20th May 2024

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Technology and Computer

TikTok defenders miss chance to push for social media regulation amid ban backlash

I’m a longtime social media critic, and I’m pretty indiscriminate in my criticism. I don’t trust any algorithm-based platforms or the executives who run them, be that X, Facebook or TikTok.

And yet, while I’ve spent months deriding U.S. lawmakers’ laser focus on restricting access to TikTok, I’m starting to find the widespread fawning over the app — now that it might be banned in the U.S. — pretty disturbing.

Last week, President Joe Biden signed a foreign aid package that included money for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan. Congressional Republicans included a requirement that TikTok be banned in the U.S. within a year if it isn’t sold by its China-based parent company, ByteDance. That has generated some hysteria.

A lot of the rhetoric we’re hearing sounds like little more than Big Tech-fueled propaganda about how essential TikTok supposedly is and the things that we, as a society, stand to lose.

A lot of the rhetoric we’re hearing sounds like little more than Big Tech-fueled propaganda about how essential TikTok supposedly is and the things that we, as a society, stand to lose. Personally, I think the “social media is a net good for society” argument is so 2014 — and undermined by a wealth of examples we’ve seen over the past decade.

A TikTok ban, we’re told, would threaten livelihoods. Some have suggested that curtailing access to the app would deny people an effective source of information. (Though, the rampant misinformation that has been found on the platform could indicate that TikTok is more effective at agitating users than educating them.) And some people have said Biden’s signing of the bill could swing the election in Trump’s favor by angering young people.

And all of this rhetoric, in my view, has the feel of excusing what appears to be a widespread, deeply unhealthy obsession with social media. In this case, it’s an obsession that seems to ignore the very real threats posed by TikTok in favor of portraying the app as harmless fun or a means of enlightenment.

It’s like there’s an implicit warning for Democrats: “The kids want their TikTok. They need their TikTok. If you take their TikTok away, they might let the authoritarian become president.”

I sympathize with the argument that the security issues posed by TikTok’s Chinese ownership could be just as bad at other social media companies, whose leaders could easily give foreign governments access to users’ personal data. But that’s an argument for taking action against all of the companies — not for excusing TikTok from accountability, as some of the app’s backers seem to want. I’m someone who wants to see strong regulations instituted to curb all algorithm-based platforms’ influence over their users.

I think the fervor over this bill could (and should) spur legislation to curb the dangers posed by these platforms. But getting there might require TikTokers to broaden their focus beyond the possible loss of their favorite mind control device.

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