The TikTok audience was ugly political theater
New York (CNN) Despite a lack of evidence for their belief that TikTok is a spy tool for the Chinese Communist Party, U.S. lawmakers from both parties conducted gruesome political theater on Thursday to advance that narrative.
Here’s the deal: TikTok CEO Shou Chew appeared before Congress to ostensibly answer questions about his company’s efforts to protect user data and its ties to the Chinese government. Instead, Chew was subjected to five hours of harassment and political demagogy by politicians who have already decided to start TikTok – headquartered in Los Angeles and Singapore – from all American phones.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, set the tone for the hearing early by telling Shou, “Your rig should be banned.”
Unlike most of his interrogators, Shou remained civil and addressed lawmakers’ concerns in good faith. Or at least he tried to, when he wasn’t interrupted or discussed or denied a chance to respond to an allegation.
Chew’s testimony comes as some lawmakers renew calls for the app to be banned in the United States over concerns about its ties to China through its parent company, ByteDance. Federal officials are demanding that the app’s Chinese owners sell their stake in the social media platform, or risk a U.S. ban.
But – and I cannot stress this enough – national security concerns are purely hypothetical. And rather hysterical.
Lawmakers grilled the TikTok CEO on Thursday.
The idea, my colleague Brian Fung wrote, is that because the Chinese government enjoys significant leverage over companies under its jurisdiction, it could compel ByteDance to cooperate with a wide range of security activities, possibly including the transfer of TikTok data.
“It’s not that we know TikTok has done something, it’s that distrust of China and awareness of Chinese espionage has increased,” said James Lewis, security expert at TikTok. information at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The backdrop for TikTok is much worse as trust in China is disappearing.”
U.S.-China ties are at rock bottom, raising the specter of a new Cold War era (see: downing of spy balloons, long-running trade disputes, warm friendship between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, sparring diplomatic relations over Taiwan, etc.).
And in this tense (not to say deeply xenophobic) context, everyone in Washington is reinforcing their “tough on China” credentials. A simple way to do this is to exploit parents’ worst fears that their children’s brains are being manipulated by a foreign adversary, transport the CEO of this company to Capitol Hill and declare his app – hugely popular, with more of 150 million users in the United States – a tool for the communist party.
The spectacle that played out on the Hill today had nothing to do with finding the facts or expressing any genuine concern for the privacy of Americans. If that was the goal, Mark Zuckerburg and Elon Musk, the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter, should have been called to account for their platforms’ use of customer data and lax regulations regarding the spread of misinformation. No, today was about advancing a modern Cold War narrative about China’s threat to American supremacy.
As digital rights attorney Evan Greer told Nightcap host Jon Sarlin, the hearing was “mostly a xenophobic display to show they’re tough on tech and tough on China.”
Greer notes that there are legitimate concerns about TikTok’s data collection practices, but they’re not unique to TikTok. “We see this conversation about TikTok as a big distraction from the conversation that we really need to have,” Greer said. “It’s a national embarrassment that we don’t have basic data privacy law in the United States.”
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