TikTok As a Manipulator of U.S. Thought Is 'Realistic' As Russian 'Manipulation'
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In the 1990s, the late Sen. Patrick Moynihan sought to abolish the CIA. While he knew his pursuit of its shuttering by legislative means was wholly quixotic, Moynihan felt the intelligence service had revealed its impressive ineptitude rather prominently with the rapid decline of the Soviet Union. How could the CIA have so completely missed the coming implosion, and having missed the decline of the U.S.’s foremost enemy, what else would it miss?

All this and so much more came to mind while reading Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mike Gallagher’s recent opinion piece in the Washington Post calling for the banning of TikTok in the United States. Republicans quite simply shouldn’t be in the business of empowering government to limit the freedom of the American people to do as they wish. But we’re in a sense getting ahead of ourselves.

For now, Rubio and Gallagher claim that “TikTok offers the CCP a unique ability to monitor more than 1 billion users worldwide, including nearly two-thirds of American teenagers.” And while TikTok has long denied that spying for the CCP is its aim, let’s assume for fun that it is. If true, would it really have meaning? Government is incompetent. Always and everywhere. Figure that our intelligence services have always had the best resources and have been the best funded, but yet again they were caught unaware by the on-the-ground reality in the former Soviet Union. Arguably even more embarrassing, the consensus inside the CIA was that the U.S.S.R.’s economy was roughly half the size of the U.S.’s. Try not to laugh, at which point it’s worth asking if anyone seriously thinks those in Chinese intelligence, seemingly for being Chinese, are more competent than our CIA was? The question hopefully answers itself.

After which, it’s worth pointing out that once you’re spying on everyone realistically you’re spying on no one. What could be gained from so much information? Rubio and Gallagher’s answer to the previous question is the ability to blackmail. They claim that “With this app, Beijing could also collect sensitive national security information from U.S. government employees and develop profiles on millions of Americans to use for blackmail and espionage.” On its face this is hard to credit given the 15 second videos that are so popular with TikTok users, but if Rubio and Gallagher really are fearful about blackmail of government employees, they might limit their “ban” to government employees. Why not just that? Please read on for a speculation as to why.

The hidden answer seems to be that TikTok is successful. Its users spend an average of 96 minutes per day on the app, which is five times the amount of time spent on Snapchat, and double that of the time users spend on Facebook and Instagram. Please stop and think about this. Is TikTok really a “major threat to U.S. national security” as Rubio and Gallagher opine, or is it more realistically a threat to some major U.S. competitors? Let’s answer this question in two parts.

As Rubio and Gallagher acknowledge, the app’s popularity is largely with American teenagers. Can knowledge of teens seriously be seen as a “national security” issue? Rubio and Gallagher assert that TikTok tracks “users’ locations and collect[s] internet-browsing data,” but this is what most users would understandably want. Indeed, the more that free services know about us, the better their advertising to us will be, and the better the content will be. Good. What this has to do with national security is hard to fathom, but even if tracking teenagers were of interest to the CCP, see the CIA’s bumbling over time.

Which means the more likely bother within the political class about TikTok is of the protectionist variety. The company is meeting the needs of the American people better than some of the biggest and best U.S. technology companies presently are. Is this a national security danger, or an economic danger? Realistically neither. Again, TikTok users skew young, while competition always lifts those competed against. If TikTok didn’t exist, it would have to be invented.

Naturally Rubio and Gallagher don’t stop there. They express worry about such a popular app allegedly in bed with the CCP becoming a propaganda machine for the latter. Good luck with that. Think about it. If American minds were really as malleable as Rubio and Gallagher seem to imagine, then businesses would spend exponentially more on advertising than they presently do. How many advertising billionaires in the Forbes 400? Hopefully readers get the allusion. If Americans can’t consistently manipulate American behavior, can anyone seriously believe the CCP has the capacity to change how we think? If honest, Rubio and Gallagher’s argument brings to mind what Democrats laughably claimed about Russian manipulation leading up to the 2016 election. It was hard to take seriously from Democrats then, and it’s hard to take seriously from Republicans now.

What is serious is that government is too big, and it does too much. While Rubio and Gallagher claim to fear TikTok, the view here is that much more fearful is a government always and everywhere searching for reasons to expand its footprint. Really, why must government always be the winner when our “national security” is threatened? This isn’t asked enough, but maybe Rubio and Gallagher’s efforts to expand the role of government now through a needless ban of TikTok is the time to start asking.

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, Vice President at FreedomWorks, a senior fellow at the Market Institute, and a senior economic adviser to Applied Finance Advisors (www.appliedfinance.com). His latest book, The Money Confusion: How Illiteracy About Currencies and Inflation Sets the Stage For the Crypto Revolution, releases today. 

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