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Osama Bin Laden, TikTok Genius
The virality of terrorist bullshit is intentional
As the war rages between Israel and Hamas, TikTok’s proliferation of anti-Israel content has reignited the debate about whether the platform should be legal in the United States. While Congress stopped short of enacting legislation last spring, it’s time lawmakers recognized the existential risk TikTok poses to U.S. security interests and take action accordingly. At no point in U.S. history has a foreign entity owned such an unprecedented platform for the mass dissemination of potent personalized propaganda and the mass collection of private American user data. TikTok has all the hallmarks of the most extensive intelligence operation a foreign power has ever conducted against the United States.
The U.S.-China Economic & Security Review Commission (USCC) released its annual report to Congress last week. As the 800-page report details, “an increasing number of Americans rely on new media, like TikTok, for their news. TikTok, which is privately owned by a Chinese company but ultimately must be responsive to the demands of the Party-state, provides Beijing with a potential avenue to reach its more than 150 million users in the United States.” As of last year, a Pew Research report found that 33 percent of American TikTok users regularly get their news on the platform. More than 50 percent of “Generation Z” also use TikTok as their search engine of choice.
Elected officials, including House Select China Committee Chairman Mike Gallagher and Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Marco Rubio, denounced TikTok as “misinformation and indoctrination” promoting thinly veiled Chinese Communist Party (CCP) state propaganda. Skeptics allege these concerns are overblown as the information on the platform is entirely user-generated. I spent years working on these issues at Google and believe the skeptics are wrong.
The Chinese government can distort the information users see on TikTok in two ways. First, it can leverage its influence over the company to ensure the ranking algorithm promotes the Party line, amplifying certain sources, viewpoints, or topics while burying others. “We’ve seen that TikTok tends to feed these terrible impulses with an algorithm that amplifies fringe and extremist positions,” said Senate Intel Chief Mark Warner.
Just in the last few days, Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to America” went viral and surfaced videos with over 14.2 million views. At a time when the United States seeks to support its ally Israel, an analysis of the two most commonly used hashtags related to the war shows that 96.5 percent of the Israel content that TikTok displays to users is #FreePalestine content compared to 3.5 percent for #StandWithIsrael, according to TikTok’s own data. As Hollywood celebrity Sasha Baron Cohen recently decried: “What is happening at TikTok is it is creating the biggest antisemitic movement since the Nazis.”
No matter the topic, TikTok is invariably skewed against American security interests, consistently mirroring CCP talking points while promoting self-destructive behaviors among America’s youth. Other reports have found TikTok censoring and suppressing content about Xinjiang, Tibet, Tiananmen Square, and other topics deemed sensitive by the CCP. While at the same time, TikTok promotes “chroming” (sniffing glue) and the “blackout challenge” in America, the Chinese version of the app, Chairman Gallagher notes, “shows kids science experiments and other educational content.” This should not come as a surprise: TikTok is ultimately answerable to its parent company’s chief editor, Zhang Fuping, who is also the boss of that company’s internal Communist Party committee.
Second, as I detailed in my book, The Wires of War: Technology and the Global Struggle for Power, the CCP can distort information on TikTok and engage in censorship by way of firehosing: “malicious foreign governments spray so much information onto the Internet—as if through a giant fire hose—that it swamps everything else.” As I write in my book, firehosing is tantamount to censorship by other means. The information published by state-backed mouthpieces competes with information that authoritarian governments would like to hide by diluting it and distracting from it. It can be done either to suppress legitimate information or to shape a preferred narrative.
Consider that Beijing spends $10 billion per year on propaganda and employs a legion of two million social media “cheerleaders”—derisively called the “50 Cent Army” after the amount they’re supposedly paid per post—to issue a torrent of praise for China’s leaders. By some measures, these digital supporters produce almost half a billion posts a year extolling a positive (and frequently nationalistic) vision of China and harassing netizens deemed critics to silence them.
We’re seeing this pattern play out on TikTok. A recent open letter co-signed by Amy Schumer, Jason Biggs, and other celebrities reported that “Jewish creators—who regularly enliven the For You page with videos of dancing, cooking, singing, and positivity of all kinds – are being bombarded with abhorrent inhumanity solely due to our ethno-religious identity.”
In Halifax, Foreign Policy Reality
Senators from both parties warned their foreign counterparts this weekend that the United States can’t keep its commitment to Ukraine unless Congress addresses the crisis at the southern border — and that the window for action is quickly closing.
It was a jarring message for U.S. allies seeking reassurances from the bipartisan Senate delegation at the annual Halifax International Security Forum — American support for an embattled ally will hinge on a bipartisan deal on an issue that has long vexed Congress.
“Each of the groups that we’ve talked to — we’ve said this is going to determine whether or not there’s funding for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) told us. “Because how do you go back home and say you’re justifying their defense but you’re not protecting our own southern border? Without the border being addressed appropriately, nothing is going to move.”
For lawmakers, these international gatherings are intended in part to shore up potential concerns about U.S. commitments to various global security challenges. Domestic political issues are always acknowledged, but rarely in such an overt and detailed manner — especially ones as challenging as immigration policy. It came up in nearly every meeting and side conversation, as representatives from allied nations wondered when — and how — Congress would approve more aid for Kyiv.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) met with a Ukrainian lawmaker whom he said was “surprised to hear that border security — not just funding for the border, but a change in our asylum policy — was a demand” from Republicans.
Yet these demands are a reflection of the perilous political dynamics surrounding Ukraine and foreign aid more generally. Public support for the Ukrainian war effort is eroding, even as President Joe Biden vows that the U.S.-backed Western coalition will support Kyiv for “as long as it takes” to defeat Russia.
Back in Washington, a bipartisan Senate group is negotiating changes to asylum policies that could stem the flow of illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border. Senate Republicans are conditioning their support for the foreign aid package on Democrats’ willingness to accept these changes.
But here in Halifax, it wasn’t just Republicans making that point. Democrats acknowledged this same reality during the group’s nine bilateral meetings and countless informal chats — that they’ll need to accede to these demands in some form.
“We Democrats have to do something about the border. I think it’s a real issue,” said Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.). “The situation at the border is a lot different than it was 10 or 15 years ago. And maintaining the same kind of policy is not a sustainable position, in my view.”
Why Americans Are Sour on Bidenomics
To reconcile voters’ discontent with the economic data, we shouldn’t consider the top-level employment and inflation indicators separately. Instead, we should combine them—and when we do, we observe workers’ real (that is, after inflation) wages have declined significantly in recent years.
Some commentators argue that real wages are rising, but these claims are based on the popular average hourly earnings measure from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Employment Statistics. Average hourly earnings is a less useful indicator now because of large workforce-composition changes. During the pandemic, the economy shed large numbers of low-paying service jobs (for instance, in leisure and hospitality), which pushed the average wage in the economy higher. The average moved up because low-paying jobs dropped from BLS’s sample, not because individuals experienced strong wage growth. The effect reversed as the economy began adding those low-paying service jobs back, which pushed average hourly earnings down. Those composition effects linger today, as the economy is still short 560,000 leisure and hospitality jobs (adjusting for labor-force growth), relative to pre-pandemic levels, due largely to firms’ difficulty finding workers.
More recently, labor shortages have eased, and firms have been adding back these workers. Given that leisure and hospitality wages are below those of all other major sectors tracked by BLS, these workers’ return to the labor force has dragged down average hourly earnings growth relative to other measures. Indeed, the leisure-and-hospitality industry has been responsible for over a fifth of all job growth in the last 12 months; add one other fast-growing, lower-wage sector—government—and you’re looking at 42 percent of all job growth in the last year. As labor shortages ease and the economy adds a greater share of low-wage positions back into the pool, average hourly earnings will continue to fall.
To get a clearer picture of the economy, therefore, we need to adjust for the changing composition of the workforce and consider changes to wages in each type of job and industry. Fortunately, another BLS statistic, the National Compensation Survey’s Employment Cost Index, does just this.
According to ECI, inflation-adjusted wages have shrunk by 3.7 percent since the end of 2020. While real wages rose in response to falling energy prices late last year, they have been roughly flat since. Worse, the drop in real wages erased all gains made in the late 2010s. Real wages today stand at 2015 levels, meaning Americans’ paychecks don’t go any further now than they did eight years ago.
Moreover, for many Americans, the most salient life milestones are now out of reach. Profligate spending caused a dramatic rise in Treasury yields, sending mortgage interest rates near 8 percent. Car-loan interest rates are even higher. Consumers may be pleased that gas prices are down, but that’s little comfort if they must put off buying a home, having children, and other decisions commonly associated with pursuing the American dream. With unemployment still very low, most Americans who want a job have one, but they can’t afford the traditional lifecycle accomplishments of owning a house and a car.
Moderna is Spying on You
Moderna did incredibly well out of the pandemic. It was shot from a fledgling biotech firm to a household name, having created one of the most effective vaccines during the outbreak. The mRNA Covid-19 vaccine catapulted the company to a $100 billion valuation and minted five new billionaires, including the chief executive, Stéphane Bancel, its chairman, Noubar Afeyan, co-founders, Noubar Afeyan and Robert Langer, and Timothy Springer, a Harvard Medical School professor and early investor.
But as demand for its vaccinations has diminished, inevitably, so too have its earnings. This year, its only marketable product lies unused and the company has recorded steep losses. Moderna has also been forced to pay royalty payments to NIAID, the US government agency that helped produce the basic research that underpins the mRNA vaccine technology. As a result, in January, Bancel announced a price hike of up to $130 a dose, far higher than the $15-26 for American federal contracts, according to the Wall Street Journal. “We’re expecting a 90% reduction in demand,” Bancel said, when he was asked to defend the decision. “As you can see, we’re losing economies of scale.”
With its profits evaporating, Moderna embarked on a flashy new marketing campaign that features a child chasing a red string that transforms into a ribbon, which the narrator explains is an mRNA strand that could unlock cures for all types of diseases. And its latest television advert depicts the company’s coronavirus vaccine as emblematic of a healthy lifestyle. Over some cool music, the narrator says, “make vaccination against Covid-19 a part of your health routine: Spikevax that body”.
The most important thing for Moderna is that people keep having their jabs. Smart ads are part of that. But more important is to push back aggressively against any prevailing anti-vax narrative and engage where possible in any discussions around vaccine policy. That’s where the Moderna disinformation department comes in.
Behind the scenes, the marketing arm of the company has been working with former law enforcement officials and public health officials to monitor and influence vaccine policy. Key to this is a drug industry-funded NGO called Public Good Projects. According to documents we have seen, PGP works closely with social media platforms, government agencies and news websites to confront the “root cause of vaccine hesitancy” by rapidly identifying and “shutting down misinformation”. A network of 45,000 healthcare professionals are given talking points “and advice on how to respond when vaccine misinformation goes mainstream”, according to an email from Moderna.
Moderna’s disinformation arm is perpetuating the public discourse wars that have been raging since early in the pandemic, aimed at shutting down anything that might undermine Covid-19-related policies, including lockdowns and efforts to encourage mass vaccinations. These documents provide a new window into the process that has roiled speech debates over the last three years.
With PGP, Moderna is monitoring a huge range of mainstream outlets, as well as unconventional ones, such as the Steam online gaming community and Medium. Meanwhile, Moderna also retains Talkwalker which uses its “Blue Silk” artificial intelligence to monitor vaccine-related conversations across 150 million websites in nearly 200 countries. Discussions around “competitor” issues, including discussions of Pfizer are flagged as well as vaccine hesitancy.
Their monitoring team includes Moderna’s global intelligence division, which is run by Nikki Rutman, who spent nearly 20 years as an analyst with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Rutman was working from the FBI’s Boston office during the COVID-19 effort known as “Operation Warp Speed”, which involved the FBI conducting weekly cybersecurity meetings with the Boston headquartered Moderna. She is among many former law enforcement agents now with the vaccine maker. The involvement of former law enforcement reflects a wider trend in the misinformation-space, as the Department of Homeland Security and FBI have increasingly leaned on social media platforms to shape content decisions as a national security issue.
Items of Interest
“The denial of age in America culminates in the prolongevity movement, which hopes to abolish old age altogether. But the dread of age originates not in the "cult of youth" but in a cult of the self. Not only in its narcissistic indifference to future generations but in its grandiose vision of a technological utopia without old age, the prolongevity movement exemplifies the fantasy of "absolute, sadistic power" which, according to Kohut, so deeply colors the narcissistic outlook. Pathological in its psychological origins and inspiration, superstitious in its faith in medical deliverance, the prolongevity movement expresses in characteristic form the anxieties of a culture that believes it has no future.”
— Christopher Lasch