When Mark Zuckerberg announced on Wednesday that Facebook lost daily users for the first time in its 18-year history last quarter, he blamed TikTok. And why shouldn’t he? The young platform is both the most downloaded app and most visited website in the world. It’s addicting and profitable, which also makes TikTok a tool of cultural control.
Beijing understands this, which is why the app’s Chinese counterpart Douyin is run much differently by ByteDance. Indeed, the Chinese government recently acquired a 1 percent stake and a seat on the board of one of the Beijing-based company’s domestic subsidiaries.
Andrew Schulz explained this perfectly in a clip he posted to Instagram this week.
“You don’t have to crush an opposing nation to convince them to crush themselves,” Schulz wrote in the caption. If China seeks to undermine the power of the United States, controlling the algorithms that captivate its children isn’t a bad place to start.
If you browse this BuzzFeed roundup of the top trends on TikTok in 2021, you’ll find explicit dances, songs, and gender-bending alongside adorable dogs and easy recipes. In 2020, Seventeen included the “WAP” dance on its roundup of the app’s most popular trends, meaning millions of American kids were watching and making video after video of a song about “wet ass p-ssy.”
It’s of course true that American culture is decaying on its own. But it doesn’t help that a company based in and legally under the control of China is in charge of a place our kids spend hours a day, talking about politics, family life, and culture. It would be like Moscow owning our film studios during the Cold War, except worse because TikTok is omnipresent in every teen’s pocket.
TikTok is known for its sophisticated algorithm, which one expert told the New York Times “tries to get people addicted rather than giving them what they really want.” There’s mounting evidence that TikTok is having negative effects on users’ health, which you can read more about here. Beijing seems to understand this because the government is taking steps to prevent the app from addicting its own users.
In China, Douyin is subject to government control intended to make the app a force for cultural good and a vehicle for propaganda. Users under 14 can only access the app at certain times of day for a capped period of time, and are delivered “interesting popular science experiments, exhibitions in museums and galleries, beautiful scenery across the country, explanations of historical knowledge, and so on.”
All users are subject to mandatory five-second pauses after spending a certain amount of time on the app, during which they’re delivered videos that tell them to “put down the phone,” “go to bed,” and “work tomorrow.” The app censors political content that transgresses Beijing’s boundaries. It was fined last year for spreading “obscene, pornographic, and vulgar” content.
None of this is to say the U.S. government should start curbing free expression on TikTok. I think there’s a good argument to be made that social media is a public health emergency and demands more transparency. The point is that ByteDance owns an app that’s controlled by a government seeking to undermine us, and that app is designed to be less harmful than the one peddled in America.
We can talk about what kind of government action that might warrant, but it should immediately change the way we approach TikTok. Beijing knows the app can stoke discord and worsen the health of our teenagers. Why would we willingly give that tool to an opposition government? (That’s not even to get into the potential national security concerns.)
The simple answer is because we’re addicted.