The TikTok Battle Is Joined
Flagrant gaslighting in defense of the Chinese Communist Party
One of the most obvious gaslighting plays by the handful of right-wing defenders of the Chinese Communist Party’s popular TikTok app is to depict every potential avenue to banning it as an assault on the First Amendment. This involves pretending, for example, that the only way toward banning the app requires dramatic expansion of government power.
This is, of course, absurd: there’s no need to give new power to the Secretary of Commerce, as the Warner-Thune RESTRICT Act does, in order to ban a foreign company engaged in aggressive and deceitful targeting of American citizens data, down to their every keystroke. We already banned Huawei, China Telecom, Hikvision, Dahua, Hytera, and ZTE over spying concerns — and Huawei is a far more important company to the Chinese economy (and has suffered massive problems after U.S. sanctions) compared to ByteDance.
The AOC/Rand Paul argument on ByteDance plays games with all of this. They use arguments that only apply to the Warner-Thune bill against more direct measures, such as the Josh Hawley/Ken Buck 5 page bill. And there’s an absolutely absurd depiction of the First Amendment concerns at issue. The Supreme Court has already made the distinction between content and conduct as a legal matter. TikTok has negative social effects, that’s very clear — but no one is trying to ban TikTok as a legal matter because of those negative social effects, they’re doing it because China is tracking every American on the app at all times and the capability of blackmail, targeting, manipulation, and more is all far too dangerous to allow. If you have TikTok on your phone, they’re tracking every text and email and communication you send. That’s not a free speech issue.
Missouri senator Josh Hawley’s attempt to pass his “No TikTok on United States Devices Act” resulted in a clash with Kentucky senator Rand Paul that made for a rare moment of actual debate on the Senate floor yesterday. The conservative senators were at odds over whether the government should ban the Chinese social media app.
“I have never before heard on this floor a defense of the right to spy,” Hawley responded. “I didn’t realize that the First Amendment contained a right to espionage. The senator from Kentucky mentions the Bill of Rights. I must have missed the right of the Chinese government to spy on Americans in our Bill of Rights. Because that’s what we’re talking about here.”
“The company has bent over backwards to work with our government,” Paul claimed. “Everything that’s been said about, ‘oh this is a channel and a funnel to the Chinese government,’ these are all conjecture.”
“We confirmed from the testimony of the TikTok CEO that TikTok has the ability to track American’s data, to track Americans’ location, to track Americans’ personal lives whether they want it to or not,” Hawley said. “It’s not just the videos that you watch. It’s the key strokes that you enter and not just while you are on the app. No, it tracks your key strokes all the time.”
Democrats had been struggling to find someone who would object to Hawley’s unanimous consent request in the days leading up to it, and Paul bailed them out where one of their members would have had to stand up instead. (The White House reportedly prefers the bipartisan Mark Warner-John Thune measure, which includes a number of more troublesome propositions for expanding government power.)
Hawley’s bill, sponsored by Republican Ken Buck in the House, is a straight up use of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, or IEEPA, directing the president to prohibit transactions with TikTok’s parent company ByteDance within thirty days.
Where Paul sees this as a First Amendment issue, the fundamental security interests of the United States don’t compel us to allow for a China-based spy application to exist on tens of millions of American devices. And the deployment of western values in pursuit of the aims of the Chinese Communist Party is not a new development, but essential to understanding the CCP’s approach to message control and propaganda.
A decade ago, we became aware of China’s “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere”, which became known as Document Number Nine. Its purpose was to let the ninety million members of the Communist Party of China know who the enemy is, and the internet should be used to do battle with them. As John Lanchester summarized the document in the London Review of Books:
In 2013, an amazing paper from the highest reaches of the CCP, catchily known as “Document Number Nine,” or “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere,” came to light. (The journalist who leaked it, Gao Yu, was sentenced to seven years in prison and is currently under house arrest.) Document Number Nine warned of “the following false ideological trends, positions and activities”: “promoting Western constitutional democracy”; “promoting ‘universal values’”; “promoting civil society”; “promoting neoliberalism”; “promoting the West’s idea of journalism, challenging China’s principle that the media and publishing system should be subject to party discipline”; “promoting historical nihilism” (which means contradicting the party’s view of history); “questioning Reform and Opening and the socialist nature of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The paper, which is cogent and clear, takes direct aim at the core values of Western democracy, and explicitly identifies them as the enemies of the party. It sees the internet as a crucial forum for defeating these enemies. The conclusion speaks of the need to “conscientiously strengthen management of the ideological battlefield,” and especially to “strengthen guidance of public opinion on the internet” and “purify the environment of public opinion on the internet.”
There can be little question that TikTok serves all of those aims. But for Paul — and for his biggest financial supporter, America’s largest investor in TikTok— these concerns are secondary. But the move to ban TikTok isn’t about the content it’s pushing, though that has negative effects on American teens — it’s about what’s going on in the data-collecting guts of the app, and the adversarial government that accesses it.
This battle represents the first true test of the bipartisan consensus on China. It is meaningful that already there are arguments, from AOC on the left and now Rand Paul on the right, that it is somehow a requirement that we allow this invasive, predatory takeover of the data of Americans under the First Amendment.
Florida senator Marco Rubio said yesterday on the floor: “This is not a First Amendment issue, because we’re not trying to ban booty videos.” It’s not about the booty videos. It’s about whether the Chinese Communist Party has the right to poison our minds and seize our data without our permission, just as they’ve poisoned so many Americans with fentanyl. There’s no constitutional right to do any of that.
TikTok has enlisted three heavyweights from American politics and business to advise it behind the scenes as the social-media app tries to convince U.S. authorities that it isn’t beholden to the Chinese government.
David Plouffe and Jim Messina, veterans of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, and Zenia Mucha, the former longtime communications chief of Walt Disney Co., are advising TikTok in its fight against efforts to ban it in the U.S, according to people familiar with their roles.
In hiring the trio of U.S. advisers, TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd., is turning to people who made their name selling the world some of the most prominent American brands: Barack Obama and Disney. They also have experience straddling business and politics. Mr. Plouffe worked at Uber Technologies Inc. after the White House, and Ms. Mucha advised Republican politicians in New York for years before her two-decade career at the entertainment giant.
A spokeswoman for TikTok said the company sought a diversity of views when it approached something of the magnitude of the congressional hearing. “That’s why we brought in additional folks,” she said.
The hires show the extent to which TikTok is muscling up to fight growing cries from U.S. lawmakers and officials that the app should be banned because of its ties to China.
The Singaporean executive was prepared by former committee staffers and aides to Speaker Kevin McCarthy and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He received counsel from Andrew Wright, former director of legal policy for the Biden-Harris presidential transition and now a partner at the well-connected law firm K&L Gates. Ahead of the March 23 hearing, Chew scheduled meetings on the Hill with help from several former lawmakers, including Republican Jeff Denham, Democrat Bart Gordon, a former E&C member, and Joe Crowley, who was once a senior member of Democratic leadership.
But despite hiring a large group of savvy friends, Chew and his company failed to win over the panel. The sheer number of seasoned Washington operatives and firms in TikTok’s employ was no shield against a barrage of bipartisan denunciations.
TikTok’s battle for survival has become a vivid study in how a wealthy, foreign-owned corporation can use its financial might to build an impressive-looking network of influence — and also in the limitations of what lobbying can do to protect a company at the center of a geopolitical firestorm.
The campaign to save TikTok has been years in the making. A POLITICO investigation revealed an effort by TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, dating back to at least 2018, long before concerns about TikTok’s Chinese ownership reached their current pitch. Interviews with more than two dozen people, including lobbyists and lawmakers, in the United States and Europe illuminated the architecture of a lobbying apparatus that has moved TikTok and its parent company closer to institutions of government, including European lawmakers, leaders of both American political parties and even the White House.
In 2019, one recruiter representing TikTok described the company’s goal in superheroic terms: The recruiter said it wanted to build a “Team of Avengers,” according to one Washington lobbyist approached for a job, who like a number of others was granted anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations with a powerful company.
TikTok has tried to overcome some firms’ reservations with a willingness to pay handsomely. The company recently approached a second Washington lobbyist who works for Big Tech clients and, according to the lobbyist, asked flatly: “How much will it take?” The lobbyist declined the overture.
But that approach has worked on others in Washington, London and Brussels, where the company is facing serious though seemingly less existential regulatory threats than in America.
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