TikTok: Trojan Stallion
Late in the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin published a report detailing how the British army had enlisted Native American tribes to commit atrocities against settlers. One tribe, he reported, had provided its British paymasters with 102 scalps, including 18 marked with flame — the scalps of children whose parents had been burned alive. The story appeared in the Boston Independent Chronicle and was picked up by the English press, dampening support for the war. Historical footnote: Franklin made the whole thing up. Made up the reporting, forged the copy of the paper it was “published” in. Franklin wasn’t even in Boston — he published his fake paper in Paris.
Propaganda and Pessimism
We tend to think of propaganda along the lines of what Franklin did — falsehoods designed to smear an opponent or build up a leader. Mussolini claimed he could only shave with Italian razors, because his beard was too tough for flimsy American steel. The U.S. invaded Iraq because Colin Powell assured us, waving a vial, that Saddam had “weapons of mass destruction.”
However, the state-of-the-dark-arts strategy is to destabilize opponents from within, supporting divisive figures and topics, promoting messages of fraud and corruption in a “firehose of falsehoods” that atomizes the enemy (the citizenry). Volume and tone are everything, specifics are irrelevant. It works best when the firehose has no visible connection to the water supply.
Just like attack aircraft and bombers, propaganda has another new feature that makes it more lethal: stealth. It’s the propaganda of influence without fingerprints, leaving people with the illusion that they’re making their own decisions.
In Western media, messaging has gone stealth with anonymous accounts, bots, and outlets whose mission isn’t news, but shaping the news to buttress a predetermined narrative. Mental health is in the news today, as it’s being used as a weapon of mass distraction by actors who want to shift the conversation away from gun control. “News” is increasingly about persuasion instead of illumination. Which means what most of us believe is news isn’t really news.
The key to a sting (con) is that the mark never believes they’ve been conned. Just as 80% of people think they’re above-average drivers, few people believe they’ve been manipulated at a cost to their country. The reality: Half of us are bad drivers. Ben Franklin, way ahead of his time, didn’t put his name anywhere on his forged newspaper and included a (forged) letter from real-life naval hero John Paul Jones.
Vladmir Putin is a seventh-level wizard at this. He has poured state resources into high- and low-tech means to pit Americans and Europeans against one another, with only a fraction positioned as official state messaging, or even connected to Russia. His objective isn’t to win an argument, it’s to defeat our will. To generate pessimism, not popularity. And the launch vehicle for this weapon is the guy/gal next to you in the foxhole (your neighbor, aunt, etc.).
The most mendacious enemies hide in plain sight. And this enemy is in your pocket. Social media now captures and holds more of our attention than all traditional news outlets. The hand that holds the social graph has its grip on how the next generation of Americans and Europeans feel about capitalism, democracy, and BTS.
But, no, this post is not about Mark Zuckerberg.
TikTok is the ascendant tech platform of the decade. The app brings the chocolate of social media together with the peanut butter of a streaming platform, commanding more attention per user than Facebook and Instagram combined. Think Netflix, but with near-zero production costs and a recommendation algorithm that responds to an unmatched range of micro signals: whether you scrolled past a video, paused it, re-watched it, commented, followed, and so on. This gives TikTok the ability to calibrate/cook the meth. That’s not fair to the TikTok algo; the short-form video platform is more addictive.
Finally, and this is the most overlooked aspect of TikTok: It has a talent pool as deep as the Mariana Trench. Fifty-five percent of its users are also creators, meaning there are approximately 700 times as many creators working for TikTok than there are professionals producing content in film and TV across the globe. Most aren’t as talented, but many are.
Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are radicalizing us for profit, but it’s not in their ultimate long-term interest to crater our economy or degrade our world view … too far. Smart parasites keep their hosts alive. As things have worsened at U.S.-based social platforms steadily for the past decade, we are now reaching for guardrails — shareholder pressure, regulatory agencies, and whistleblowers.
In the lush, thriving, and maturing social media jungle, the new apex predator is TikTok. This looks to be the year TikTok converts usage to serious revenue: It’s projected to grow from $4 billion to $12 billion in 2022. Interestingly, a billion users, which TikTok reached last year, was also the point when Facebook became a nuclear reactor of cash, though it took it two years to grow from $4 billion (2012) to $12 billion (2014). However, in contrast to Facebook, which remains under the control of a sociopath interested only in power and the greater glory of Facebook, TikTok serves a different master. A master that is, unlike SNAP/TWTR/GOOG/FB, concerned with the well-being of the commonwealth. Its commonwealth. Patriotism in conflict with the well-being of our (U.S.) well-being.
No, this post is not about ByteDance.
ByteDance is the Chinese company that owns TikTok. Interestingly, of the billion global TikTok users, none of them are in (wait for it) … China. The country doesn’t permit TikTok to operate in its home market, just as it blocks Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter’s social graphs from extending into the Middle Kingdom. The CCP prefers homegrown variants that aren’t nuisanced by Western neuroses such as privacy and data ownership.
The Chinese government has the power to access the data of private-sector companies whenever it wants. A wide range of laws makes this possible, including the Law of Guarding State Secrets: If you’re suspected of harboring sensitive state information, you must grant access. The state takes small ownership positions known as golden shares (that typically come with board seats) in businesses deemed strategic to the state.
One of those golden share arrangements is with ByteDance. And though TikTok is not accessible to Chinese consumers, Chinese access to TikTok’s data is not in dispute. In June, Buzzfeed obtained over 80 audio recordings of internal TikTok meetings, confirming Chinese management at ByteDance had unfettered access to TikTok’s data. A TikTok manager refers to an engineer in Beijing, known as the “Master Admin,” who “has access to everything.”
China is not America’s friend. There is a dangerous sentiment emerging in the U.S. that members of the “other” political party are the enemy. No, Americans are still the best allies for other Americans. If you blanched at the previous sentence, in my view, you have been targeted by propaganda from bad actors and/or manipulated by algorithms or cable news editors whose profit incentive pits us against one another.
The Chinese government aims to weaken the U.S. Its investment in kinetic power is massive (a third aircraft carrier took to sea last month), but it probably won’t match raw American might for decades. So the Chinese press on our soft tissue strategically and play the long game with tactics that offer a greater ROI: IP theft and propaganda. America is most like itself when we perceive an external threat as the real threat, and when we’re optimistic about the return we’ll realize from long-term investments at home: education, infrastructure, research and development. Pessimism is our kryptonite.
Tip of the Spear
The tip of China’s propaganda spear is TikTok, which has a direct connection to the midbrain of a billion people, including nearly every U.S. teenager and half their parents. Facebook is the most powerful espionage vehicle ever created, and now China commands the most powerful propaganda tool. Putin and the GRU can manipulate an amoral Facebook from the outside, it just takes money. It has been easy, to date, to exploit management that’s indifferent to teen depression, much less national security. But it will likely get increasingly difficult. Xi Jinping can simply pick up the phone. When he does (if he hasn’t already) the shift in TikTok’s messaging will be subtle, invisible in the details, hiding in plain sight.
What would China’s propaganda look like? It would look like us. Public figures ranging from Professor Jonathan Haidt to Joe Rogan to Kim Kardashian who command enormous bodies of work and followings. They are all talented and, to the best of my knowledge, concerned about the well-being of our nation. (Note: I know this is true of Professor Haidt.) But a decent amount of their content (e.g., polarization, the potential harm of vaccines, and women needing to work harder), when taken out of context, can paint a bleak image of America. Subtle manipulations to TikTok’s algorithm will promote the negative messages, elide the context. As with art and merchandising, propaganda isn’t about what’s in the message, but what isn’t. Specifically, nuance and who is promoting certain types of content over others. (See above: the anonymous source of water.)
Another NYU prof has made dozens of videos claiming that higher ed in the U.S. has become the enforcer of an emerging caste system. Thumb on the scale. A U.S. representative claims the mass shooting in Highland Park was orchestrated by the rival political party to foster support for gun legislation. Thumb on scale. Americans with spears, tactical gear, and nooses storm the capital. Both thumbs.
Dial up wholesome-looking American teens with TikTok accounts railing against the evils of capitalism. Dial down the Chinese immigrant celebrating the freedoms afforded in America. Push Trump supporter TikToks about guns and gay marriage into the feeds of liberals. Find misguided woke-cancel-culture TikToks and put them in heavy rotation for every moderate Republican. Feed the Trumpists more conspiracy theories. Anyone with a glass-half-empty message gets more play; content presenting a more optimistic view of our nation gets exiled. Hand on scale.
The network is massive, the ripple effects hidden in the noise. Putting a thumb the size of TikTok on the scale can move nations. What will have more influence on our next generation’s view of America, democracy, and capitalism? The bully pulpit of the president, the executive editor of the New York Times, or the TikTok algorithm? A squirt gun, a musket, and a Tsar bomba, respectively.
In addition, progressives’ right of passage seems to be shitposting about our government’s surveillance apparatus, and many of our most talented young tech workers are more concerned about the work Big Tech does for our defense department than who or what the DoD is defending the U.S. against. Concerns about TikTok are bipartisan, but the GOP has been louder and clearer about the danger. In 2020, Trump declared TikTok a threat to national security. He was right, and then went on to cement his reputation as corrupt and stupid, thinking he could piece out the firm to his friends and supporters like a fucking birthday cake.
He grew bored and moved on, in weeks. He demanded ByteDance divest TikTok to a U.S. company, which I correctly predicted would never happen. It wasn’t a bold prediction. The Chinese realized they just needed to let the man-child tire himself out.
The latest revelations of Chinese access to TikTok confirm that the threat isn’t just a cable news mudfest. Real action is needed. Last week, FCC commissioner Brendan Carr wrote a letter to Apple and Google asking them to remove the platform from their app stores. Carr cited national security concerns, saying parent company ByteDance is “beholden” to the CCP and “required by law to comply with surveillance demands.” As Senator Ted Cruz has put it “TikTok is a Trojan horse the Chinese Communist Party can use to influence what Americans see, hear, and ultimately think.” Messrs Carr and Cruz are right. The platform’s potential for espionage is a concern. Its use for propaganda is a clear and present danger.
The question isn’t whether the CCP strives to diminish US standing and prosperity, but if it should be easy.
Life is so rich,