David Remnick: Given the level of partisan ranker between the two major parties, and honestly, ranker feels like a huge understatement at this point, you would think that the parties share absolutely nothing in common, but that isn't exactly the case. Here are two points of agreement between many Democrats and Republicans, an increasingly hard line toward China, and a general suspicion or hostility toward tech companies.
The idea of banning TikTok, which is owned by a Chinese company, is getting real traction in Washington. A ban had been floated during the Trump administration, but at the recent congressional hearing with TikTok CEO, members of both parties were in full display of performative outrage. Even members who wouldn't know TikTok if they saw it on their screens.
Speaker 2: If I have TikTok app on my phone and my phone is on my home WiFi network, does TikTok access that network?
Speaker 3: You will have to access that network to get connections to the internet.
Speaker 4: That's not enough for me. That's not enough for the parents of America.
Speaker 5: Can you say with 100% certainty that TikTok does not use the phone's camera to determine whether the content that elicits a pupil dilation should be amplified by the algorithm? Can you tell me that?
Speaker 4: The Chinese government has that data.
Speaker 3: Congresswoman, I have seen no evidence that the Chinese government has access to that data. They have never asked us. We have not provided. I have asked that question--
Speaker 4: You know what, I find that actually preposterous.
David Remnick: We're going to talk today about the US, China, and TikTok. Joining me a little later is our Washington correspondent, Evan Osnos, but I'll start with the journalist, Chris Stokel-Walker. Chris, where are you? You're in the--
Chris Stokel-Walker: I'm based in Newcastle, England. I'm 300 miles north of--
David Remnick: Stokel-Walker writes frequently for Wired and is the author of two books, YouTubers and TikTok Boom. TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, which of course is Chinese says it has 150 million users in the United States. Give us some context around that number. How much of a hold does that app have on its users?
Chris Stokel-Walker: The average user spends pretty much as much time on TikTok in a given day as they do the average feature film exists. This is like you spend 90 minutes or so on TikTok every day if you are the average TikTok user. Obviously--
David Remnick: Okay, time out. 150 million people are spending an hour and a half, two hours a day on TikTok?
Chris Stokel-Walker: Yes, because you get sucked in, basically. The way that the app is designed is, is engineered to try and keep you going. You open the app and it is a significantly different experience to lots of other social media platforms. It is full screen, it is immersive, it is vertical video. You are thrown headlong into an endless torrent of videos that scrolls past you without stopping.
Speaker 7: Corcore, what is it and why is it suddenly taking over TikTok?
Chris Stokel-Walker: It's kind of the world's cinema playing all of the different genres possible all at once.
Speaker 8: Guys, I figured out the reason why I'm single.
Speaker 9: There's 10 movies on Netflix that you've never heard of, but should totally watch.
Speaker 10: This one is an absolute banger, Woodchuck by Hudi.
Hudi: How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
Speaker 12: This is what you need to be doing in 2023 to go viral on TikTok. A lot from 2022 has changed so make sure you lock into this right now.
Speaker 13: Roe v Wade, and what happens next in under 60 seconds. The Supreme Court just overturned federal--
Speaker 14: Second Earth has just been discovered by NASA. Here's what you need to know.
David Remnick: You're a user of TikTok. What are you particularly enthusiastic about watching, looking at?
Chris Stokel-Walker: I like the fact that you can express yourself much more on TikTok than you can on any other social media platform. I wrote a book on TikTok, but two years before that, I wrote a book on YouTube. I have made it my job to study digital creation. The idea of how you express yourself on the internet in this world, which is increasingly now how you express yourself in life. Full stop. Online and offline worlds have blended together for all intents and purposes.
In the 20-plus-year history of online creation and online expression, there have been huge barriers to entry. You needed good equipment, you needed good internet connections, you needed good cameras, good microphones. You needed time to edit videos. You needed photogenic looks. You needed to be having a winning personality to sustain an audience over a 10, 15, 20-minute video. Tiktok breaks down those barriers.
That is, in large, a reason why it's so successful, why 1.5 billion people worldwide use it is because the app allows you to just pick up and create. It doesn't require a lot of thinking. It doesn't require a lot of effort. It doesn't require a lot of equipment. It has made creators of all of us, which is good in one way, but bad in another way. I think more than any other platform that has gone in the past, it allows us to dip in and out.
David Remnick: Let's get to the politics of this. The main concern that we are hearing from the Biden administration and many members of Congress is security. What is their fear exactly?
Chris Stokel-Walker: Their fear is that TikTok is sending all of your data to China where it is sucked up and monitored and wiretapped by some Beijing-based spy for the Central Communist Party of China that essentially they are learning all about you through your habits, through your interests. I personally don't buy, buy it. I think that actually there are several different angles to this.
Number one is if the Chinese Communist Party was actually interested in your preference for baseball versus football or your choice of different types of music or whether you like knock, knock jokes or whether you like carefully constructed, satires on society, it could get that information from any number of other western social media platforms where you provide exactly the same data. I think that the difference here is one of perception, which is that the app has that inextricable link to China. So much so that the parent company ByteDance prefers to say they're based in a known tax haven [crosstalk]--
David Remnick: Before we're too dismissive of this, it's been shown in previous years that, in fact, American-owned social media has not been such an innocent player at all. Why shouldn't we be suspicious of TikTok and with the added dimension that it's owned by the Chinese, which we'll get to in a second with Evan Osnos, who spent a hell of a long time in China? Go ahead, Chris.
Chris Stokel-Walker: I think we should be suspicious of all social media, but I don't think that TikTok is the attack factor that we think it is. I think it's--
David Remnick: How do we know?
Chris Stokel-Walker: Well, we don't, but this is the challenge. How do you disprove a negative? It's that classic journalistic question of when did you last beat your wife. David Remnick, when did you last beat your wife? By asking that question in that way, I am supposing and presenting a kind of negative viewpoint of you by having--
David Remnick: There is one instance that's been documented of TikTok employees tracking a journalist's data. It stands out, at least to my innocent years as an example of what's possible, if the company's tracking other journalists or politicians, would we ever know for sure what's going on?
Chris Stokel-Walker: No, I don't. I come to this in a relatively unique position in that I am not based in the US. I am not born in the US. I'm 33 years old. I've spent my entire online life living by the rules designed by a small Carter of people in Silicon Valley who think that this is the way that the world should work. To me, as an outsider from outside the US, I'd love to say to you all this is what it's like for the rest of us.
You are encountering for the first time what it is like to be the taker of the social norms on these platforms from an entirely different country. There are these concerns. You're right. We can't overlook the fact that this company spied on journalists, which is absolutely abhorrent. We can't also overlook the fact that it is a Chinese company. It has origins in China and China is--
David Remnick: You're asking us to overlook of that fact, aren't you?
Chris Stokel-Walker: No, I'm saying that this is exactly the same as any other platform.
David Remnick: Now, as I understand it though, the concern is not just the tracking of user data, but the algorithm itself. The idea that TikTok could be used as a propaganda machine favoring opinions sympathetic to China or critical of the US.
Chris Stokel-Walker: Yes. This is one of the interesting pillars of the argument against TikTok and for banning it, which is that the Chinese state could be surreptitiously feeding us pro-China content that could essentially program us to rise up when they choose against our government and overthrow capitalism in favor of Chinese communism. It is an interesting idea, and we certainly know that state-sponsored propaganda and prompting of users through social media happens. We have lived through the 2016 US presidential election where Russia was shown to have interfered in our democracy and to have seeded ideas about the way that the US worked through social media platforms like Twitter.
It's that precedent I think that nullifies the concerns around TikTok and the idea that this is being seeded with propaganda because ultimately, even if we were to ban TikTok and say, the Chinese state cannot use those platforms, they do this already on other platforms. We know of state-sponsored interference through Twitter, through Facebook, through Instagram, all of those platforms are used and would be used even if we decided that TikTok couldn't be.
David Remnick: We should also add, just to round out the picture where social media is concerned. Twitter is already banned in China as are other apps. How can the Chinese ban Twitter and those other apps?
Chris Stokel-Walker: They banned it because they disliked the idea of free speech, which is what's so curious about the push to ban Tiktok. Now it seems ironically quite Chinese to crack down on something because we're worried about it and we're worried about the content that is shared on it.
David Remnick: On one hand, the Chinese are worried about social media from abroad for free speech reasons. We're worried about it for surveillance state reasons.
Chris Stokel-Walker: I think it is interesting to see that we're going down that line because TikTok has been banned in other countries before. In India, they banned it in June 2020, over a border dispute with China, where the government at the time in India said, "We are banning this because of a geopolitical problem." What we see is essentially to me, it seems there's a long-standing, very angry geopolitical disputes that is being crossed up in national security clothing because we feel more comfortable saying that rather than just coming out and saying this is actually, we dislike China, China flew a spy balloon over North America two months ago and we think that, that is a problem.
David Remnick: We just had a congressional hearing, which the CEO of TikTok sat in front of a Congressional panel and took pretty much of a beating, it seemed to me. What did you think of that spectacle, Chris?
Chris Stokel-Walker: I thought it was reflective of a lot of the big tech hearings that we've seen in the past but there was this added venom, I suppose, which I do think comes from the China connection. We have diagnosed here the problem which is that we share a lot of information on social media that we shouldn't but we've misdiagnosed it as China. I think it was disappointing as someone who has been scrutinizing this company and this app for many, many years to try and find that smoking gun, and I'm not the world's best journalist but I'm also far from the world's worst. I was hoping to hear in this hearing some evidence of that Batphone between Xi Jinping and ByteDance.
David Remnick: Did you hear any sense of expertise, I am afraid this is the world's most leading question, but in the past when you've seen Congressional panels on social media, the level of cluelessness and ignorance was stunning. Sometimes endearing and grandparent-like way but stunning. Did you see any difference this time around?
Chris Stokel-Walker: I wasted five and a half hours of my life.
David Remnick: [laughs]
Chris Stokel-Walker: There were lower low lights than we have seen in previous tech hearings.
David Remnick: For example.
Chris Stokel-Walker: One Congressman asking whether TikTok connected to his home Wi-Fi router, which yes, it does because every single digital service that you use utilizes that. There were some interesting small chunks of light to be had in it. There was a line of questioning around the communications tool lock, which is used on ByteDance servers but generally, this was a lot of heat and almost no light. In fact, I'd say it was kind of a total eclipse of knowledge, it is just the darkest thing I've ever seen.
David Remnick: Chris Stokel-Walker is the author of TikTok Boom. We'll be back in a moment with Evan Osnos, who's based in Washington and has reported extensively in China. This is the New Yorker Radio Hour with more to come.
This is the New Yorker Radio Hour, I'm David Remnick. We're looking today at the politics of TikTok. Politicians on both sides of the isle have expressed interest in banning the app or enforcing ByteDance to sell TikTok to a US-based company. Now the general suspicion about TikTok comes largely from a concern that Beijing could lean on ByteDance which owns TikTok, to direct what videos get seen. Some pearls worried that through TikTok the Chinese could exert influence on political opinion in America, particularly among young people.
Now, before the break, we heard from Chris Stokel-Walker, a British tech journalist, and we'll get back to Chris in a moment. We're joined now by New Yorker staff writer, Evan Osnos and he's based in Washington. Evan, you lived for years in Beijing as a reporter for The Chicago Tribune and then for The New Yorker. Let's step back and look at the broader moment we're in with us China relations, you wrote a piece not too long ago called Sliding Toward a New Cold War, a very ominous piece. To what degree do you think the anti-TikTok sentiment is a symptom of a real hardening of anti-China positions in this country that's not limited to left or right or center?
Evan Osnos: It's quite striking David, I have to say, as somebody who's been studying and watching and reporting on the US-China relationship for a couple of decades to see how precipitous the change has been. In broad strokes for 30 years, from the time that Nixon went to China in 1972 all the way up until this period when-- there was this time in which American companies and American individuals and students basically believed that the future involved China for them.
There was this assumption that look, China is in so many ways utterly different than we are. Its political system is authoritarian and it's not going to wake up tomorrow as a democracy but that bit by bit it was becoming a little bit more like "us." I think there's been this profound change, it's really only happened since about maybe 2015. That's when you began to see it towards the end of the Obama administration. It became more acute during the Trump administration, in 2018, of course, the US imposed tariffs on Chinese goods, China responded in kind and so you had this trade war that signaled this new era.
The net effect is that today as we're talking in 2023, the US-China relationship is at its most deteriorated condition since 1972. I mean, there's just no other way to put it, David. It is at a really acute and in many ways dangerous moment because of growing tensions over Taiwan, over human rights abuses in China, over the way the United States has responded to these things, and its own internal political chemistry. I would add one other thing, which is that in some ways TikTok arrived in Americans' lives in about 2018. It's just been about five minutes and in some ways, it coincided with the same period of collapse in the US-China relationship and so they became synonymous.
David Remnick: TikTok is a symbol, a symptom of a larger problem.
Evan: Exactly. In a way, if you're a member of Congress, you look at TikTok and you say, "This is the clearest emblem of my concern about China and this is something I can talk about and touch."
David Remnick: Evan, what does it mean, politically, that Jamaal Bowman for example, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are among the members of Congress who think that banning TikTok is ridiculous? Is it because they're younger and use social media so prominently in their own political lives?
Evan: There's no question that they are in touch with that 150 million Americans who tend to be younger than the average voter. They are listening to their concerns, not only about access to an app but also about what they would view as hypocrisy on some level. They'd say, "Well, why is it that we're going after this company but not after Google and Facebook?"
I think that in some ways China's decision to ban not just Twitter but also Facebook and The New York Times and a whole host of other foreign information sources, it makes it-- actually, that's in some ways, the most credible piece of evidence to them take action on the US side. If you're looking for an argument for why the US can and should do something, you come down on the argument for reciprocity.
You say, "Look, this is an imperfect solution but as long as China is banning these kinds of American companies, why is it that we're going to allow them to have free reign here and whether or not you think the final destination should be that everybody is banned. It forces a conversation on the Chinese side to say why is it that you expect to have full access in the United States when you don't grant that the way?
David Remnick: How do the Chinese rationalize that?
Evan Osnos: They don't have to. In a sense, what they say is your system is yours and ours is ours.
David Remnick: We saw a real campaign by Chinese officials to defend TikTok even as the company itself tries to distance itself from the Communist Party and the Chinese government. Is it possible to untangle that relationship?
Evan Osnos: I think the honest answer, David, is that it's impossible to untangle it. In the end, if you are a company in China, there is a point on the horizon and you don't really know when it is when they can come to you and say now we want access to your data or we want access to your executives or we are going to put pressure on your leadership to do things that they might have committed publicly to not do. That's just the practical reality and I think TikTok finds itself trying to come up with ways of segregating its relationship in the United States from its broader relationship in China. That's just very difficult to do.
David Remnick: Chris, what would a TikTok ban actually look like?
Chris Stokel-Walker: I think it would be pretty significant. I think, again, we can look to prior precedent in India for an example of how it would go which is you would see homegrown alternatives trying to step up in its place. That didn't really work in India because frankly those homegrown versions were developed so quickly in the aftermath of the band that they just were imperfect copies.
Handily, we do have two pretty well-formed, well-funded competitors, YouTube Shorts, and Instagram Reels, two massive tech companies who are developing essentially TikTok alikes. Things that look pretty similar to TikTok and have been for several years as they've seen the rise of TikTok eat into their market share. It's also notable actually that a lot of this political maneuvering and wrangling comes off the back of lots of lobbying on behalf of Meta to say TikTok is a little bit of a risk here. I think we can't overlook that [crosstalk]--
David Remnick: Pure economic self-interest you're suggesting.
Chris Stokel-Walker: Precisely. Yes. I think that is interesting to think about. Whether or not those users of TikTok, those 150 million Americans would port over their accounts to Instagram or to YouTube, I think is yet to be decided, because actually [crosstalk]--
David Remnick: This is exactly the point. It's my experience and maybe everybody's that when people have something and they enjoy it and seem to use it two hours a day as you're suggesting which is an incredible number, 150 million people getting disappointed all at once is going to have political ramifications, isn't it, Evan?
Evan Osnos: I think there is a real political element here. Chris touched on something very important which is the fact that the Facebooks and the Googles of the world have a really strong interest in actually seeing TikTok disappear. I think actually that in a way the larger political question that isn't being talked about, because people are focusing on China, is the fact that we don't have a meaningful federal protection statute of any real kind that prevents ordinary people whether they're kids or adults from having their data collected and misused whether it's by an American company or a Chinese company. In some ways, that's the conversation that is necessary.
I look at it partly through the lens of my own kids who are too small right now to be using it but it's just a matter of time before I'm going to be transposing my own neurosis about it onto them. I do want to see us do something that would make the world a little safer for them. Some of that is our own behavior. Then some of that is also ultimately I think asking regulators to do what we've done whenever there's a new technology that comes into our lives whether it was automobiles and saying look it's not that we're going to ban the automobile but let's put seat belts in them and let's figure out a way to make ourselves safer.
David Remnick: Chris, what would seat belts be for TikTok or do you recoil from that sense of restriction?
Chris Stokel-Walker: I don't. I think that we need better regulation. I think the problem is not at the minute with the politicians that we have. The seat belts would be made of silly string and tie together with loose knots. This is the challenge. We do need regulation but we are in this awkward flux period at the minute where, truthfully, we need to wait for older people to die and younger people to take their place, the AOCs of the world are not yet the decision makers that they need to be.
If we have bad regulation enacted this could set off a series of chain reactions that could lead to the thing that we've been avoiding for the entire history of the internet which is we essentially run parallel splinternet in the same way that China has a splinternet where you can access some services that are similar but not all of them. We could run that same risk in the United States which would be really catastrophic for not just users in the United States but also for outreach to those in different parts of the world that we want to educate about our norms, our societies, our democracies.
David Remnick: Evan, why do you think this is such a bipartisan issue when bipartisanship is a vanishing phenomenon in American political life?
Evan Osnos: I think there is a way in which China and TikTok as a part of that has become almost a source of relief for politicians because they're divided on absolutely everything and yet here is this one topic it's very far away.
David Remnick: We can all agree on TikTok in China.
Evan Osnos: In a sense, that's how it seems, that's how it feels in the room. If you watch, there's a set of hearings that have been going on with a select committee on China and there is a certain degree of glee that you detect among the participants that they finally found something that pulls them together. I think that as a citizen makes me a little bit uncomfortable because anytime we have too much of a consensus in Washington, an unexamined set of beliefs, that means that we're at risk of something.
I think we're now talking about 20 years after the invasion of Iraq and it's not too grand an analogy to make to say we need to be really vigilant as citizens, as journalists to question what it is that the government is basing its assumptions off of. One of the questions that's been asked is to say, I know that TikTok is vulnerable to the Chinese government's requests. We know that.
That is a fair reading of the facts but we also don't know exactly what it is that our government believes is possible and what is the risk. Oftentimes when you raise that question the answer that comes back from people in the US government is, well, if you had access to the information I have access to the intelligence then you would agree with my level of concern. I think all of us have learned that that's not really a satisfying answer to any question.
David Remnick: In fact, it's often a disastrous answer to a question. Chris in the UK, are there similar concerns about TikTok or is this a particularly American phenomenon?
Chris Stokel-Walker: No, this is a global issue now. Actually, it is multiple countries around the world, multiple jurisdictions following in US's lead. Canada has banned TikTok on government devices, the European Union has done a similar thing. The UK banned it on government devices and then eight minutes into the congressional hearing announced that they were banning the use of TikTok on the UK parliamentary estates. That would be essentially the equivalent of banning it from any use on the hill in the US.
What's interesting is each of these countries and there are more New Zealand, Australia, others have taken this approach of banning TikTok partially. They're not banning it countrywide which is what the US seems to be trying to do which will be interesting to see whether it holds. They've been choosing a sort of half-measure. They're saying we're going to focus this specifically on a very, very small proportion of users, government users. It seems almost like this is a way of signaling to the US that we are behind you while also not really poking the bear in a way of angering everyday users.
David Remnick: Chris, you're obviously very skeptical of a ban of TikTok and it does seem that in trying to regulate social media, the government so often gets it wrong. What is the smart way to think about or deal with this problem?
Chris Stokel-Walker: I think we have to recognize that we have uniquely failed over the last 15, 20 years to get a grip on social media and tech more generally. We're so beyond being able to get a grip on them through any sort of regulation whether it's in the US, whether it's in Europe, or anywhere else that they have to essentially self-police. That doesn't always work. We see the excesses of that, particularly in how Twitter is spooling into a odd death spiral right now where the conceit that the tech executives will be the grownups in the room and we've thought that they haven't been previously has been shown that actually they're trying pretty well to do so with Elon Musk in comparison. I think if we can't get that kind of federal data regulation as Evan says, or any kind of antitrust-level crackdown on these big tech platforms. I think we need to take ownership ourselves. We need to be much more cautious about what we share with these platforms. We need to monitor where our data is going.
David Remnick: In practical terms, what would we have to change?
Chris Stokel-Walker: You don't use your real name on social media. If you are really worried about these national security risks, which we have had previous concerns around TikTok being banned on army bases several years ago and that is a valid concern. Then also if you are on an Army base, don't record video on any social media platform because people can glean information from that, from what they see in the background. Clean out your data regularly, for instance. You can reset your TikTok algorithm if you worry that it knows too much about you.
Those are sorts of the things that we should be doing, but we should also not necessarily give up on the idea of regulating this officially. We should be asking our politicians to do better. We should be getting AOC-like tech-literate politicians. Ilhan Omar is a Twitch streamer, which is-- means that she has much more lived experience of this stuff and knows it innately more than anybody else who is blustering from behind a pulpit in Congress.
David Remnick: I think the line of the day is we have to wait for the old people to die. Thank you both. It was a terrific discussion.
Evan Osnos: My Pleasure.
Chris Stokel-Walker: Thank you.
David Remnick: Chris Stokel-Walker writes for Wired and other publications, and he's the author of TikTok Boom. Evan Osnos, of course, is a staff writer for The New Yorker.
[00:32:19] [END OF AUDIO]
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