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TikTok in the Age of Decoupling

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TikTok in the Age of Decoupling

While the ban seems inevitable amid deepening distrust, removal of TikTok from the U.S. market will not solve the disinformation problem.

TikTok in the Age of Decoupling
Credit: Depositphotos

A bipartisan consensus in the U.S. House of Representatives culminated in the passage of legislation in that, if also passed by the Senate and signed into law by the president, would require the Beijing-based company, ByteDance, to either divest from its U.S.-based subsidiary – TikTok – or have it be removed from the U.S. market in six months. 

U.S. lawmakers see TikTok as being intimately linked to Beijing, “a foreign adversary” that “poses the greatest national security threat of our time.”  The latest build-up in tension started in 2019 in the wake of the Huawei ban. Then-President Donald Trump leveraged the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the Committee on Foreign Investment, and an Executive Order, to try to force the sale of a majority of TikTok to an American company, calling it a matter of national security. Those efforts were ultimately forestalled, with a lawsuit (TikTok v. Trump) and, after the 2020 election, a decision by the Biden administration to rescind the executive order.

TikTok stressed in an October 2019 statement that U.S. user data is entirely outside of China and not subject to Chinese law, and furthermore that the company has not removed content based on Chinese censorship, a recurring claim in the ongoing havoc and a point of contention among skeptics, especially U.S. policymakers. 

Despite this, the ban seems inevitable amid the United States’ deepening distrust toward Beijing in the context of greater geopolitical decoupling.

The removal of TikTok from the U.S. market will not solve the disinformation problem, as such operations are rampant on home-based platforms, such as Facebook, nor will it prevent China from acquiring sensitive information. 

According to Caitlin Chin-Rothmann, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, many U.S. mobile apps have built their business models around collecting and sharing geolocation and other personal data, and this information is widely available even outside TikTok. Although the Biden administration announced a new executive order in February to prevent U.S. technology companies from transferring some categories of bulk sensitive personal information to China, there are illicit alternative channels for such transactions to occur.

Furthermore, Chin-Rothmann noted that disinformation spreads across all social media platforms, particularly due to a lack of U.S. legal requirements for algorithmic transparency and fairness. She argued that “the narrow focus on a TikTok ban or divestiture to a U.S. company ignores an important lesson from the 2016 election: that U.S. corporate ownership alone, without additional regulations, is not a proxy for online safety.”

Enhancing the public’s critical digital literacy skills in navigating algorithm-based platforms has a far-reaching impact on societal resilience. Formulating robust digital citizen participation can also be applicable to stemming radicalization and foreign-led misinformation on all social media platforms regardless of their origins. Systematic regulations and technical improvement are equally important. Instagram, owned by Meta, has clumsily censored individual posts during the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict, while some users have turned to alternative platforms to voice their opinions. These considerations are non-negligible for the long-term national interests and public wellbeing, although the current push to ban TikTok is overdetermined by concerns over national security.

A few U.S. lawmakers have raised concerns about the proposed ban being a violation of First Amendment rights, a view echoed by TikTok’s PR team. Increasingly, Chinese companies are taking legal routes to challenge U.S. legislation, as seen in the case of Huawei as well as TikTok’s 2020 statement that they are willing to fight it out in courts for as long as it takes. This time around, we are witnessing more creative and aggressive PR strategies, exemplified by TikTok’s direct outreach to 160 million users with a call button to their representatives.

There is precedent for waiting on a presidential election in hopes of a friendlier incoming regime, or that the fixated negative attention may fall through the cracks amid the campaign chaos. TikTok has also pointed out a bit of seeming hypocrisy, as many U.S. political candidates look to the platform to campaign, illuminating Donald Trump’s recent flipped view against the ban. 

TikTok, however, finds itself facing a bigger problem as other foreign markets are moving to clamp down, following the American lead. Most importantly, the formation of public discourse severely diminishes its credibility around the world. Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and India took similar measures to pressure TikTok in recent years. France issued a ban on recreational applications on governmental devices, marginally implicating TikTok’s operations, but symbolically firmly aligning itself with the international wave against Chinese tech firms at large. 

ByteDance’s geopolitical hedge was to have a two-legged operation, with TikTok (the international version) and Douyin (the China version) as two separate entities in different jurisdictions. Instead of being insulated by the firewall, the setup has only placed the firm in the crossfire.

The 2020 export ban issued by China’s Department of Commerce explicitly forbade the export of “personalized information provided by algorithm-based tech platform” as well as techniques pertaining to human-machine interactions, targeting but not naming TikTok as the case-in-point. In 2021, Chinese regulators obstructed DiDi’s $4.4 billion IPO with a cybersecurity review two days after it was listed on the NYSE. The subsequent delisting of DiDi, China’s largest cab-hailing app, was a wakeup call for Chinese tech firms wanting to IPO abroad. E-commerce giants like Shein and Temu are scrutinized by both sides while struggling to find a place to nest. This is precisely the dilemma faced by nearly all Chinese firms.

In March 2023, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was called before the U.S. Congress for five hours of hearings. His performance was perceived positively among the Chinese public, and many Chinese families saw him as an archetype of new international elites and a role model for their own Gen Z children with a sense of nationalistic pride. The U.S. lawmakers questioned Chew’s nationality and loyalty. Both sides tended to ignore the fact that he is Singaporean, and subsequently appropriated his appearance to perpetuate their own pre-existing political discourse.

Chinese private companies, much like the position of the TikTok CEO, are inbetweeners, embroiled in a perfect storm that is not turning away any time soon.