Arguing for the motion at a public debate hosted by the company Intelligence Squared was Kori Schake, Director of Foreign and Defense Policy at the American Enterprise Institute, and former official on the National Security Council.
On the other side of the virtual aisle sat Milton L Mueller, a Professor of Cybersecurity Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and creator of the Global Internet Governance Academic Network (GigaNet), an international association of scholars.
The choice of these two figures reflects the two parallel (and rarely converging) trends in the discourse on Tiktok, to which both speakers adhered throughout the course of the session: the technical details of how these software platforms operate, and the political rhetoric of the current everything-is-national-security paradigm.
Setting the parameters of the debate in her opening remarks, Schake laid out the stakes, boiling the issue down to two main concerns: first, that American user data is making its way to China; and second, that Tiktok could be used as a propaganda tool by the Chinese government. And it is this second point that should be of primary concern, not least given Tiktok’s extraordinary reach — 1.53 billion globally, and just shy of 80 million monthly active users in the U.S.
Mueller argued that China is not exporting its propaganda via Tiktok, noting that while ByteDance (Tiktok’s owner) does do this on its domestic platform Douyin, it doesn’t make sense to do so on Tiktok and if it did, it would be to no avail, as users do not want to see such content, so the algorithm would suppress it, leading to negligible impact.
This argument an appeal to Tiktok’s business interests echoes the testimony of Yale Senior Fellow Samm Sacks in May 2019 to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Despite agreeing that ultimately the Chinese government can compel companies to turn over their data, she cited examples from Didi, Alibaba, and Tencent to argue that many Chinese firms routinely push back against data requests from the government. In this vein, while Douyin might be obligated to promote Communist Party media on its platform just like any other domestic competitor, Tiktok operates in a different social media landscape where such tactics are unlikely to succeed.
Schake combatted this by surveying recent developments. She recounted how FBI Director Chris Wray and his U.K. counterpart, MI5’s Ken McCallum, have both argued that Tiktok presents a threat to the national security of their respective nations, which led in part to the Federal ban on Tiktok for government-owned devices. Indeed, in the days since the debate took place, Politico has reported that the European Commission has also announced a similar ban, with the European Council and EU Parliament said to be following suit.
But John Donvan, who chaired the debate, noted that Kori Schake was effectively providing an argument to authority: in her own words, “I am not an expert on espionage or tech.” As such, she was channeling credible experts. However, as Mueller was quick to point out, for all his access to intelligence, Wray himself is not a technology specialist either. And as far as we can tell, neither is McCallum. What’s more, in all these cases, “concern” over Tiktok’s purported exposure to be manipulated to influence American discourse abounds, but the evidence is thinner, or at least knowledge of it in the public domain seems harder to come by.
Beyond the source code
I tried to pin Mueller down on this in the questions I put to the panelists: given that Tiktok’s recommendation algorithm is so complex often likened to a black box and given that China’s internet regulation guidelines are explicit about platforms promoting core socialist values, how can we know that Tiktok isn’t adhering to those guidelines in some way?
The answer I received was this: While we will likely learn little from analyzing the source code or the functioning of the algorithm from the back end, we can learn more by looking at its outputs. Go on Tiktok, scroll, search, and see what content gets pushed your way. The only way CCP propaganda would rise to the top, Mueller quipped, was if America’s youth had latent communist sympathies. And for now, they are making billions of dollars with the algorithm operating as it is why should they change it?
This is a compelling argument. However, it seemed somewhat naive as a caricature of how PRC propaganda might look, and how media influence operations work. While subtlety and nuance are not characterizations redolent of China’s Foreign Ministry announcements, influence campaigns rarely appear so clunky: you’re unlikely to see hammers and sickles in promoted content sympathetic to Beijing’s preferred candidates or critical of others.
Of course, while such content is well documented on Facebook, Twitter, and other American platforms, it is apparently understudied on TikTok. However, when I asked Schake whether this should be tackled in legislation regulating algorithms across all platforms, she said: I don’t know enough about the functioning of AI algorithms to be able to answer.
This highlights the lack of convergence that characterizes much of the broader debate on Tiktok in the U.S.: a lack of nuanced understanding of the nature of the risks that various technologies pose, because of a general lack of literacy on how these new technologies function.
A Sisyphean task
Experts broadly agree that we should be wary of TikTok: they have proven themselves untrustworthy on numerous occasions, most recently by having Beijing-based employees access American user data to track journalists despite claiming that this was not possible.
Nevertheless, two substantial problems with a ban remain: Financially, many American small business owners use TikTok as their main revenue source, and would be adversely affected by a ban and legally, there are constitutional challenges on free speech grounds.
For now, we await the recommendations of the two-year-long review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), as well as further actions by the recently anointed Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, a Republican-majority group whose members are on record expressing hardline views on this issue. The remarks of Tiktok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew (周受子 Zhōu Shòuzǐ), who will appear before the U.S. Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23, will certainly be worth tuning in for.