Not making his day. Photographer: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg
It’s hard to get past the initial sheer inanity of TikTok.
I spent half an hour trying to make sense of the endless feed of video snippets of ordinary people doing daft things with their dogs or in their kitchens or in the gym. I figured out the viral memes of the moment: animals dancing to Tono Rosario’s “Kulikitaka,” the suspenseful unveiling of hunks or hounds to the repeated words, “Please don’t be ugly.” I asked my eight-year-old son what I should look out for. He recommended the dancing ferret. I never found it.
Thirty minutes of TikTok left me with just one burning question: How can this thing be a threat to U.S. national security?
And then I had the epiphany. TikTok is not just China’s revenge for the century of humiliation between the Opium Wars and Mao’s revolution. It is the opium — a digital fentanyl, to get our kids stoked for the coming Chinese imperium.
First, the back story — which you’ll need if you, like me, never got hooked on Facebook, or Instagram, or Snapchat, and still use the Internet like a very fast version of your university library, and begin emails with “Dear …”
The year is 2012, and Zhang Yiming, a Chinese tech entrepreneur who briefly worked at Microsoft, founds ByteDance Ltd. as a smartphone-focused content provider. His AI-powered news aggregator Toutiao is a hit. In November 2017, he pays $1 billion for a lip-synching app called Musical.ly, which already has a growing user community that tilts young (12 to 24) and female and is established in the U.S. Zhang then merges Musical.ly with his own short-video app TikTok, known in China as Douyin.
The thing spreads faster than Covid-19: TikTok now has 800 million monthly active users around the globe. And it’s far more contagious: Just under half of U.S. teenage internet users have used TikTok. If it were a pathogen, it would be the Black Death. But it’s an app, so ByteDance is now worth $100 billion.
So what’s the secret of TikTok’s success? The best answers I’ve seen come from Ben Thompson, whose Stratechery newsletter has become essential reading on all the things tech. First, Thompson wrote last month, the history of analog media already told us that “humans like pictures more than text, and moving pictures most of all.” Second, TikTok’s video creation tools are really “accessible and inspiring for nonprofessional videographers.” Translation: Idiots can use them.
Third, unlike Facebook, TikTok is not a social network. It’s an AI-based algorithmic feed that uses all the data it can get about each user to personalize content. “By expanding the library of available video from those made by your network to any video made by anyone on the service,” Thompson argues, “Douyin/TikTok leverages the sheer scale of user-generated content … and relies on its algorithms to ensure that users are only seeing the cream of the crop.”
In other words, “think of TikTok as being a mobile-first YouTube,” not Facebook with cool video. It’s “an entertainment entity predicated on internet assumptions about abundance, not Hollywood assumptions about scarcity.”
So what’s not to like? The answer would seem to be quite a lot.
In February, TikTok was fined $5.7 million by the Federal Trade Commission over allegations that it illegally collected personal information from children under the age of 13. In April, the app was temporarily banned in India by the High Court in Madras for carrying child pornographic content and failing to prevent cyberbullying. (The ban was swiftly reversed.)
But Zhang’s real headache was elsewhere. Last November, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (known as CFIUS) began a probe into ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly on the ground that it potentially affected U.S. national security. Seriously? A teenage video app is a threat to the most powerful nation-state on the planet? Well, these days CFIUS regards just about any Chinese investment as a threat — in 2010, it forced the Chinese gaming firm Beijing Kunlun Tech Co. to sell the gay dating app Grindr.
I’ve written before in this space about Cold War II. Well, TikTok has become the Sino-American conflict’s latest casualty.
Zhang Yiming is a great entrepreneur. Though he is personally no authoritarian, he is also a political conformist. ByteDance’s first app, Neihan Duanzi (“inside jokes”), was shut down in 2018 by the National Radio and Television Administration. Zhang had to apologize that its content had been “incommensurate with socialist core values.” He solemnly promised that ByteDance would henceforth “further deepen cooperation” with the Chinese Communist Party.
Until last month, Zhang’s game plan was voluntary separation of ByteDance from China. Like other Chinese tech giants, ByteDance is a “variable interest entity” incorporated in the Cayman Islands, positioning it for an offshore initial public offering in Hong Kong or New York. ByteDance claims that all American data from TikTok are stored in U.S. data centers and backed up in Singapore. The appointment in May of Kevin Mayer, a former Disney executive, as TikTok’s new chief executive and ByteDance’s chief operating officer, was the clearest signal yet of where Zhang was headed.
Then, President Donald Trump blew Zhang’s game plan apart.
On June 31, he threatened to ban TikTok in the U.S. On Monday, when Microsoft appeared set to buy TikTok’s U.S. operations, Trump made the characteristically unorthodox and probably illegal suggestion that the U.S. government should get some kind of arrangement fee. “It’s a little bit like the landlord-tenant,” explained the former real-estate developer from Queens. “Without a lease, the tenant has nothing. So they pay what is called ‘key money’ or they pay something.”
Then on Friday, he issued an executive order banning TikTok in the U.S. in 45 days unless it is sold to a non-Chinese entity. (Tencent Holdings Ltd’s even more popular messaging app WeChat will also be banned.)
Trump is wrong to ask for a piece of the action. But he’s right that TikTok needs more than an American chief executive to continue operating in the U.S. Vacuous though its content may seem, TikTok poses three distinct threats.
The first is a good threat: the one it poses to over-mighty, under-regulated Facebook Inc., which the Department of Justice should never have allowed to acquire Instagram and WhatsApp. TikTok has eaten Facebook’s lunch as a platform for video, prompting Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg to try to rip it off with Reels — launched on Wednesday — in the same way that Instagram’s Stories ripped off Snapchat.
Whatever else happens, Reels must not succeed. Nor should Facebook become the owner of TikTok. Facebook’s enormous and malignant influence in the American public sphere is a threat not to national security but to American democracy itself. Its efforts to regulate itself since 2016 have largely been a sham.
The second threat TikTok poses is to children. Like Facebook, like YouTube, like Twitter, TikTok is optimized for user engagement, algorithmically steering users to content that will hook them via its “For You” page. In essence, the AI learns what you like and then gives you more of it. And more. Future historians will marvel that we didn’t give our kids crack cocaine, but did give them TikTok.
Like crack, TikTok is dangerous. For example, TikTok’s users, who are still mostly young and female, love lip-sync videos. These have become a magnet for pedophiles, who can use the app to send girls sexually explicit messages and even remix videos and dance along with them using a feature called Duet. Cases of sexual harassment of minors are easy to find: In February, a 35-year-old Los Angeles man was arrested on suspicion of initiating “sexual and vulgar” conversations with at least 21 girls, some as young as nine.
TikTok’s third threat is geopolitical. For Ben Thompson, who is based in Taiwan, the past year has been revelatory. Having previously played down the political and ideological motivations of the Chinese government, he has now come out as New Cold Warrior. China’s vision of the role of technology is fundamentally different from the West’s, he argues, and it fully intends to export its anti-liberal vision to the rest of the world.
“If China is on the offensive against liberalism not only within its borders but within ours,” he asks, “it is in liberalism’s interest to cut off a vector that has taken root precisely because it is so brilliantly engineered to give humans exactly what they want.”
If you need an update on how the Communist Party is using AI to build a surveillance state that makes Orwell’s Big Brother seem primeval — it’s actually more akin to the dystopia imagined in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1924 novel “We” — read Ross Andersen’s recent essay in the Atlantic, “The Panopticon Is Already Here.”
As Andersen puts it, “In the near future, every person who enters a public space [in China] could be identified, instantly, by AI matching them to an ocean of personal data, including their every text communication, and their body’s one-of-a-kind protein-construction schema. In time, algorithms will be able to string together data points from a broad range of sources — travel records, friends and associates, reading habits, purchases — to predict political resistance before it happens.”
Many of China’s prominent AI startups are the Communist Party’s “willing commercial partners” in this, which is bad enough. But the greater concern, as Andersen says, is that all this technology is for export. Among the countries importing it are Bolivia, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mongolia, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Venezuela, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The Chinese response to the American attack on TikTok gives the game away. On Twitter, Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the government-controlled Global Times, called the move “open robbery,” accused Trump of “turning the once great America into a rogue country,” and warned that “when similar things happen time and again, the U.S. will take steps closer to its decline.”
Ah yes, our old friend the decline and fall of American imperialism. And its corollary? In a revealing essay published last April, the Chinese political theorist Jiang Shigong, a professor at Peking University Law School, spelled out the imperial nature of China’s ambition. World history, he argued, is the history of empires, not nation-states, which are a relatively recent phenomenon. (By the way, this has long been my own view.)
“The history of humanity is surely the history of competition for imperial hegemony,” Jiang writes, “which has gradually propelled the form of empires from their original local nature toward the current tendency toward global empires, and finally toward a single world empire.”
The globalization of our time, according to Jiang, is the “single world empire 1.0, the model of world empire established by England and the United States.” But that Anglo-American empire is “unravelling” internally because of “three great unsolvable problems: the ever-increasing inequality created by the liberal economy … ineffective governance caused by political liberalism, and decadence and nihilism created by cultural liberalism.” (Come to think of it, I agree with this, too.)
Moreover, the Western empire is under external attack from “Russian resistance and Chinese competition.” This is not a bid to create an alternative Eurasian empire but “a struggle to become the heart of the world empire.”
If you doubt that China is seeking to take over empire 1.0 and turn it into empire 2.0, based on China’s illiberal civilization, then you are not paying attention to all the ways this strategy is being executed.
China has successfully become the workshop of the world, as we used to be. It now has a Weltpolitik known as One Belt One Road, a vast infrastructure project that looks a lot like Western imperialism as described by J.A. Hobson in 1902. China uses the prize of access to its market to exert pressure on U.S. companies to toe Beijing’s line. It conducts “influence operations” across the West, including the U.S.
One of the many ways America sought to undermine the Soviet Union in Cold War I was by waging a “Cultural Cold War.” This was partly about being seen to beat the Soviets at their own games — chess (Fischer v Spassky); ballet (Rudolf Nureyev’s defection); ice hockey (the “Miracle on Ice” of 1980). But it was mainly about corrupting the Soviet people with the irresistible temptations of American popular culture.
In 1986, the French leftist philosopher and comrade-in-arms of Che Guevara, Jules Régis Debray, lamented, “There is more power in rock music, videos, blue jeans, fast food, news networks and TV satellites than in the entire Red Army.” The French Left sneered at “Coca-colonization.” But Parisians, too, drank Coke.
Now, however, the tables have been turned. In a debate I hosted at Stanford in 2018, the tech billionaire Peter Thiel used a memorable aphorism: “AI is Communist, crypto is libertarian.” TikTok validates the first half of that. In the late 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, Chinese children denounced their parents for rightist deviance. In 2020, during the Covid-19 lockdown and the Black Lives Matter protests, American teenagers posted videos of themselves berating their parents for racism. And they did it on TikTok.
Those inane-seeming words are now lodged in my brain: “Please don’t be ugly.” But TikTok is ugly, very ugly. And severing its hotline to Xi Jinping’s imperial panopticon is the least we can do about it.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.