When British writer Viv Groskop was living in Russia in the early 1990s, she was an object of immense curiosity. The Russians were intensely poor, which meant Groskop was seen as someone in possession of what they didn’t have, including “what everybody wanted,” Levi’s jeans. Imagine that. A common clothing item for the typical American was a must-have for the Russian people.
Such is life without markets. Absent them, those producing goods and services have little incentive to learn about their potential customers not just to meet their needs, but also to anticipate them. In the former Soviet Union this total lack of interest in the customer resulted in goods and services that no one wanted, in concert with deep desire for the products of a clothier (Levi’s) that was and is interested.
The bitter, fashion-backwards fruits of communism in the U.S.S.R. come to mind a lot when thinking about TikTok, and the desire among way-too-many in the U.S. political class to ban it. How very Soviet, how very authoritarian-China for U.S. politicians to use fear of a foreign app to squash freedom within the country most lionized globally for its freedom. The rest of the world reveres the United States and – yes – its Levi’s because they embody a lack of hideous political force. They also embody luxury. Fast food chains like McDonald’s are date-night destinations in still-evolving African cities for the same reason. The second largest market for McDonald’s not the U.S. is China…Get it? Freedom and its fruits are global bestsellers. Let’s not wreck the brand.
Back to TikTok, a commentator (Fareed Zakaria) who properly thinks a ban would be a bad idea addresses some of its perceived problems. For one, TikTok “could collect data from its users and send that to Beijing.” It's unlikely (imagine the brand risk...), but if true, this would be a good thing. Think about it. Too bad the CIA wasn’t collecting more data on the Russian people during the Soviet era. If so, it would have realized how miserable the people were, and how much they wanted what we have. If “Beijing” were to understand the American people better, it’s safe to say it would discover how very non-political most Americans are, and what little time they spend on geopolitics.
It’s said that even if TikTok isn’t collecting data for “Beijing,” it is collecting the data for itself. Good. Knowing the wants and needs of customers and anticipating those needs is as old as business is. Applied to TikTok, heavy usage by Americans indicates that its read of what we like is particularly keen. Stop and think about that. If the videos Americans watch on TikTok are a reflection of their watchers, does anyone think communist propaganda is what has America’s youth coming back for more, and more? The latter isn’t a trick question, but if readers are confused, they might pull up on YouTube myriad man-on-the-street interviews with Americans, and most notably American youth. Most aren't even sure how many Supreme Court justices there are. How many are there? Tick tock, tick tock...
Please keep the above in mind with Zakaria’s mention of the other main fear of TikTok top of mind: “it would transmit anti-American information through its platform, becoming a subtle vehicle for Chinese propaganda.” Except that TikTok’s algorithms don’t work that way. Again, it collects voluminous data on its users (once again, as all good businesses do) in order to provide them with more of what they like, and might like. Put another way, a TikTok ban will be superfluous if the CCP turns it into a communist propaganda machine.