TikTok is dangerous

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

Last Sunday, a timely article by Ezra Klein was published by the New York Times about a social media app that has disruptive potential to the national security of many countries including ours. Indeed, it could revise a historical narrative, turning lies into facts.

As Maria Ressa explained it in an interview, social media has now become a behavior modification system, previously known as brainwashing. People can lose their ability to decide without even realizing it.

TikTok is only a few years old, but it now has more active users than Twitter, more US watch minutes than YouTube, more app downloads than Facebook, more site visits than Google.

I first heard of TikTok from my daughter in Los Angeles. She and her young son would do some dance steps, make faces, and do all sorts of things that elicit a smile from me.

If TikTok remained a brief and effective way to entertain grandparents across an ocean, it would have been harmless. But Klein narrates that when he asked some students in a university in South Carolina where they liked to get their news, almost every one said TikTok.

That shouldn’t be surprising. I remember sitting in a management meeting at ABS-CBN News some years ago when some news producers reported on a recent foreign conference they attended. The most interesting if not shocking news I heard was that the trend is for eight to 10 second stories.

Apparently, the attention span of people these days – with so many digital distractions – is just about 10 seconds. The newscast, as we knew it, has gone the way of the dinosaur.

But what can you do with 10 seconds? If you produce it well, plenty. You just have to start thinking like a digital native. That’s tough for oldies like me who are trying hard to even be a digital migrant.

TikTok makes Facebook, Twitter, Instagram look geriatric. The Chinese guys who developed it managed to get the attention of young people who have long ago abandoned Facebook.

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company. That’s what makes it a national security risk. All Chinese companies are by law required to follow whatever the Chinese government says.

Even Jack Ma, big as he is in the fintech sector, was cut down by Xi Jinping. The message is clear: Chinese businesses must follow party wishes or else.

Credit Trump for seeing the danger of TikTok. He signed an executive order requiring TikTok to sell itself to an American firm or be banned in the United States. But when Joe Biden won the election, the sale was shelved.

What makes apps like TikTok dangerous to national security? Klein warns about what he calls a data espionage problem.

Apps like TikTok collect data from users that could be valuable to foreign governments. That’s why the US Army and Navy banned TikTok from the work phones of American soldiers.

Klein also explains: “China could weaponize the platform, like tweaking TikTok algorithms to increase exposure to divisive content, or adjusting the platform to seed or encourage disinformation campaigns.

“Let’s call this the manipulation problem. TikTok’s real power isn’t over our data. It’s over what users watch and create. It’s over the opaque algorithm that governs what gets seen and what doesn’t.

“TikTok has been thick with videos backing the Russian narrative on the war in Ukraine. Media Matters, for instance, tracked an apparently coordinated campaign driven by 186 Russian TikTok influencers who normally post beauty tips, prank videos, and fluff…

“Imagine a world in which the United States has a contested presidential election, as it did in 2020 (to say nothing of 2000). If one candidate was friendlier to Chinese interests, might the Chinese Communist Party insist that ByteDance give a nudge to content favoring that candidate?

“Or if they wanted to weaken America rather than shape the outcome, maybe TikTok begins serving up more and more videos with election conspiracies, sowing chaos at a moment when the country is near fracture. None of this is far-fetched.”

Indeed, Russia has already used Facebook, Twitter, etc. to drive division and doubt that eventually got Trump elected president. No wonder Trump was so friendly to Putin and Russia even after his term.

Hmmm… if that sounds familiar, it should be. Guess who was heavy on TikTok way before the start of the election season?

China has early on recognized the danger of social media by building the Great Firewall of China. You can’t normally access Facebook, Google, and Twitter in China without a VPN. ByteDance has a version of TikTok, known as Douyin that follows the rules of Chinese censors.

“China has long seen these platforms as potential weapons,” Klein observed. It is easy to suspect they might use them to undermine governments they deem unfriendly to them.

Klein points out that “TikTok’s billion users don’t think they’re looking at a Chinese government propaganda operation… And because each TikTok feed is different, we have no real way of knowing what people are seeing. It would be trivially easy to use it to shape or distort public opinion, and to do so quietly, perhaps untraceably.”

So Klein is saying it is important to make sure “the social media platforms that hold and shape our attention are governed in the public interest. That means knowing who’s truly running them and how they’re running them.”

For us, even the internal enemies of the government like the NPA could wake up one day realizing it is easier to undermine the stability of the republic using a laptop and a broadband connection in the comfort of a living room rather than using a high powered weapon up in the mountains.

For China, TikTok can change our natural animosity towards them over the West Philippine Sea.

Are our intelligence agencies monitoring TikTok and other social media? Is there a course at the Philippine Military Academy that teaches future officers to be digital savvy?

These are brainwashing tools. The earlier we realize it and take action, the better for our society’s stability.



Boo Chanco’s email address is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco


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