U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, speaking about the RESTRICT Act on March 7, 2023. Photo courtesy of Warner's office.
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, speaking about the RESTRICT Act on March 7, 2023. Photo courtesy of Warner's office.

U.S. Senator Mark Warner, D-Virginia, wants to ban TikTok.

I know this because I saw a video about it on TikTok.

True, I also have an email inbox full of press releases from Warner’s office about his sponsorship of legislation that could be used to ban the popular Chinese-owned video-sharing social media app.

But like 150 million other Americans, I have a TikTok account, so when I searched for “Mark Warner” I found lots of video clips that tagged him. Most of them featured people talking about why banning the TikTok was a terrible idea. That’s quite different from what we’ve heard from American politicians — from both parties.

When Donald Trump was president, he wanted to ban TikTok. Now that Joe Biden is president, he wants to ban TikTok. Gov. Glenn Youngkin has banned it from state-owned devices. Warner wants to ban it altogether. See? Social media isn’t dividing us, it’s uniting us! 

While Warner has been front and center with TikTok in the Senate, Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, got his turn to interrogate the company’s CEO last Thursday when Shou Zi Chew appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. 

YouTube video
Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, interrogates the TikTok CEO. From congressional website.

Griffith, in lawyerlike fashion, held up a thick document that said an Australian government inquiry had concluded that TikTok’s parent firm, ByteDance, is so intertwined with the Chinese government that “the company can no longer be called a private enterprise.” Griffith then posed this question: “What say you, sir? Yes or no? Is it part of the Chinese Communist Party as everybody thinks or are you still living in some mystical world?”

Chew started to answer: “I disagree with many conclusions —”

Griffith cut him off. “So you’re living in the mystical world.”

Congressional hearings are often not somber, objective inquiries in search of mere facts, they are stages for members to perform. Griffith had a particularly dramatic opportunity and he used it well.

YouTube video
More of Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, interrogating the TikTok CEO. From congressional website.

“Now, let’s talk about the kids,” he intoned. “You told several of our folks there was a 60-minute deadline. You also told us if you were under 16 you couldn’t access the live section … So I texted my 17-year-old and my 15-year-old and I basically got scoffs back. Scoffs! When I said, ‘Are you limited to 60 minutes?’ my older son said, ‘Well there is a notice I get from time to time that said I shouldn’t be on more than 60 minutes but it has never kicked me off,’ and my younger son said, ‘Oh, I’m on as long as I wanna be.’  … So whatever it is you think you’re doing, it ain’t getting done.”

After the testimony, Warner issued a joint statement with a Republican senator, John Thune of South Dakota, who is co-sponsoring the RESTRICT Act. Under Chinese law, they said, “all Chinese companies, including TikTok, whose parent company is based in Beijing, are ultimately required to do the bidding of Chinese intelligence services, should they be called upon to do so. Nothing we heard from Mr. Chew today assuaged those concerns. It is vital for Congress to establish a process to review and mitigate the harms posed by foreign technology products that come from places like China and Russia.”

All this comes against a backdrop of growing concern about China. We’re shooting down a Chinese spy balloon. Youngkin nixed the state’s bid for a Ford electric vehicle battery plant because of Ford’s relationship with a Chinese-owned partner. And now we’re moving to ban a Chinese-owned social media app.

Sending up an F-22 with an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile to blast a spy balloon out of the sky — I get that. I’m one of those who would have been happier if we’d done that over Montana and not off Myrtle Beach.

The Ford plant — the economic details are arguable but I understand the politics, and the general notion that maybe we shouldn’t be enrichening a strategic adversary. (You can read my previous column on the Ford plant here.)

TikTok? I need some help understanding how a social media app can be such a threat. 

As a journalist — or, really, just as an American citizen — I’m not keen on the government banning anything. You know, First Amendment and all that. My views tend to be more libertarian: Let the free market sort things out. The only two countries to ban TikTok (so far) are Afghanistan and India. Do we really want to be like Afghanistan?

The concern that U.S. politicians have with TikTok is that the Chinese government might have access to the “personal data” of 150 million Americans. But how much personal data do they really have? TikTok is free. It’s not as if I gave them my credit card number, just a video of a bear on the back deck that so far has 938 views, 32 likes and three comments — not that I’m counting or anything. So what if the Chinese Communist Party knows of my fondness for liking videos by the band The Monowhales? If President Xi wants to know my playlist, I’d be happy to send it to him. How can my bear video and my “liking” of certain music videos be a national security threat?

Judging from all the videos on TikTok critical of Warner and the RESTRICT Act, it’s clear I’m not the only one who wonders what all the fuss is about, so I turned to Warner’s office to find out.

Now, I’m being sort of intentionally naive with my questions above. All social media apps “spy” on people; that’s part of the business model. Google something and next thing you know Facebook will immediately start serving up ads for whatever it is you just searched for. Unless you’ve turned on the “do not track” feature on your phone (and most of us haven’t), your phone and whatever apps you have on it know exactly where you are. Once again, it’s how Facebook just happens to show you an ad for a tourist attraction in the very place you’re visiting. We’re all living in “1984,” except we’ve willingly (or unwittingly) given Big Brother permission to spy on us.

The difference with TikTok is that all those other apps just want to fleece our pockets, but an app that might ultimately be beholden to a foreign government might have somewhat different motives. The FBI and the U.S. Justice Department are investigating allegations that TikTok used its software to spy on American journalists. “For potentially vulnerable populations using the app — such as Uyghur Americans, members of the Chinese diaspora, people from Hong Kong that fled, critics of the Chinese Communist Party — these tools could also be a vector for surveillance and leverage (say, tracking your activity and using that information to tell you to behave or your family still in China will pay the consequences),” said Warner spokesperson Rachel Cohen.

She went on: “Another concern is more than an individual concern, but an aggregate, societal one. We saw the enormous power of social media companies like Facebook to influence American behavior in say, presidential elections. We’ve also seen instances where Facebook enabled real-world violence. So stuff that happens on social media doesn’t stay on social media. We’ve got an app here that, sure, shows videos of bears, but it could also be used to influence Americans into believing that Taiwan has always been a part of China, or that democracy is bad and communism is good. Totally theoretical, but extremely possible, since under the terms of Chinese law, companies like TikTok and its parent company ByteDance are required to do the bidding of Chinese intelligence services.”

Now I’m a lot more intrigued. The world is now run by algorithms. When I searched for “Mark Warner” on TikTok, was it simply accidental that the first videos I saw were ones critical of his views on TikTok? Or was there some algorithm at work that prioritized those? Or maybe every video on TikTok that mentions Mark Warner really is critical of him? I certainly wouldn’t expect someone to post on TikTok that banning TikTok was a good thing, but who knows?

“It’s not just about data, but about giving the CCP an enormous tool to influence Americans (150 million active monthly users in this country, who spend an average of 90 minutes a day on TikTok),” Cohen said.

(Where do people find 90 minutes a day to scroll through TikTok? I’ll let you know as soon as I check out this video … and this one … and this one …)

Here’s perhaps the most persuasive critique of TikTok. In China, the app limits users 14 and under to just 40 minutes a day. It also serves up a very different menu of videos than the ones we Americans see. “If you’re under 14 years old, they show you science experiments you can do at home, museum exhibits, patriotism videos and educational videos,” tech expert Tristan Harris recently told “60 Minutes.” The show compared the differences between the American version of TikTok and the Chinese version to the difference between “opium and spinach.”

“There’s a survey of preteens in the U.S. and China asking, ‘What is the most aspirational career that you want to have?’ and in the U.S., the No. 1 was a social media influencer, and in China, the No. 1 was astronaut,” Harris said. “You allow those two societies to play out for a few generations and I can tell you what your world is going to look like.” 

The implication: The Chinese are filling their kids’ heads full of science and propaganda, while filling ours with frothy distractions. As a long-term strategy, that might be more effective than any military weapon.

So how would a ban on TikTok work? Would the FBI show up at my door and delete the app from my phone? No. More likely Apple and Google and other sites would be banned from carrying TikTok as a download option. When India banned TikTok, it required the country’s internet service providers to block TikTok. The details feel distasteful to me, reminiscent of countries such as Iran — or China, for that matter — that ban access to certain things. My favorite band is from Canada. How would that work if the U.S. banned TikTok and Canada did not? Is the government going to prevent me from viewing the music videos I want to see? That really feels distasteful. On the other hand, the United States already limits foreign investments in certain fields — this would just be one more. The difference is that we don’t have 150 million Americans walking around with a share of the defense sector in their pocket, but we are walking around with TikTok. Last September, Biden issued an executive order prohibiting certain foreign investments in “microelectronics, artificial intelligence, biotechnology and biomanufacturing, quantum computing, advanced clean energy, and climate adaptation technologies” if they are deemed to be a national security risk. I get paid to follow the news and even I missed that one, likely because it wasn’t particularly controversial. 

Warner makes the case that if TikTok went away, something else would replace it. In other words, the free market would fix things, just without a company aligned with the Chinese government. “I absolutely believe in the market if TikTok were somehow to drop away tomorrow,” Warner told CNN. “Whether it’s an American company, a French company, an Indian company, there will be a replacement site where people can still be creative and earn that kind of living.” (Because, you know, the new American Dream is to be a social media influencer.) 

Warner is certainly right about that. Indeed, those alternatives are already out there, just waiting for enough oxygen to boost their market share — apps such as Likee (owned by a company in Singapore), Chingari (owned by a company in India), Thriller (owned by an American company), Huddles (another American company) and Funimate (still another American outfit). If one of those last three apps takes off, then we can be secure in the knowledge that it’s an American company that simply wants to make money, not a Chinese one that might be a propaganda tool, that we’re using to fill our heads with mush.

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.