Sat. Jun 15th, 2024

Last month, the House passed a bill that would require TikTok’s parent company to sell its U.S. business to a company without ties to the Chinese government, or face a ban of the TikTok app in the United States.

In Washington, which has become increasingly hawkish toward the Chinese government, worries and fears about the Chinese Communist Party’s role in ByteDance are widespread. But outside Capitol Hill, millions of people — especially younger Americans — use TikTok everyday for entertainment and increasingly for search. Even beyond the potential speech or other legal issues, if this bill becomes law and a divestiture doesn’t work, those people might be pretty surprised if they were no longer able to download or update the TikTok app.

Representative Mike Gallagher, the Wisconsin Republican, is a co-sponsor of the legislation — he’s about to leave Congress but if this becomes law, it will have an effect on social media and U.S.-China relations long after his departure. Many lawmakers in both parties are concerned about the effects of social media on teens. Mr. Gallagher’s much more concerned about the Chinese government, and we spoke about speech concerns, the message to authoritarian governments from a bill like this and how Donald Trump’s fluctuating support affects the chances the bill will actually become reality.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity and is part of an Opinion Q. and A. series exploring modern conservatism today, its influence in society and politics and how and why it differs (and doesn’t) from the conservative movement that most Americans thought they knew.

Jane Coaston: So what’s the scenario with TikTok that you fear the most? Data theft, misinformation, tracking generations of Americans, and then using their information and attention against ‘em — or something duller than what I’m imagining.

Representative Mike Gallagher: There are two threats. One is what you could call the espionage threat. It’s data security — using the app to find Americans, exfiltrate data, track the location of journalists, etc. We have incidences of this happening already that are in the public domain. That’s a serious threat, but I actually think the greater concern is the propaganda threat. If TikTok continues to establish itself as the dominant news platform in America, and if the algorithm remains a black box and subject to the control of ByteDance and by extension the Chinese Communist Party, you’re placing the control of information — like what information America’s youth gets — in the hands of America’s foremost adversary. And that’s a risk I don’t think we can afford to take. Obviously, there’s well-established precedent when it comes to traditional media for foreign ownership, which is why we think a divestiture is the most prudent way to guard against both of those threats.

(In 2022, Forbes reported that TikTok employees pulled the IP addresses and user information of three reporters to monitor their whereabouts after the reporters published a critical article about ByteDance; TikTok said the employees were no longer employed by the company.)

Coaston: Let’s say I’m 19 years old, I’m in college. I use TikTok for normal stuff. Make the case to me that there’s a security risk.

Gallagher: We have already examples of TikTok, as I mentioned before, spying on journalists. TikTok has not been truthful about where its data was housed in the past, and using TikTok’s own metrics when it comes to comparing content on that platform versus Instagram — recognizing it’s not an apple-to-apples comparison based on the different way the apps work — there are disparities that don’t make any sense. It can’t be explained away by sounding variables such as the fact that TikTok doesn’t operate in India. And the closer you get to the topics that are sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party — whether it’s Covid origins, whether it’s the Uyghur genocide, whether it’s Hong Kong, etc. — the disparities get more and more severe. Again, this gets back to the black box nature of the algorithm. But the other thing I would say to that 19-year-old who wants to continue to use TikTok, that’s fine. In the scenario that our bill envisions, once the ownership structure changes, the national security concerns are substantially alleviated. I see no reason the user experience can not only continue but also improve.

(Earlier this year, TikTok limited access to a tool that researchers used to track trending topics on the platform. In the past, groups like the Network Contagion Research Institute at Rutgers University have found that based on tags, certain topics, like protests about increasing anti-democratic measures in Hong Kong and reports of the confinement and forced labor of Uyghur Muslims in China, are underrepresented on TikTok compared with Instagram. TikTok has said that the Chinese government has no influence over the app.)

Coaston: How much have you used TikTok? Do you have a burner phone with TikTok on it by any chance?

Gallagher: I do not. I don’t really use social media at all. I have a staff account — but I made that decision about six years ago, I think, to remove myself personally from it. I don’t have it on my phone. And that was more to me a matter of wanting to be effective, and I found myself not having the time I wanted to do deep thinking and writing and researching, and the minute I got off it, the more my productivity improved. Now that’s just me personally; I just don’t find it useful. There are occasions when I would use Twitter to sort of monitor various Chinese Communist Party propaganda accounts during the pandemic. I became fascinated with what they were doing to spread kind of dangerous anti-American rhetoric on our platforms.

People will send me TikTok videos sometimes as examples, but I don’t have the app even on a burner phone. I do think when we’re talking about all this stuff — social media companies in America and China — a principle underlying all of it has to be reciprocity. As we have this debate about how and whether to regulate a foreign adversary-controlled social media application in the United States, it’s worth remembering that our social media applications are not allowed in China. There’s just a basic lack of reciprocity and your Chinese citizens don’t have access to them. And yet we allow Chinese government officials to go all over YouTube, Facebook and X spreading lies about America. I think this is a microcosm with a broader lack of reciprocity in the entire U.S.-China relationship. And I do think as a matter of principle, it puts us on firm ground to address this issue.

Coaston: Jameel Jaffer at the Knight First Amendment Institute recently said on X, “a U.S. TikTok ban would be a gift to authoritarian regimes around the world.” There’s also an argument that banning an app in the same way that the Chinese communists do, as you just mentioned, is basically a propaganda win for China. How should conservative China hawks be thinking about the messages that this ban might send worldwide?

Gallagher: Which is why it’s not structured as a ban and why TikTok lies about it being an outright ban. That argument backfired — and I think the push notification they forced on millions of users actually sort of proved our point about the concerns with how the tool could be weaponized to inject disinformation into the American legislative process and the democratic process. The outcome we’re trying to navigate toward is a divestiture or a sale or a separation. I actually think that’s an outcome that American investors in ByteDance should want. We’re not talking about an outright ban; we’re trying to force a sale. Now you need a mechanism to force the sale, to be sure. I also would disagree that the bill addresses content or speech; it’s about conduct, specifically foreign adversary control of social media.

(TikTok has sent messages to users to call their representatives, which resulted in widespread calls to congressional offices.)

Coaston: So there are some Republican lawmakers who seem most concerned with the mental health of young people rather than something specific to Chinese ownership. In states like Utah, where I live, there are efforts to restrict teen social media usage more broadly. Are you in favor of that more expansive, less libertarian approach to social media and big tech for younger people? For adults?

Gallagher: Well, I think I need to caveat this: I share the concerns, but it’s a separate issue than what this bill is trying to address. What I’m narrowly trying to address with this bill is foreign adversary control of a dominant social media platform and news platform in the United States. Now, once we address that issue, then we can have a bigger debate about the effect of social media more broadly to include American social media companies. I’ve been persuaded by Jonathan Haidt’s work, both in the previous book he wrote with Greg Lukianoff, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” and then Haidt’s book that just came out, “The Anxious Generation,” that it is strongly correlated with the skyrocketing rate of anxiety and depression that we’re seeing among Gen Z. I think it’s worthy of government attention. There’s not an obvious government solution that I’ve been able to address. In fact, right now, my instinct is that it is my responsibility as a parent to set guardrails and not rely on the government to do it for me.

You could, however, and I think this is where Haidt’s analysis has been very persuasive, entertain raising the internet age of adulthood. And that is something that I haven’t seen a piece of legislation yet that I’m ready to co-sponsor, but the idea makes sense to me and I think there would be government authority to do that if we decided to do that. But again, that is not what this bill is about.

The other idea, which I think is sensible but doesn’t lend itself to federal legislation — though there might be state and local efforts at the school-district level — is finding a way to incentivize, if not mandate phone-free schools. Haidt’s analysis is very good at highlighting the benefits of doing that. But again, that’s not something I would legislate as a member of Congress, if that makes sense. As a parent, I’m terrified about the corrosive impact of social media — I even see it among my colleagues and I referenced my own experience and how social media I think really sapped my own productivity. I think there’s a way in which it precludes us from having a serious debate on certain policy issues because there’s no shared epistemological framework. We’re debating what is true and what isn’t, and we spend all our time on that and we never get to the actual debate over policy. But again, that’s just a broader issue and it’s not addressed by our bill right now.

Coaston: So Donald Trump supported banning TikTok and now he doesn’t. How much harder does that make it for Republicans to vote for this legislation?

Gallagher: So in many ways I was surprised by his statement because a lot of this started with Trump. I mean, he was ahead of the curve when he tried to address the national security problems posed by ByteDance ownership of TikTok. And our bill is an extension of that effort. Obviously his effort ran into a legal buzz saw. We tried to learn from that and draft the bill in a way where it would survive a legal challenge and was on the strongest constitutional grounds. The bill is not trying to shut TikTok down and then force all its users onto Facebook. So if that’s the former president’s concern, then this bill should not worry him because that is not the intent and that I don’t think is what would practically happen. And then we had the vote after he made the statement, and we still got 352 votes. I think that just shows that there’s serious bipartisan concerns about ByteDance’s ownership of TikTok, excuse me, and either this administration or the next administration, which could be the Trump administration, is going to have to address it.

After the interview, I followed up with Mr. Gallagher in email on a few points. These have also been edited for length and clarity.

Coaston: Conservatives also used to be pretty leery of government control and intervention. The approach of many conservatives to TikTok feels to me like “government knows best” and “government will call the shots.” Did conservatives change their way of thinking, or is China just scaring the hell out of them?

Gallagher: There’s a clear precedent of the government protecting Americans from national security threats posed by foreign-adversary-controlled applications and preventing our foreign adversaries from influencing the American airwaves. For a century, the Federal Communications Commission has blocked concentrated foreign ownership of radio and television assets on national security grounds, and in 2020, CFIUS (the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States) forced a divestment of the app Grindr, citing national security concerns stemming from its Chinese ownership.

Coaston: Clearly, there are a lot of younger people who would be upset if a divestment didn’t work and TikTok no longer operated in the United States. How do you think about the politics of that?

Gallagher: Fortunately for the kids, this bill presents a great opportunity for ByteDance to divest of TikTok and continue operating in the United States. This decision is squarely in TikTok’s hands.

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