The End of TikTok Is a Propaganda Win for Beijing

When President Biden signed a bill requiring that TikTok be divested from its Chinese owner, ByteDance, members of Congress hailed the law as a blow to Beijing. They shouldn’t be so quick to celebrate. The law would at best partially mitigate the hazards of misinformation or the risks to national security posed by China. The Communist Party, meanwhile, looks forward to a propaganda windfall, prizing off Washington’s mantle as champion of a free and open internet.

America’s moral authority on maintaining open internet platforms will look very different if it bans TikTok. After years of enduring American sermonizing about free speech and open trade, autocrats would now be able to cite Washington’s own example when they interfere with speech platforms that displease them.

The End of TikTok Is a Propaganda Win for Beijing
Illustration by Akshita Chandra/The New York Times

Sponsors of the law say its purpose — prohibiting access to TikTok if it’s not sold to an American entity — is to sever the short-video app’s links to China’s Communist Party. The reality is that the American government will likely end up banning TikTok, turning it off for 170 million American users. Last week, TikTok filed suit to challenge the law. It is not only that nine months is a tight timeline for a corporate sale of this complexity; it’s also that antitrust review alone often takes as long. A tech company like Meta or Google is unlikely to surmount the government’s concerns of acquiring a leading competitor, and there’s no guarantee that a private equity or investor group will be able to pull off this politically fraught deal.

More decisive for TikTok’s destiny in the United States is the will of the Communist Party. In 2020, China’s Ministry of Commerce revised its technology export rules to assert control over the export of specialized algorithms. It has left little doubt that the legal change gives the state discretion to reject the sale of TikTok’s algorithm to any foreign entity. Signaling so in its typically oblique way, state media featured the comments of a professor saying exactly that. Whatever the wishes of ByteDance executives or its investors, any sale of TikTok will require Beijing’s blessing.

None is forthcoming. Since 2020 and again in recent months, official Chinese voices have railed against a potential divestment. Government spokesmen have denounced the deal’s “robber’s logic”. China’s leaders gain little from permitting a sale. The party is not especially concerned for the interests of ByteDance’s financial investors (who are mostly global institutional investors), nor does Beijing seem to mind an opportunity to jerk the leash of ByteDance, whose founder once issued a groveling apology for failing to uphold “socialist core values”.

Most important, Beijing may well see the law’s passage as an opportunity to revel in Washington’s hypocrisy: America’s answer to the Great Firewall. The forced sale of TikTok will make American government officials’ protests against China’s blocks on Western social media platforms and foreign sites (including The New York Times) ring hollow, even though Beijing controls the internet far more comprehensively. American economic nationalists have argued that since China doesn’t allow the operation of Facebook, Snap, X or Instagram within its borders, America should reciprocate. But at what point does matching China at its own game become a betrayal of American values?

These charges of hypocrisy will resonate beyond China’s borders. After Twitter deleted a tweet by the Nigerian president in 2021, which intimated violence against an ethnic group, Nigeria banned the app. The government cited concerns about misinformation and fake news. The U.S. State Department recognized that the Nigerian government was stifling speech and issued a statement, saying: “Unduly restricting the ability of Nigerians to report, gather and disseminate opinions and information has no place in a democracy”. Seven months later, Nigeria lifted the ban.

The law to force a sale of TikTok will not address the failures of American tech giants who continue to profit from polarizing content. Taking down TikTok will remove some toxic posts, but do little to redress the harms to minors from Snap and Instagram. Impassioned controversies, from campus protests to the November election, travel extensively on other platforms as well, which have no lack of deceptive content from potential state actors.

Neither are data concerns dispositive. American corporations, and indeed the U.S. government, have been abysmal stewards of Americans’ data, allowing Chinese hackers access to information as damaging as anything gleaned from TikTok user profiles. Many of the app’s sins are common to other Silicon Valley transgressors.

Critics allege that the Chinese Communist Party directly manipulates TikTok, tilting the platform toward narratives favoring Beijing’s interests. True or not — at present, public evidence is suggestive but circumstantial — Beijing still has plenty of other ways to influence the views of Americans. In the lead-up to the 2016 American presidential election, Facebook and other platforms unwittingly enabled Russian meddling to denigrate Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. If China is determined to meddle in American elections, it has plenty of other tools it can use. Like anyone else, Beijing can buy influencers on YouTube or Instagram while covering its tracks. A ban on TikTok hardly cleans up the information ecosystem; establishing common privacy and algorithmic practices for all the tech giants will.

The new law faces a flurry of litigation — challenges brought by TikTok’s attorneys, which bring accusations of trampling constitutional speech and crippling legitimate commerce. It may well be struck down on First Amendment grounds. TikTok has already prevailed in several federal courts, and survived bans from the Trump administration in 2020. Litigation threatens to drag on for months against the backdrop of a contentious election cycle. And as TikTok continues to operate, Mr. Biden himself hardly acts as if the app is menacing our national security. His re-election campaign persists in using TikTok to reach younger voters.

America is now committed to a long legal fight to ban TikTok. A potential defeat won’t look good, but victory may bear bitter fruit as well: the muddling of our values at home and a propaganda win for autocrats abroad.

Nick Frisch is a resident fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project. Dan Wang is a visiting scholar at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center and the technology analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics.

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