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Silicon Valley Is Bad But ByteDance Is Much Worse

The Chinese flag.
Image CreditFDRLST / Canva

If the question is whether TikTok or American tech platforms are generally scarier, in both the short and long term, TikTok wins.


America’s lack of clarity in Ukraine is embarrassing. Our adventurism abroad has been embarrassing for decades. There are hawks who now favor antagonism toward China for all the wrong reasons. But my colleague Evita Duffy-Alfonso is wrong to suggest TikTok is somehow less of a threat to our freedom than America’s own corrupt social media platforms. Indeed, the comparison is dangerous — and China knows it.

Here’s the crux of Duffy-Alfonso’s argument: “If you’re an American conservative or free thinker, Big Tech and its sinister partnership with the deep state and powerful corporations are trying to suppress your worldview far more than China.” That’s a bit like saying the guy who just shot you in the foot is worse than the guy holding a gun to your head. They’re both trying to suppress us, the difference is that one country is a hostile foreign power and the other is still at least somewhat beholden to democratic pressures. (Just last week TikTok announced censorship of climate discourse, which could ultimately boost their economy at the expense of our economy and personal freedoms.)

This is not to pound the war drums. It is not to downplay the lawless collusion and abject corruption of both the Pentagon and Silicon Valley. But the reality is that we are facing the prospect of a hot war with China. Whether you support intervention or not — and there are good arguments to be had here — Xi Jinping wants Taiwan, and our leaders are committed to protecting it from invasion. That’s not a recipe for resolution.

In the case of a hot war, the Chinese Communist Party will be in a position to quietly exploit its access to the TikTok algorithm via its control over ByteDance in Beijing. We will have no way of knowing it’s happening until the American public has been manipulated by a steady flow of propaganda under the control of a wartime enemy.

We know today how the Pentagon, FBI, and CIA manipulated the media throughout the Cold War. We know how the Soviet Union sometimes did the same. We also know while our media were more balanced at the time, its biases were deeply rooted. But we’re not worse off — nor less free — for having had the elite partisans at ABC control the airwaves rather than Khrushchev. 

If war were to break out next week, and we could ban any social media app with a magic wand, would we best protect ourselves by banning a platform run by the evildoers in America or the people trying to kill Americans? As bad as our regime is, material reality makes that hypothetical rather chilling. 

But what’s the difference between the CCP, American tech executives, and deep-state operatives? Didn’t Meta walk so ByteDance could run? Do they not all actively work toward the failure of the American project as we know it? Do they not all desire to curb our freedoms?

Popularizing those sentiments, of course, is the CCP’s goal. But the decadent and evil weirdos from Silicon Valley to the Pentagon don’t want to get themselves blown up. They don’t want their children or their nieces and nephews and doctors and lawyers to have eating disorders, suicidal ideations, and truncated attention spans. They’re simply too stupid, lazy, and short-sighted to fully understand the consequences of their decisions. It’s astounding but true.

That’s an important distinction too. It’s horrific to think of how much freedom we’ve already lost in these corrupt power grabs, to think of how American politics has been warped, to think of how children have been hurt, to think of where this all ends. For that, we have only ourselves to blame. 

Already, our tech industry is racing with China to develop generative artificial intelligence more quickly, fearful of disarming itself by comparison. What could transpire is the further subjugation of people in undeveloped countries, with zero stake in the process, getting gravely harmed by a contest that could very likely spiral out of control. Itchy trigger fingers from Eastern Europe to the South China Sea are more dangerous than our warmongering media care to consider. 

And still, there is no contest between horrible domestic platforms that have some pressure from markets and lawmakers to stop poisoning us and a horrible Chinese company with absolutely zero democratic control that can easily be used in the goal of bringing an end to a far more just country — even as we risk becoming our enemy and fading into the transhumanist mist. 

Neoconservatives excused away a whole lot of bad American behavior in the service of fighting the Soviet Union. But so too did the anti-war left excuse away a whole lot of bad Soviet behavior in the service of undermining the neocons. This is natural. We fight emotional policy battles over high-tech platforms that distract and confuse.

In China, where there is no freedom of speech or religion, the government knows this. It’s why their rulers are constantly seeking to muddy the waters by exaggerating America’s grave problems with the end goal of showing their system is morally superior to ours. Read their “Report on Human Rights Violations in the United States.” Again, it makes me angry when our government fudges propaganda against other countries. You could even say our government’s behavior makes me angrier than theirs because we should have higher expectations for ourselves than for them.

But that simply doesn’t make us a greater threat to American freedom (or American health). I don’t think it even makes our colluding elites a more immediate threat, given what China could suddenly decide to do at any moment with our data and may well be doing to our children in ways that are difficult to assess. Nearly 70 percent of American teenagers use TikTok. Among people under 30, 26 percent use the platform as a news source.

Their brains should be free from foreign mind control. (And make no mistake, the CCP knows TikTok is mind control.) Teenage girls should be able to have normal childhoods free from constant exposure to harmful content, boosted strategically for geopolitical reasons. The men and women of our military should be free to defend a country not unwittingly in the throes of foreign propaganda, whether or not a hot war breaks out. We should all be free from worry that years from now, harvested data will be used against us in ways we can’t yet fathom.

If the question is whether TikTok or American tech platforms are generally scarier, in both the short and long term, TikTok wins. If the question is whether TikTok is a greater and more immediate threat to our freedoms, the competition is certainly stiff. But with each passing day, our use of TikTok gives Beijing more power to weaken us. It’s hard to know the scale of that operation in the near term, but fearing TikTok less than Meta and Snap, for instance, is ill-advised.

It’s not somehow better or more free to be censored on climate or elections by a foreign adversary. It’s blowing up their floaties to swim across the moat.

Xi himself cites Marxism as the “soul” of the CCP. Like the Marxists before him, Xi understands communism cannot peacefully coexist with republican systems of government.

In a nuclear age, that leaves us right now with an imperfect but patently obvious choice. As Winston Churchill once argued, “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

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