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Bread and TikToks for the Masses

The recent government threats to TikTok raise questions about the future of the internet, which we once saw as free and democratic. Is that still the case?

(graphic by the author and Hrag Vartanian)

Six women sent to prison because of their supposedly debaucherous TikTok videos in Egypt. The platform blocked entirely in India and maligned in the United States. TikTok, the video making and sharing app probably most known for its quirky video memes and gags made by people under 20, seems to be in many governments’ crosshairs. The attacks either come directly on the platform itself or to people using it in ways that violate the local social order.

While many privacy and security advocates continue to raise serious questions about major platforms in Silicon Valley, there are legitimate and different concerns specific to TikTok, an app owned and operated by ByteDance, which is based in Beijing. David Kaye, the outgoing UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, had clarifying words about the specific threats of TikTok vis á vis a platform like Facebook:

I think both kinds of companies raise serious concerns, but they are different ones. While our sharing with Facebook, and its mining of our data, ultimately seems inconsistent with the public’s interest in regulating these kinds of activities (and involves a lot of personal and social compromises), TikTok introduces the problem of governmental surveillance and data sharing. I have to say that I do not know how much access the Chinese government enjoys. So that’s a big empirical question. But assuming government access as with other companies, it is a serious security concern.

How does such a goofy app raise so much grave discourse? On the internet, the silly and serious are never far apart. TikTok’s rapid growth emerges during a time of intense geopolitical reconfiguring, and its status as one of the most popular social media apps today is all the more remarkable because it comes from China, where app makers have rivaled Silicon Valley with scaled-up, user-friendly apps like WeChat and Alibaba but have historically struggled to break into global markets.

In a time of social distancing, TikTok offers the social palliative we all crave right now: human connection, joy and laughter, a taste of people watching without the dangers of being in crowds. In May, Hyperallergic writers Dan Schindel and Monica Castillo pointed out the Decameron-like quality of TikTok life, a place for both entertainers and medics to reach audiences and find comfort. But TikTok is now the stuff of both right- and left-wing concern in the United States, set in the context of Big Tech CEOs being called to testify to Congress and ongoing discourse about the role of the internet in democracy, human rights, and global politics.

Public life and entertainment have long intersected with empire and control. In the first century AD, the Roman satirist Juvenal coined the phrase “bread and circuses” to describe the practice of leaders offering food and entertainment to distract the public from serious policy matters. The bread, in this case, was grain, and the circuses took the form of public games, like chariot races and gladiatorial combat, alongside other spectacles. The key here is that in written history, entertainment has often been a tool of state power. Those who challenged it, like the gladiator Spartacus who famously led a resistance against his captors, were punished severely.

Further innovations in the 20th century ensured that entertainment and politics were intertwined, not just as a form of distraction but as an integrated part of political communications from people in power. The fact that the US lives with a reality star President is not an accident of the system but its natural extension. As I wrote last year in The Economist, “Goebbels and FDR alike used the power of radio. Reagan adapted his presidency to television broadcast cycles. The Chinese Communist Party produced films at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Today, the reality-television toolkit offers a model for states seeking to influence both their own people and a wider international audience.”

The problem now, from a government’s perspective, is that the sites of our modern-day circuses are decentralized, as are our entertainers and rabblerousers. Any one account with enough followers and network savvy could quickly become a Uighur rights activist or Black Lives Matter organizer, and any one platform could enforce its privacy policies and algorithms inconsistently, silencing leaders or favoring disagreeable content. Herein lies the rub for an authority seeking to control online expression: how to provide the circuses while limiting the Spartacuses?

In 2008, the media theorist Ethan Zuckerman developed the cute cat theory of digital activism. The theory was simple, but it’s instructive today: Web 1.0 allowed physicists to share research papers, while Web 2.0, what we now understand as the social web, allowed people to share pictures of cute cats. This turns out to have a lot of implications for governments, activists and platforms:

Blocking banal content on the internet is a self-defeating proposition. It teaches people how to become dissidents – they learn to find and use anonymous proxies, which happens to be a key first step in learning how to blog anonymously. Every time you force a government to block a web 2.0 site – cutting off people’s access to cute cats – you spend political capital. Our job as online advocates is to raise that cost of censorship as high as possible.

The flip side is also true: to control online expression, make the cost of participation as high as possible. Since 2008, authoritarian governments have innovated on this very idea by introducing surveillance measures, disinformation campaigns, and severe prison sentences for dissident content. And the solution offered by China — colloquially known as the Great Firewall — was to block outside platforms and foster a homegrown app ecosystem that allowed all the cute cats to flourish within its digital borders while giving its government fine-grained control over the content within.

TikTok comes bounding into headlines once more like one of its viral videos, amidst a time of heightened geopolitical tension and the global onslaught of COVID-19. As Michael Schuman wrote recently in The Atlantic, the idea of blocking TikTok in the United States “raises the ugly prospect of destroying one of the main purposes of the internet — to knit the world together and strengthen contact with other societies. If we begin banning apps or restricting access, we will end up with many separate internets, more likely to divide than unite.”

Where once the Great Firewall seemed like an outlier in global relations, overt state control and shaping of the internet may soon be the new norm, from Iran’s national information network, Russia’s plans for a domestic internet, India’s proposed internet regulations, and the United States’s Clean Network Initiative, amongst many other efforts large and small that Sean McDonald and I have written about. (The metaphors used—Iran has a halal internet, China a harmonious one, and the US a clean one—belie the raucousness of our digital environments.)

Despite efforts to place its US customers’ data on US and Singapore servers, TikTok struggles to shake the perception and reality that it’s a company owned and operated in a country that has historically exercised extraordinary powers over platforms within its borders; Microsoft, once the target of antitrust lawsuits and currently led by an immigrant, makes a comparatively more palatable owner to the current administration’s eyes.

Whether or not TikTok is blocked in the US or is ultimately purchased by Microsoft or another bidder or figures out some other solution for continuing to operate globally, one trend is clear: as physical borders close rapidly in the wake of COVID-19, digital borders are catching up. And like borders, arguments for safety and security are used to justify nationalism, capital and control. Verge journalist Sarah Jeong recently highlighted some of the oddities of calling out TikTok for its privacy violations, while seemingly ignoring a similar set of privacy concerns from Silicon Valley companies. Jeong called this practice “information-nationalism”: “When you play the game of information-nationalism, you don’t slander your enemies; you tell the truth about them, while hiding the truth about yourself.”

Indeed, the future of the internet may look more like systems of visas and passports, dividing up the world into the digital haves and havenots, with netizens encouraged to stick to their own countries’ borders and only visit the internets of their allies. The infrastructure required to make TikTok possible — the cables on the ground, the radio signals in the sky, the hardware in our hands, and the platforms on our screens — is infrastructure that nation states both authoritarian and democratic are quickly recognizing they want to control, oversee, and influence. These tools provide both entertainment for the masses and data for the powerful. We’ll no doubt continue to have our online bread and circuses, but if this trend continues, the nascent experiment of the global, open internet will soon be coming to a close.

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