Donald Trump’s executive order to ban the video-sharing site, TikTok, in the United States illustrates the dangers of the rule of whim, coming as it does shortly after teenagers with accounts organized fake reservations for tickets to his Tulsa rally. It sends the message that if you attack the dictator, you will be punished. But his action also damages the cause of reasonable concerns about what the Chinese corporation is collecting — about what social media companies generally are sweeping up in their efforts to monetize every datum they can acquire.
The reality is that TikTok is a structurally risky site, open to easy manipulation to alter or sweep up data for whatever purposes hackers may have. And as an entity that is based in China, TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, will always be under a cloud of suspicion as a business that is subject to the country’s Communist Party and its ideological controls. I say this with full recognition that American social media and search engine corporations also operate in an environment of political pressure. This is not to say that the two systems, Chinese and American, are the same in degree, but the latter nation, my country, has a long history that goes back at least to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 of working to silence the voices of opposition. And following the 9/11 attacks, the ability of the government to insert itself in our private lives has grown exponentially. Trump has lost credibility through decades of bad acts, and thus like the boy who cried wolf, his executive order can be too easily dismissed, but the reality is that while he got this one thing right — sort of and for the wrong reason — the larger problem remains unresolved.
The two hands of censorship and spying are forever circling around the field of intellectual debate, with weak minds yearning to be protected. And just like the Doomsday Clock that describes the risk of nuclear war as assessed by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, we are always only minutes away from the comprehensive ability of our leaders to see and control what we say. And many users of social media sites appear to have accepted constant sweeping up of their data, tacitly deciding that privacy is passé.
Why does this matter? The argument against censorship is easy to make — at least for anyone who cares about being able to express opinions without asking permission first. As social media corporations assert increasing control to keep their advertisers happy, users find that views that go against the establishment get shunted off into conversational backwaters, while makeup advice and paeans to the bosses of our major parties get all the attention that companies like YouTube or Twitter can provide. But if we are to maintain a functioning democracy, we must have freedom of expression in today’s agora, the place where we gather to debate our goals and the policies that we believe will achieve them.
But what about our personal information? Social media companies have to make money, and unless users want a proliferation of subscriptions that they have to buy, advertising is going to be a primary means of raising revenue. When that advertising is created by corporations that have tracked us, though, created by marketing professionals who specialize in manipulating behavior, these corporations exert a massively distorting influence on public opinion.
What social media users need is a recognition by all parties involved that social media is how Americans communicate today and thus we must have the equivalent of the First Amendment in that format. Yes, these are corporations, not the government, but in some sense, those corporations should be given the choice — one that will be continually monitored — either to respect freedom of expression or to be nationalized to a sufficient degree to mandate that defense of this essential right. And they must be upfront about any data being gathered and the uses to which those data are put.
Achieving this will require the people — the users and the ultimate origin of corporate revenues — to stand up. And given the reality that we will have to do that on social media, we had better get on with it before it is too late.