The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Yes, TikTok is a threat to America. But so are U.S. social media companies.

TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on Capitol Hill last Thursday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
6 min

To ban or not to ban? That is the difficult question confronting the U.S. government as it struggles to figure out how to handle TikTok, the wildly popular Chinese social media platform that has at least 150 million active users in the United States.

I’m sympathetic to the arguments for forcing TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, to sell the platform — and to ban it if ByteDance refuses. But I still found myself exasperated by the show trial staged on Thursday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The hearing, which featured the first congressional testimony from TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, revealed no semblance of debate or doubt or serious discussion. Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) kicked off the day by telling Chew, “Your platform should be banned. TikTok is a grave threat of foreign influence in American life.” Verdict first, trial later.

Many of the pieces of “evidence” that the committee members cited to indict TikTok were misleading or outright false. No, Liang Rubo, the chief executive of ByteDance, is not a member of the Chinese Communist Party. No, TikTok hasn’t removed all mentions of the Uyghur genocide or the Tiananmen Square massacre. No, TikTok doesn’t collect precise location data — unlike a lot of U.S. social media apps.

More broadly, most of the complaints about TikTok — that it is harmful to children, that it spreads misinformation and that it collects private data — are just as applicable to U.S. competitors. For example, Facebook, the company now known as Meta that also owns Instagram, agreed in 2019 to pay a record $5 billion fine after the Federal Trade Commission alleged that it violated users’ privacy. Facebook was also used by Russian trolls to influence the 2016 election. Now Meta has been quietly lobbying to turn the public against TikTok, because Instagram and Facebook have been losing ground to TikTok, especially among teens.

Lawmakers spent five hours verbally pummeling Chew as if he were the personification of the Chinese Communist Party. In fact, as he pointed out, he’s not even Chinese. He’s an American- and British-educated military reservist in U.S. ally Singapore. Chew showed considerable patience in handling the panel’s attacks, with their undertone of nativism. But he did not have good answers, even on those rare occasions when he was allowed to get in a word edgewise.

Chew repeatedly cited Project Texas, TikTok’s plan to migrate its American data to U.S. servers owned by Oracle. He claimed this would protect the privacy of Americans. But the issue isn’t where the servers are located; it’s who has access to them. And he could offer no guarantees that Chinese employees — who are subject to Chinese state coercion — would not have access to the data or would not be able to manipulate the platform’s algorithm to spread Chinese disinformation.

“A big problem is TikTok has not been very transparent, and several things they have said about data access and management structures have proven to be false — ByteDance has more say and control than was being discussed publicly,” Adam Segal, a cybersecurity expert, told me. “Managers in China exert a huge amount of influence.”

Put another way, even those who are hauled before a kangaroo court are sometimes guilty as charged.

You can easily discount the hyperventilating of politicians parading before the cameras. But FBI Director Christopher A. Wray has also raised “national security concerns” about TikTok: “They include the possibility that the Chinese government could use it to control data collection on millions of users or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations if they so chose, or to control software on millions of devices, which gives it an opportunity to potentially technically compromise personal devices.”

That is why President Biden has reached the same conclusion that President Donald Trump did — namely, that TikTok should be sold to a U.S. buyer or shut down altogether. But momentum to do something about TikTok petered out when federal courts ruled that Trump did not have the authority to ban it by executive order, the Chinese government made clear it would not agree to a sale, and Trump got cold feet just before the 2020 election for fear of offending young people and suburban moms.

The easiest objection to address is the lack of executive authority to ban TikTok. That can be provided by bipartisan legislation recently introduced in the Senate. But unless Beijing reverses itself and approves a sale (which it shows no sign of doing), Biden could be in the unenviable position of banning an app that is beloved by millions of young voters.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo recently said of a TikTok ban: “The politician in me thinks you’re going to literally lose every voter under 35, forever.” It strikes me that a lot of Republican politicians would be happy for Biden, rather than Trump, to pay the political price of a ban — and that they won’t lift a finger to defend him from the inevitable backlash.

Despite the potential cost, Biden needs to show the political courage to act against TikTok. But Congress also needs to show the political courage to take on U.S. social media apps that are also a threat to our nation’s well-being. We need legislation to create rigorous standards on data privacy, algorithmic transparency and moderation for all social media, foreign or domestic.

To cite just one example of the larger threat, researchers have found that, since Elon Musk took over Twitter, there has been a surge of accounts promoting the Islamic State, white supremacy and QAnon. Yet when Meta tried to alert Twitter about accounts associated with Russian and Chinese influence campaigns, it got no response. Twitter, too, is potentially subject to Chinese coercion, because China is a major manufacturing and sales hub for Tesla, a company Musk leads. Musk’s “business and fortune are beholden to the whims of an authoritarian government,” P.W. Singer of the think tank New America pointed out to me.

That would be a good subject for a future House hearing. But of course Republicans are not eager to investigate Musk, perhaps because so many of the conspiracy theories he peddles are popular in their own ranks. It’s much easier to beat up on a Chinese company. That’s not a defense of TikTok. It’s a plea — futile, no doubt — for lawmakers to show some consistency in taking on all of Big Tech, not just one foreign pariah.