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TikTok Ban & Imperialist Feuds

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At the end of April, the US Senate voted to pass a bill that would require TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance to sell its US subsidiary to a US company or face a nationwide ban. The ban is set to go into effect in 9 months – timed purposely to avoid any fallout for the Biden administration in November – if ByteDance fails to sell. This follows several years of attempting to ban TikTok, an effort started by Donald Trump during his presidency. 

Trump’s ban was overturned in court. However, this new bill has massive bipartisan support. Congress claims that the ban is to protect US citizens’ privacy and to keep US consumer data away from the Chinese government. These worries ostensibly stem from Chinese laws incentivizing companies to collect intelligence information, laws that would apply to the data of over 170 million Americans that use the platform. In reality, this is about undermining Chinese imperialism and censoring political speech in the US. 

The battle over TikTok is a microcosm of a much larger conflict between American and Chinese imperialism. If there’s one thing both Republicans and Democrats agree on, it’s advancing the interests of US imperialism, whether through funding endless wars in Ukraine, supporting the genocidal assault on Gaza, or by cornering the market on social media data collection and advertising. The US ruling class fears that TikTok will be used to politically influence users and give an edge to Chinese capitalism. In March, TikTok used its admin privileges to send out notifications to US users to protest the ban. The ability for the Chinese state to communicate en masse with regular people through TikTok would be particularly worrying for the US ruling class in the event of an escalated conflict between the US and China. 

Data Collection & Advertising

TikTok collects large amounts of user data, mainly for the purpose of targeted advertising, which made most of TikTok’s $16 billion in profits in 2023. This collected data is often sold off to other companies who use it for their own advertising purposes. 

Anyone who regularly uses social media can testify to the onslaught of ads we’re subjected to when scrolling. With the introduction of TikTok Shop, an online store where users can sell products and earn small amounts of money from promoting other products, much of the content in the app is monetized. While large creators can make money from the creator fund and TikTok Shop, a majority of creators do not. Smaller creators have spoken out about large fees and barriers to receiving money from the app, such as needing to “cash out” in a limited amount of time while also having a minimum balance required in order to cash out. This means that content creators are compelled to put out large amounts of content that drives more traffic to the app, increasing ad revenue. 

While these practices are concerning, they are not fundamentally different from US companies. Famously, Meta – the parent company of Facebook and Instagram – has been caught farming and selling user data, often in an insecure manner. Meta made $135 billion in revenue in 2023, with $11 billion from ads specifically targeting minors. The issue for the US government is clearly not collecting and selling data, but rather who is doing it.

Huge Profits From Polarizing Content

Since ad revenue drives profits, social media sites’ main objective is to engage users for as long and as frequently as possible. One of the most effective ways to accomplish this is by triggering negative emotions in the user. Highly sophisticated algorithms are designed to do just that. Users are more likely to reply to and interact with posts that they disagree with, and these algorithms feed you more of the same. How many times have you sent a friend a post you found to be angering or upsetting?

Sharing this sort of content ensures that you will see more of it, creating a feedback loop. In order to drive this sort of engagement, social media sites purposefully push controversial and polarizing content to the forefront. By fueling culture wars and unrealistic beauty standards, often at the expense of users’ mental health, these sites ensure their own profitability. 

Is Social Media A Bad Thing?

The ability for people to express themselves and share interests with those around the world is undoubtedly positive. It is an innately human quality to seek out connection with one another, and that’s a good thing. TikTok facilitates the communication of hundreds of different niche communities across the app with their own unique content. Information about a wide breadth of topics is available for anyone willing to look for it, whether you want to find a makeup tutorial, an exciting recipe, or a new favorite artist.

Social media has also been a tool in political organizing. The ability for individuals, and even entire populations, to learn from different movements in real time is invaluable, in many cases directly contributing to their spread. Millions around the world can watch and participate in events as they unfold, creating important potential for international solidarity. 

The ongoing genocidal war in Gaza has been thoroughly documented online. Mainstream news, especially in much of the western world, has been lackluster at best and purposefully misleading at worst. On the ground accounts from those in Gaza have been instrumental in bringing attention to the horrific massacre of Palestinians. This is especially important as Israel has cracked down on traditional reporting in a variety of ways, from shutting down Al Jazeera’s operations in Israel, to full on assassinating journalists. 

People have always sought out opportunities to connect to one another across long distances. In the 21st century, social media has facilitated this in a very important way, but the most positive feature of social media has always been the audience that uses it – people, whose instincts are to find ways to create community and help each other. The fact is that social media platforms are privately owned and controlled to create a profit and exercise social control, which minimizes its positive characteristics and amplifies its negative ones. Social media sites are designed to be addictive to make money from advertisers, and those advertisers need to keep users coming back by instigating feelings of anxiety, fear, and inadequacy – contributing to enormously high levels of depression and suicidality in teenagers.

Social media sites should be taken into public ownership and separated from advertising entirely. Global communication for and by the working class is vital in this era of instability, and it should not be dictated by the capitalists of any nation, including the US and China. Overall this potential ban will do nothing to address the issues that plague social media sites or the issues that regular people face on a daily basis.

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