Tue May 28, 2024
May 28, 2024

Understanding the TikTok Ban

By HERMAN MORRIS

On March 13, a bipartisan bill passed the House that would force ByteDance to sell its social media application, TikTok, to a new owner within six months or be banned from the United States. While it has yet to move into the Senate, Biden has already announced his intention to sign the measure into law if it comes to his desk.

While regulating media in the United States is nothing new to the bourgeois state, social media applications such as TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, etc. represent the latest frontier in a new form of media creation, and as such are still largely unregulated in the United States. This threat of a ban of TikTok, therefore, represents a significant escalation by the Washington regime, and it’s worth understanding why it specifically is being targeted, why now, and what the working class should take away from it.

What is TikTok?

Briefly, TikTok is a social media application that combines shortform video content along with an algorithmically curated stream of suggestions that tailors itself to the videos that the user likes, in order to create a personalized and addictive stream of video content. At its time of launching, this was a relatively novel approach to social media; however, because TikTok continues to be the fastest growing social media network, its format is now copied by most other social media platforms (example: Instagram/Facebook reels, YouTube shorts, Snapchat spotlight, etc.) Most social media platforms have either completely re-invented themselves to prioritize being like TikTok, or at least offer a highly similar experience through the application itself.

So, what separates TikTok from these other platforms if Congress wants to ban only TikTok? The obvious answer is that TikTok is the only major social media platform in the United States that is not wholly owned by Western bourgeois interests. From its own website, ByteDance is owned largely by three groups, 60% from global capital investment funds, 20% from former employees, and 20% from the original founder, Zhang Yiming. While on the surface these facts would indicate that the Western bourgeoisie already does control TikTok, Reuters has claimed that Zhang still maintains a majority control of voting rights.

More importantly, ByteDance is headquartered within China and would be subject to whatever data collection laws that the Chinese state enforces, much like the U.S. does with the Patriot Act. In short, while it is incorrect to say that the Chinese state outright controls ByteDance and therefore TikTok, the location of ByteDance’s headquarters and the cultivation of relations with the Chinese state that is necessary for capitalists to operate in China makes ByteDance and therefore TikTok more subservient to Chinese business interests than other social media applications.

This is the crux of why U.S. politicians want to ban TikTok. Any other reasons given are either flat-out distractions or simply are downstream from this fact. As an example, many politicians point to the data-gathering practices of TikTok and the fact that this information may be accessed by the Chinese government. While the collection and safe storage of identifying information such as SSNs, banking information, geolocation, photos, etc. are a matter that should concern everyone using social media, this is something that is standard operating procedure for all social media companies!

Moreover, if someone lives in the United States, then the collection of their data by an American company poses a greater personal threat to them than a Chinese one due to security state projects such as PRISM and the Patriot Act that make it possible to hand over personal data from private corporations to the government with no warrant. If the collection of personal data (a practice that is wildly lucrative for the global bourgeoisie) mattered to the U.S. government, then it would be threatening to ban it across the board.

Suppression in social media

Much has also been said about TikTok’s lack of suppressing news regarding the genocide in Gaza. While the company has made several overtures to Zionist organizations to smooth matters with them, it does seem clear that TikTok has a softer approach towards moderation on Palestine than other social media networks and has even acknowledged the popularity of a pro-Palestine stance among youth. As a result, they have faced false allegations of promoting antisemitic content.

It can reasonably be inferred that an element of this has to do with the more cordial relations that China and Chinese corporations seek to cultivate within the Middle East. On the other hand, in order to escape the controversy of having political issues on the apps at all, Western social media companies like Instagram/Facebook are now actively hiding political content by default.

It would be a mistake however, to take this example and hold up TikTok as a defender of free speech. Leaked documents from the company reveal that TikTok intentionally limits the viewership of people perceived as “ugly, “disabled, “poor, or LGBT. Within China its censorship is even more explicit, with leaked documents stating that any criticism of the Chinese government can be entirely censored. TikTok is under the influence of competing imperial forces, and as non-U.S. powers continue to grow in prominence on the world stage, more privately held interests will become comfortable with taking stances that are not the immediate interests of the Washington consensus.

While this bill would essentially force ByteDance to pick one side of imperialism or the other, both forces represent an enemy to working people everywhere.

The use of social media has played a role in creating mass protest movements seemingly out of thin air (Arab Spring, George Floyd uprising, Yellow Vest movement), but these same movements have proven brittle and often unable to build democratic spaces of organization for the movement on a mass scale. We can’t trust social media to build our movements for us, and these platforms are ultimately owned by and controlled by the forces of global capital.

There may be certain moments where one company refuses to suppress or is supportive of a certain social movement, but all social media companies are merely fair-weather friends and will happily throw working people under the bus to avoid sanctions or bans. In the case of the 2020 Indian Farmer Protests, Twitter banned over 500 accounts for speaking critical of the sitting PM Modi.

Looking forward, mass organizations like unions, revolutionary parties, and broad social movements need to focus their efforts on building forms of internet communications that break their reliance on the privately held social media companies. Embryonic versions of this can be seen with Signal groups to organize actions, email lists to share articles and have deeper political discussions, repositories of information such as marxists.org, and independently run blogs. Bigger projects can and should be undertaken to provide forms of effective political and organizational communications, as otherwise, mass movements are building castles on shifting sands.

*First published on Workers’ Voice 4/10/24

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