The House Energy and Commerce Committee is advancing a bill that would require any foreign-adversary-controlled applications, specifically including TikTok, the Chinese-owned video-hosting platform, to divest itself of its Chinese ownership or else face crippling fines and a ban in the United States. Concerns have mounted in recent years about the platform, its content, and what uses the Communist regime in Beijing may be making of it. The platform’s viral content can be truly horrendous, ranging from directing sex- and drug-related videos to minors to post-October 7 pro-Hamas videos. And critics have cause to worry that the Chinese are exploiting the platform for their own anti-American ends. A recent report from the Network Contagion Institute found that the app promotes messages that harmonize with Beijing’s goals and downplays, or “demotes,” messages that don’t.

Until recently, criticism of TikTok centered mostly on privacy and security—as the app hoovers up Americans’ likes, dislikes, video choices, social contacts, and locations. Concerns are heightened, since any China-based company is only a step away from the Chinese Communist Party. But Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel and its aftermath have vividly demonstrated TikTok’s ability to promote a particular viewpoint via the selection of videos it delivers. Many Americans who could not find the Middle East on a map are espousing the CCP’s anti-Israel viewpoints based on the videos that TikTok has fed them. Perhaps this is just a result of the organic choices of TikTok’s users, but given China’s geopolitical stance, it’s suspicious. 

In other words, like every other large tech distribution platform, TikTok can serve as a highly effective vehicle for propaganda. The service can deliver slanted viewpoints to support the interests of America’s enemies, and it can do so covertly, via mass-scale messaging that is nonetheless tailored to individual recipients.

Republicans in Congress are spearheading the legislation that would require TikTok to be sold to non-foreign-adversary owners, and TikTok’s response to this effort—sending manipulative notifications to users urging them to complain to their representatives about the bill—has “made our case for us,” as Ohio congressman Bob Latta put it.

Indeed, these requirements will apply to any social media platform owned or operated by an American adversary, including any app or website that has over 1 million monthly active users. Just as the FDA would never allow a drug manufactured in China to be given to millions of Americans without knowing its ingredients and manufacturing process, any adversary-controlled, digitally curated news source reaching millions of Americans should not be allowed if sufficient controls and reviews are not possible. TikTok has steadfastly refused access to American review of its algorithms, and the company has been caught on numerous occasions spying on its users. Internet hosting services would be prohibited from carrying any application that does not comply with this act.

Niall Ferguson has described the current international situation, in which the United States, as leader of the world’s democracies, is facing off against an alliance of China, Russia, Iran, and other authoritarian states, as “Cold War II.” It’s unimaginable that, during the first Cold War, America would ever have let the Soviet Union own a major broadcast network in the United States. Of course, the two conflicts are far from identical. The American-Chinese economic relationship, for example, is far more deeply entwined than the U.S.-Soviet one was. Still, it is unnerving to consider that a company subject to control by the Chinese Communist Party has become the largest source of news for millions of Americans. The TikTok question for policymakers should not be whether to take action, but how quickly they can move the legislation forward. (President Biden has said that he will sign it.) They should put it into effect well before the very contentious election Americans face this fall; they should not let the Chinese Communist Party subvert or discredit the results.   

Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images


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