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Untangling the Tik Tok Trial

National Security Implications in the Era of Social Media


When TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew came before Congress on March 23rd, 2023, he was faced with five grueling hours of questioning by dozens of politicians. The inquiry centered on the perceived threat posed by TikTok's ties to China, a concern directly connected to U.S. national security.

TikTok's influence extends across platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube, making it a technological phenomenon that has reshaped the landscape of social networking on a global scale. While this is exciting for millions of social media users worldwide, American lawmakers have become increasingly worried about potential breaches of political and national security. In fact, many legislators claim that the app’s association with the PRC’s government pose significant threats to the safety and interests of the United States, leading Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, to declare, “to the American people watching today, hear this: TikTok is a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on you and manipulate what you see and exploit for future generations.”

In response to these allegations, a Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson challenged the U.S. to provide concrete evidence substantiating its claims of national security threats emanating from TikTok. Spokesperson Mao Ning’s mocking response went viral in China when she said, “How unsure of itself can the world’s top superpower be — to fear an app that young people like?” But, American officials defended their wariness, tracing their concern back to TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance.

ByteDance, a technology company headquartered in Beijing, housed the data for millions of U.S. TikTok users, leading lawmakers to speculate that valuable user information could easily be shared with the Chinese government. Such information, officials argued, could be used to warp propaganda, manipulate information, corrupt the truth, and even provide opportunities to spy on the lives of American citizens. This concern was one of the very first points Rep. Rodgers outlined in the first minute of the 2023 hearing. She noted, “Tiktok collects nearly every data point imaginable from people's location to what they type and copy who they talk to, biometric data and more, even if they've never been on TikTok. Your trackers are embedded in sites across the web. Tiktok surveils us all, and the Chinese Communist Party is able to use this as a tool to manipulate America as a whole. We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values, values for freedom, human rights, and innovation.”

Regarding these claims, Mr. Chew reassured the Members of the Committee that Bytedance was not owned nor was it controlled by the Chinese government. As a private company, he explained, 60% of Bytedance is owned by private investors. Of the five board members, three are Americans. Additionally, TikTok is not available as a social media platform in China. As he concluded his remarks, Mr. Chew commented, “we have heard important concerns about the potential for unwanted foreign access to US data and potential manipulation of the TikTok US ecosystem. Our approach has never been to dismiss or trivialize any of these concerns.”

Unfortunately, when pressed on whether TikTok employees could spy on U.S. users, Mr. Chew's responses fell short of providing reassurance, fueling doubts about the platform's integrity. When Rep. Rodgers asked if he could say with 100 percent certainty that neither the Chinese government nor Bytedance employees could use the app to spy on Americans or promote content favorable to Chinese interests, he said only that the company was committed to keeping the app free from manipulation by any government. “If you can’t say 100% certain, I take that as a no,” said Chair Rodgers.

Unconvinced that TikTok was free from Chinese ulterior motives, the Biden Administration provided an ultimatum: either ByteDance divest their interests to a U.S. entity or face a ban. As a proposed alternative, TikTok offered a solution referred to as “Project Texas.” The $1.5 billion initiative aimed at safeguarding user data by entrusting it to the American firm, Oracle – a software and data company based in Austin, Texas. The company acts as a third party validator, which reviews Titok’s source code and algorithms. Because of the protective firewall, the PRC’s government would not have access to user data from the United States. While the project touted stringent measures for data protection and governance, lawmakers remained skeptical, proven by the statement given by Rep. Angie Craig:“What you’re doing down in Texas is all well and good, but it is not enough to be convinced that our privacy is not at risk.”

Despite the unease, for many TikTok users, the platform's societal contributions outweigh the concerns raised by policymakers. With 150 million users in the United States alone, TikTok has served as a launchpad for countless small businesses and provided a platform for underrepresented voices to be heard. One TikTok creator, Hannah Williams, told CNN that her business now yields some $200,000 a year, a success that the ban would negatively impact. Another TikTok creator, Ashley Renne Nsonwu, added that TikTok provides a safe space for diversity to be celebrated. When asked about the potential impact of a TikTok ban, she said, “For people like me, you know, Black and brown people of color, it would be very detrimental to us. It's very upsetting for a lot of us, because we rely on these spaces to talk about issues that really matter to us. And now we're talking about banning that.”

Congress certainly didn’t expect thousands of users to rally around Mr. Chew himself. Many beneficiaries of TikTok and other social media platforms supported his idea of Project Texas to protect their security and ultimately rejected the idea of a ban. In lieu of public opinion, TikTok remained active. But media-related anxieties won’t be going away any time soon. Kara Swisher, a longtime tech journalist, wryly remarked that if TikTok were banned, it would provide a boon for other social media sites like Facebook and Instagram. In the long run, however, some of the issues brought up by Congress—such as potential harm on teens—are happening everywhere. Regarding social media, Swisher said, “it’s a very toxic place – and so this is a bigger issue that they should be dealing with, but in this case, they're going to aim at TikTok because of the Chinese government.”

Nearly one year after this controversial hearing, TikTok continues to flourish. Nevertheless, questions surrounding media regulation, the safety and health of social media users, and national security remain unresolved. With the 2024 elections looming, the debate over social media’s role in shaping public discourse and safeguarding national interests will likely intensify, and the stability of U.S national security may be more important than ever.