and as such, a security risk. Making matters worse, young Americans, who are educated to blame the United States for all the world’s ills, both real and imagined, took to TikTok to do what they do, but then the Chinese company censored Americans who were speaking ill of the United States.

It’s hard to keep it all straight, and it’s equally hard to identify heroes and villains.

But there’s more. In the midst of all this, Haley opined that social media posts by anonymous users are a “national security threat” and that every poster, presumably across all platforms, should be “verified by their name.” 

If this sounds curiously like a license to engage in free speech, it should. And Americans already have a license to engage in free speech, in the form of the First Amendment. And if you are thinking that the United States has a long history of anonymous, public speech, you’re right. Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” and the Federalist essays written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay are just two cases in point. There are many, many others.

Then again, “Common Sense” and The Federalist were, in fact, national security threats. To the English.

That fifth cut is a tough one.