TikTok: Trojan StallionJuly 8, 2022
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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,
This is indeed existential. And hoping for the Feds to effectively address it seems futile. Much hope then for the EU taking the lead. Complicating; how like TikTok will Meta and Alphabet now become?
For a post about propaganda, it does the job of being propaganda itself but pretends to be woke about it. Mindless fear-mongering mostly, but it is logical to be scared of the “other” and fear monger as defence I suppose.
Pitting us against each other: it’s our media unless you can provide evidence about Putin. Short of evidence, your statement is the propaganda you claim to oppose.
Great post Scott. About 2 years ago.. reddit user bangorlol had reversed engineering the TikTok application and said it is data collection service that is thinly-veiled as a social network.
Army banned this in late 2019.
If you have it installed remove it.
Then why were videos of the Uighur concentration camps all over the platform? The CCP has constantly denied the illegal imprisonment of the Uighurs and if the CCP actually was controlling Tiktok then how would that help their so called brainwashing of America
Agree with most of the article. However, the CCP long game is in big trouble due to population decline. They are predicted to go from 1.4B people down to 600M in 80 years. Chinese people tolerate the surveillance State because their lives are better than their parents/grandparents. Once that shift occurs, CCP will be consumed with unrest at home.
Brilliant post! One nit: Please don’t dunk on Colin Powell. The Bush administration manipulated and exploited Powell, an honest broker with a sterling reputation, by appealing to his self-identity as a soldier: He saluted smartly and executed as ordered. He originally advised against military action against Iraq. He sniffed that the CIA’s WMD case was speculative, paused… and took one for the team. A tragic low note for an otherwise honorable American patriot.
You nailed it! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Such a well developed article that explains how this crap is controlling us. And worse, going to. Thanks for this very enlightening article!!
Wow! You nailed it! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Such a well developed article that explains how this crap is controlling us. And worse, going to. Thanks for this very enlightening article!!
Great article many people read your stuff from the deep south in New Zealand. No matter how provocative or negative (but true) your commentary is it always lifts my spirits to have some comment about your family or the dog (I think there was a dog!) at the end, it grounds us, and makes us remember there is always something to be grateful for.
I remember an auditor with one of the big four in Shanghai telling a group of students from the US in 2016 that the firm didn’t trust a single piece of paper they received from clients. You eloquent and important post strengthens the argument that our schools need to instill a deep skepticism in youth about the veracity of what they read, and to examine multiple sources before forming firm beliefs and making a positive impact on a civil society.
Gun control is distracting us from having real discussions about an ever worsening mental health crisis.
The argument that American corporations are a better place for user data is debatable. Is this an America-First post? Surprising to hear you talk of banning free-to-use apps in an open market. Why cannot the morally superior, noble intentioned American market make a better product?
I worked there during the Trump times in the US and left. As I recall, there were 2x CCP board members at Bytedance. TikTok was scolded (by the highest powers at Bytedance) for ‘celebrating’ crossing the 1 BN user mark….they didn’t want us to bring any attention to the scale of the company.
Excellent article. Social media has become malignant and is successfully turning us against one another.
I am a huge fan of your posts and this one is another gem. However my question is where do you get your designs for your charts and graphs which I love. Are they all hand rendered as one offs or can you purchase this template?
Asking for a friend …:-)
Mad Dog can be controversial, funny, belligerent and often long winded, but he’s also hyper logical, relatively objective and in this case SPOT ON
Thank you for this post.
I can’t wrap my head around the fact, that all Big Tech companies are in the spotlight (rightfully so!) while company essentially owned by China stays quietly in the shadow and low under anyones radar.
TT will have an influence what next generation of Americans think, on their education and thus on the future of the US. It’s so scary to think that this is now in hands of god-knows-who in China.
Interesting post, Professor. No need to fact check here. Pessimism and the ability to say no are a super power. Looking forward to your next post.
Minor correction – TikTok does operate in China – its called Douyin. I suspect the 2 platforms are ringwalled but perhaps selective content filters through.
Secondly – i think you underestimate the speed at which China’s kinetic power will be a match for the US. Strongly recommend you read (listen to) Kevin Rudd’s new book “The Avoidable War”.
Was about to post the same thing. Yes, Tiktok (Douyin) does exist in China so it’s not like ByteDance created this weapon and release it upon the world except China. The contents in Tiktok and Douyin are purposefully separated since internet contents in China have to be heavily moderated for obvious reasons.
Correcting the corrections – TikTok and Douyin are separate and distinct products, both owned by ByteDance. As Scott wrote, TikTok is not accessible in China.
Technically true, but the differences between the two don’t go much beyond the name and content moderation policy. They are mostly driven by the same recommendation algorithms and have very similar features (and even the same logo). Tiktok was launched in 2017 as a rebrand of Douyin in order to enter the international market (because obviously you need a name that the English-speaking world can pronounce).
Anyone know whom Scott is talking about here? Thanks!
“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.”
Could be Scott tooting his own horn. He does hate that higher ed is for the rich and good or rest and exceptional, rather than a stepping stone for many. And that it’s too expensive.
Himself – for real
This is the most provocative…and frightening…piece I have seen you write. It should be a policy that social media have no governmental ownership and that social media companies having foreign ownership not be permitted in other countries unless they are also allowed unfettered access to their own countries.
Humm… where to start?
I first became aware of Prof. Galloway when he was on Bill Maher’s show. He presented a refreshing view that piqued my interest, and therefore motivated me to subscribe to his posts,
Having read today’s lengthy message I felt obliged to comment. Scott please consider a simpler form of expression. What I read today, while compelling, had too much of the “hip intellectual professor” slang.
Your platform may be more effectively used if it were more liters accessible to a simpler readership and therefore more inspiring.
To loosely paraphrase a line from the musical Hair, “…imagine if he had lived in today’s world of mass communication.”
I believe the threat is real, and to discuss it, as you do on social media has the potential to find solutions.
Not “Hair”, surely! More “JC Superstar”.
Scott, this is a productively provocative essay that reminds us the we are inundated with “data” intended to influence our behavior. That has always been true, but the weaponry is far more powerful these days than in the time of Franklin.
I worry, however, that we are not all more focused on the demise of critical thinking. Is it too much to ask that we all operate under the assumption that everything we hear, watch or read is biased? One party considers half the country to be stupid, fascists. The other party imagines that half the people are Communists. Both parties assert that everyone is doing badly and it’s not their fault. What happened to responsibilities for fixing things and improving one’s self, one’s family, and one’s community, not relying on others to produce magical cures? cheers, bill
SOLUTION: Build a better product! No body is forcing a billion + people to use TikTok. They have just built a better product, period. It is much more effective to build a better product and let the platform diminish vs. banning it. Remember, it’s the AI that is driving the success of TikTok and that’s just one application of the technology… a lot more to come. We might want to stop fighting each other and focus on innovation so we can win. We used to do it, still have the talent, just need the leadership.
in whose interest is it to build a better product than tiktok? It was in CCP’s interest to build a better product than facebook.
In theory, all data for US users has been moved to Oracle Cloud – Ellison being a Trump exploiter and making that deal while he still could. I’m not sure I feel any better about Larry and his minions having access to the data. In the end, it does not really matter where the data resides. Having the data on OCI might make the data more secure (consider if OCI is secure) but it does not prevent the pushing of divisive content, propaganda, and the general dumbing down of users. I see some benefits where TikTok can show people they are not alone – but so can other social media. In the end, it is important to remember that China is not our friend. They have an agenda and will use whatever means they can to accomplish it. and they’ve been playing this game for a long time.
Really is NYT, WaPo, or any Cable News outlet different than TikTok?
They report part of a story to reinforce editorial opinion. Shows rarely have panels that disagree with the host
NYT continues to allow discredited ‘experts’ like Paul Krugman to write Editorials not because he is correct, but because readers agree with his stances, and see the print ads.
The problem is bigger than TikTok. Putin and Xi know that and are playing the US public as the fools they are becoming. Political contributions, corporate extortion (NBA, Disney) and, of course media.
Yes, the NYT, WaPO, Cnn are hugely different than Tik Tok?
IMO… Your most important article to date. Kudos!
TikTok presents a more insidious threat then Huawei. The latter has been banned!
I agree with the others that see Fox News and Facebook as a more immediate threat and problem. Tiktok maybe in the long run, but all the damage that Fox and FB have done in the last 10 years is far more worrying.
Great post. It’s naive to think the CCP, et al intelligence apparatus does not have access to US servers. OTH, imagine the reverse data mining and untraceable intel the US NSA (remember them?) Is gathering on the CCP. Intelligence is more important than warships
This feels like a Tom Clancy novel, where the novel you are reading blurs with the global events you are witnessing in real-time and you realize the said novel is really non-fiction in fiction’s clothing.
Alarmist nonsense. Tik Tok is an easy target because of the Chinese parent Byte Dance. All US data is on servers located in the US. What Scott is describing is old news. No China based engineer has access to the US data. Byte Dance is desperate to protect the goose that laid the golden egg. They’ll do everything in their power to please US regulators.
Bytedance, like every Chinese company, serves one primary stakeholder: the CCP. The will of their investors is a secondary concern, their ability to operate and achieve monetary returns is entirely predicated upon their willingness to katow to the will of stakeholder #1.
Everything you wrote is incorrect. This is not old news, Scott directly refers to the recent story of China having access to US data based on secret audio recordings.
Judging by the end result this is not alarmist nonsense at all. People are conducting themselves (online) precisely as Scott depicts. Opinions aren’t just malformed…but set in stone almost impervious to reasoned argument. It’s one thing to be misinformed, myopic or out of touch but social media seems to inoculate many — especially the young — from reasoned discussion. That alone — forget the content/opinions — is stultifying to a democracy.
“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.’ I’d argue that Fox News has served the same purpose. Only with Fox, they are in bed with Vlad and the Russians.
I think you will find that TikTok moved all the data and servers to the US for US users and have separated this out so that what you describe can no longer happen. I am not saying it didn’t happen even as recently as 2021, but it isn’t possible for Chinese Govt to get in there any more.
Having studied Tiktok closely for the past 5 years, I just think everyone likes to point out what COULD happen based on what we’ve seen with out own badly managed social networks. It is fair to say that things could be bad, I just don’t think they are.
I also can’t see how their algorithms could really be as clever as you imagine.
Why can’t CCP or PLA agents have access to data in Tik-tok servers located in the US?
Scott Galloway for President!
Also, there is good research linking the teen mental health crisis with the rise of social media usage. Jonathan Haidt is an excellent resource on this info and he recommends an enforced limit on SM accounts of 16 or 18 years of age. For something potentially as destructive as alcohol or marijuana, this idea deserves to be taken seriously. Dog bless you Prof G!
Great post. Tik Tok is as Scott describes a mass media channel. Similarly cheap imports are revealing themselves as an equally nefarious form of influence. Joe’s announcements about reducing tariffs on CCP goods to stem inflation shows how the West is now between a rock (of crack) and a hard place. Is it it all too late… me thinks maybe.
Well, damn. I bailed on my Facebook account that I had never used after the disclosure of FB corporate policy was allowing Russian trolls to impact US elections. Now I WILL delete TikTok app immediately. Russia’s interests are not US interests. China’s interests are not US interests.
Unrestricted Warfare by Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui effectively provided the roadmap that supports your post.
You are 100% correct. Unrestricted Warfare by Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui effectively provided the roadmap that supports your post.
I love your posts, podcasts, and read all your books.
I feel like we’re losing in our own game and in an act of shame we’re blaming the players.
We ourselves picked the capitalistic policies and incentives that outrageously reward the business model of FB, TikTok, and propel them to rapid growth.
TikTok and FB didn’t steal a single cent from anyone, they’re simply good at following our own incentives and rules, the companies who weren’t – died.
My suggestion is we grow up, realize there has been incredible innovation, our policies are outdated, we’re basically playing checkers but with chess pieces, we need to change.
What if we simply not allow ad monetization for infinite and “automated” feeds? Nobody should be able to have the choice of what our kids see and also get paid (massively) for it – broken game.
What if we accept already that data is as valuable as oil, and needs to be taxed? I predict this will happen this decade in some form. Nobody should be able to store data about our kids from the moment they’re born for free.
Would love to hear what you think.
One of the most profound deep dives I have read in years. Thank you. Sharing and shutting down TT from my businesses
While I agree we should be weary of TikTok, its also worth mentioning that maybe the glass-half-empty crowd has rarely had the opportunity to voice their plight (with context attached) … no longer the case with social media. Near all systems in this country tilt in favor of those with money, and there is a stigma applied for all who use social safety nets to climb the socio-economic ladder.
TLDR: We should be careful of our “enemies” exploiting our country’s weaknesses, but we should also actively try to mend and strengthen them!
This is profound and written in such a way that’s nearly impossible to dispute. Logic leads the way…but the powers that be seem to have super natural forces behind them as this all seems to be leading to our bitter end, as we drift along watching the movie of our destruction from our peripheral view.
That is chilling. I’m not a TikToker (wrong generation) and strive to stay off social media since I’ve seen what FB has turned my mother (85) into, which isn’t pretty. Admitting I agree with Ted Cruz on anything makes me almost physically ill, but he’s nailed this one. As usual – you’re on point.
Like IG and Facebook are not beholden to the US government? What a joke
The people who know how dangerous TicToc is are Trump, Cruz, and Carr (appointed by Trump). Really, no smart trustworthy people are concerned. Your case is well made: that social media is built to create division because that gets more views and therefore more $$s. That China and the CCP is a dangerous malign actor who acts to create division in the West – and they really do ‘own’ Tictoc. You would be sp much more persuasive if your only referees were not populist, wedge issue loving, liars with only their own interests at heart. Do none of the good guys get it?
Even if the content isn’t intentionally nefarious, it’s making America a world leader in dumb. What enemy doesn’t love that?
Right on point, and your best analysis to date !