My Take on TikTok Ban

I’m not sure why I feel compelled to stick my head into this beehive, but this whole TikTok ban thing is a hot mess. I understand the concerns, but the proposed solution doesn’t begin to solve the real problems. I think there are better articles about this, for example EFF, 404 Media, and Lifehacker. But I also have a proposal that I haven’t seen elsewhere. So here’s my two cents.

TikTok Has Real Problems

Look, I get it. I really do. TikTok has some real problems. It’s owned by Bytedance, which is a Chinese company. The Chinese government is repressive. It has a lot of control over its companies and its media outlets. That is a significant and important difference when comparing TikTok to other social media companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

It’s also true that China doesn’t allow the main version TikTok to be used by its populace. They have a much different version called Douyin. Also, children under 14 are limited to no more than 40 minutes a day on the app. And China blocks access to US social media apps.

So yeah, that’s not good – and it makes TikTok different from other social media apps.

Social Media Has Real Problems

But all social media apps share at least two main problems: one a push, one a pull. First, they have algorithms that optimize user engagement. And as any software engineer can tell you, you need to be careful what metrics you use to measure success (look up the Dilbert write me a minivan cartoon). Unfortunately, as humans we tend to engage with a lot of stuff that’s not healthy for us. I think a lot of the problems caused by the content pushed by algorithms are just consequences of human nature. But it’s also possible that these algorithms could be designed to promote propaganda, too. We don’t know because they’re proprietary and opaque.

The second problem is that social media apps are free. We’re not their consumers, we’re their product. And so these apps are paid for via highly targeted advertising and marketing affiliations. And that business is fueled by harvesting an egregious amount of our personal data. This is the pull.

The Proposed Solution

So, what’s the proposed solution to this problem? The Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act was recently passed by the US House of Representatives (HR 7521), though it’s stalled in the Senate. (Biden says he’d sign it. Trump has changed his tune.) The bill basically says that Bytedance would have 6 months to sell off TikTok to a non-Chinese company or be banned from US app stores. While it’s highly targeted towards TikTok, it applies to any “foreign adversary controlled” application. (By the way, China says it will oppose any sale.)

There are lots of problems with this “solution”. First, for a country that promotes free speech and open markets, this looks pretty damn hypocritical. It would have made more sense to say ‘either open your markets to our social media or we’ll ban yours’. Also, from a purely political viewpoint, this is really going to anger a lot of voters. Over 170 million Americans use this app – many of them in perfectly benign ways that make them happy – and in a lot of cases, make them a lot of money. Oh, and by eliminating TikTok as competition, US-based social media companies will just get stronger.

The Real Problem

But the real problem for me is that Congress is (once again) avoiding the important issues, which are common to all social media apps: algorithms that push us harmful content and apps that pull horrific amounts of personal information. We need real privacy laws to rein in data brokers and ad companies like Google and Facebook. And we need more transparency into and control over the algorithms.

We’re making TikTok a fall guy for the ills of all social media. If they truly cared about propaganda and data collection, they’d have to regulate all social media and enact real privacy laws. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can (and have been) used to push propaganda, too. US-based social media is full of hate speech and content that is emotionally damaging, backed by algorithms that will take you down any number of hellish rabbit holes. China can just use US social media platforms to push propaganda and mis/disinformation – and they already have. (Of course, the US also does this.)

And as for data collection… China doesn’t need TikTok to track us and harvest personal info that could be used against us. There are thousands of data brokers they can buy our data from. Or they can hack into other social media firms to get it.

A Different (Partial) Solution

So, what should we do? Again, we need laws regulating data collection, sharing and selling. I think we need more transparency into and control over the use of algorithms on social media feeds. But one other solution that you often hear is mandating more or better content moderation. A lot of people want to put the onus on these platforms to protect us from bad content. The problem is that no one agrees on what’s good and what’s bad. (And for the record, there are no 1st Amendment issues here – these are private companies with wide latitude to carry whatever content they choose.)

Here’s an idea that I haven’t seen elsewhere (though I haven’t looked hard). Why can’t we give moderation power to the end user? Social media platforms have been laying off moderators and cutting back on efforts to clean up their feeds. So why not let users choose a third party of their choice to moderate and customize their feeds? This would open a new market for services that cater to various demographics, competing on their ability to tame the morass that is social media. Like a browser plugin, but for social media. Or I suppose you could allow third party algorithms to be plugged in, too, replacing the native ones.

But this will never happen. Why? Because giving any third party the ability to filter posts would allow it to block ads and other “promoted content”. At the end of the day, they don’t want us to have control over our feeds – it would hurt their profits. We lost control of our feeds years ago and we won’t get it back without changing the business model for social media platforms.

So. That’s my two cents. If you’d like to contact your elected representatives about this, see EFF’s page here. For the US Senate specifically, click here.

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