At the core of Elon Musk’s frenzied interest in Twitter’s acquisition is an intuition that I think is correct: The major social media platforms are, in some hard-to-define ways, essential to modern life. Call them Town Square. Call them infrastructure. They exist in the somewhat lower zone between a public utility and a private concern. They are too important to hand over to billionaires and businesses, but that makes them too dangerous to hand over to governments. We are yet to find a satisfactory answer to the problem of their ownership and governance. But some arrangements are more worrying than others. There are worse luck than oysters.
TikTok, as we know it today, is only a few years old. But its development is like we have never seen before. In 2021, it had more active users than Twitter, more US Watch minutes than YouTube, more app downloads than Facebook, more site visits than Google. The app is best known for viral dance trends, but there was a time when Twitter was a 140-character update about lunch orders and Facebook was limited to elite universities. things change. Maybe they’ve already changed. A few weeks ago, I gave a lecture at a Presbyterian college in South Carolina, and asked some students where they like to get their news. Almost everyone said tiktok.
Tiktok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance. And Chinese companies are sensitive to the whims and wishes of the Chinese government. There is no potential ambiguity at this point: the Chinese Communist Party spent much of the past year cracking down on its technological sector.
In August 2020, President Donald Trump signed an executive order insisting that TikTok sell itself to an American firm or be banned in the United States. By the fall, ByteDance was looking for a buyer, with Oracle and Walmart as the most likely suitors, but then Joe Biden won the election and the sale was put on hold.
ITikTok has gone thick with videos supporting the Russian narrative on the war in Ukraine. For example, Media Matters tracked down an apparently coordinated campaign run by 186 Russian TikTok influencers, who typically post beauty tips, prank videos and fluff. And we know that China is spreading Russian propaganda around the world.
Imagine a world in which the United States ran a presidential election, just as it did in 2020 (to say nothing of 2000). If a candidate was suited to Chinese interests, could the Chinese Communist Party insist that ByteDance push material in favor of that candidate? Or if they want to undermine America rather than shape the outcome, TikTok may start offering more and more videos with election conspiracies, sowing chaos at a time when the country is on the verge of fracture. is close.
The billions of TikTok users don’t think they are watching the Chinese government’s propaganda campaign, because for the most part, they are not. They are watching makeup tutorials and recipes and lip sync videos and funny dances. But if deployed it will make it a much more powerful promotional outlet.
In all of this, I’m suggesting a simple principle, though it won’t be easy to implement: Our collective attention is what matters. Whoever (or whoever) controls our attention controls our future to a great extent. The social media platforms that hold and shape our attention need to be controlled in the public interest. That means knowing who’s actually running them and how they’re running them.
I’m not sure which social network owner currently clears that bar. But I’m sure ByteDance doesn’t. Donald Trump was right on this and what he started should end the Biden administration.
Ezra Klein is a New York Times columnist.