Why the U.S. Government is Taking on TikTok
What’s truly behind the proposed bill in Congress to ban the TikTok app? Andy thinks it may have more to do with U.S.-China competition than national security or our children’s mental health. He explores that opinion with investigative journalist Julia Angwin and Cornell’s Tech Policy Institute director Sarah Kreps, who lay out the concerns raised about TikTok and explain why banning it won’t keep us safe.
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Andy Slavitt, Sarah Kreps, Julia Angwin
Andy Slavitt 00:18
It’s IN THE BUBBLE with Andy Slavitt. Welcome, keep emailing me, firstname.lastname@example.org. I so appreciate it. The controversy over TikTok has a lot of things. At its core, let’s talk about them quickly. The health of our kids as a public health issue, national security and our relationship with China, cyber and privacy issues, first amendment rights, Congress, anti-Chinese sentiment. All of these are things that swirl around this idea that TikTok is really bad for us and something needs to be done about it. And what that’s something we’re going to talk about today. But they include a bill that’s proposed to ban the TikTok app. They include giving the US Commerce Department authority over tick tock, they include efforts to get a company that owns TikTok to sell from a Chinese own company to its own company. And it’s interesting, because the reaction around TikTok is far different from the reaction even to other social media clients. And it seems to be coming from both parties. And I think all those elements are the ones that I want to get behind. And I’m curious about today. If somebody doesn’t use tic tac, I still find this issue. Extremely important. Why? Because I think we’re gonna set precedents for how we treat the various issues, first amendment rights, anti-Chinese sentiment, etc. And I have a little bit of a gut feel for how this is gonna play out. But I don’t want to go with my gut. Here, I want to get two experts in the mix. The first person who you’ll be hearing from is Julia Angwin, who is an award winning investigative journalist, she contributes to the opinion page at the New York Times, she founded something called the markup, which is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates the impact of technology on society. And I will tell you, she is a fan personally of TikTok is you’re going to hear Sarah Kreps is a professor at the Department of Government at Cornell, and tech policy. And she does a lot of teaching on how technology politics and national security roll together. They are really ideal guests for what is a good conversation. And it’s the kind of conversation that our executive producer Kyle really likes because we have guests that don’t necessarily see eye to eye on every issue. And he says that makes for a better episode. See what you think. I think you might be right here.
Andy Slavitt 03:02
Julia, Sarah, welcome to the bubble. Okay, we’re gonna have to help the listeners figure out who’s who. So Julia, maybe we’ll start with you to get people accustomed to your voice. We were just chatting as we were about to start the show, but I confess to never having used TikTok. It somehow it’s still the most popular app in the country. 150 million people use it. Why do people like it? You said you like it?
Julia Angwin 03:30
I do, like tick tock. It’s a fun experience. It is rather addictive and my teenage son has actually deleted it from his phone, because he really feels he can’t control himself. But essentially, it’s short form videos. And the incredible innovation of TikTok is actually very simple, which is that with YouTube, you have to like go and click on a new video to make it play or whereas in TikTok, just scroll past and this like endless stream. And so it feels very easy, if you don’t like when to just move to the next one.
Andy Slavitt 04:07
So it plays videos of the stream and what’s the type of content that people can use to maybe tell us about how the algorithms work? I think we all understand that tech does a great job customizing a little world for us.
Julia Angwin 04:20
Yeah, I mean, there’s this idea, right of the filter bubble where tech recommendation algorithms sort of learn what you like and then give you more of it. And TikTok, it seems has done a particularly good job of that. And so everyone’s experience of TikTok is so different. My daughter who’s in college is mostly getting Taylor Swift content, and my son who plays Minecraft is getting a lot of Minecraft content. And I sadly am getting a lot of mental health content. So, because you can quickly move from video to video and explore As you like or dislike by how long you stay on it, it learns faster than the other algorithms out there like YouTube and Facebook. And so the experience that users have is like this sort of sense of like, wow, this thing really knows me really fast.
Andy Slavitt 05:15
Okay, so Sarah, you and I are in a category of people who aren’t on the platform. But it sounded to me like someone’s creating a custom TV channel just for me. What’s not to like about that? Right? I mean, it’s all well and good. There’s no cost. We’re not paying for it. So there’s nothing to worry about. We should just enjoy it right? Or is there something else going on?
Sarah Kreps 05:34
Well, I think what we heard on Capitol Hill recently is that that same feature that makes it addictive, and that it learns so quickly, is a double edged sword. And there seems to now be concern that with this huge amount of data, you know, Julia’s, son, or daughter’s demographic, that there might be a way in which this aggregate data can be kind of a way to learn how a teenage boy in America thinks, or a college age girl thinks. And so the concern is kind of going back to the 2016 election are that this can then be used to manipulate how people feel about politics, or how people think about themselves. I mean, even as Julia said, kind of feeding her mental health tok-toks, as maybe some of that is salutary. But maybe some of that is kind of pernicious. And that’s, I think, some of that, that sentiment that came through in the hearing recently, the double edged sword.
Andy Slavitt 06:42
So let’s talk about this hearings. What you just said, gives us all reason to be concerned. And we’ve learned about from social media that there is this other side. But there’s something in addition here, which is a national security overlay, which is TikTok is owned by a Chinese company. Sarah, could you lay out what the concern of lawmakers are with the concern that was expressed there? And it’s not just their concern, but the Biden administration also seems to be concerned, what are they concerned about?
Sarah Kreps 07:09
So there have been two sets of concerns. One is about specific individuals. You know, if I remember this, when President Biden came into office, and he was a peloton, user, and the question was, well, what, what should he do with his peloton account because now you’d be able to see what his heart rate is, and this would be kind of public information? So, you know, you don’t want everyone knowing the President’s daily heartbeat, and when he works out and all these things, so that I think that.
Andy Slavitt 07:36
[…] Washington DC, not necessarily Biden, just in Washington, DC.
Sarah Kreps 07:42
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Yeah. So that I think that concern about specific, important individuals has been addressed by these government bans, or banning the use on government devices. But then there’s the second category of the aggregate data. So if you have 100, I mean, you know, let’s be honest, like, most of the 150 million Americans are not our demographic, my demographic is young people. And so they, you know, it’s then not only possible, but you have this huge amount of data with which you can understand how teenage people in America, no pun intended Tik, like, why they think the way they do and once you can understand that you can also use it the other way to shift how they think and push into certain narratives. One of the ones that came up, I think that was especially alarming was figuring out that if a woman is pregnant, and then pushing miscarriage videos, because that’s what keeps people on there. It’s like watching a car wreck. You can you don’t want to watch, but you can’t stop watching, and they figured this out. And so that’s I think the second set of concerns is the way that it can be used to manipulate these swaths of Americans and, you know, push misinformation, political misinformation. And so that was another thing that came up is that there’s a higher frequency of misinformation, politically relevant misinformation, especially on TikTok than other platforms that have had more aggressive measures on misinformation.
Andy Slavitt 09:19
So Julia, are lawmakers right to be concerned here? Are they right to be especially concerned about TikTok? And you know, there are politicians now many of them calling for a complete ban?
Julia Angwin 09:30
I mean, I think that all the concerns that were raised are ones that you could also levy against all the other social media platforms. So for instance, if you’re concerned about the data TikTok has on us users and what insights you could glean from that and how that could be misused. You know, you don’t have to look very far to look at Twitter, right? Recently, an ex-employee was convicted of spying on Twitter user using his access as an employee to spy on Twitter users on behalf of the Saudi government. There are also allegations that other nation states have infiltrated Twitter and use their access to spy.
Andy Slavitt 10:15
Don’t you think that’s the same?
Julia Angwin 10:16
Well, I would say that like they’re not immune. So we have not in this country passed a privacy law that just sort of sets a baseline standard for what data use is allowed for basically alone in the Western world and not having passed such a comprehensive privacy law. It’s that bill is stalled in congress yet again this year. And so my point is, there’s no consequences for any of these platforms when their platform is abused.
Andy Slavitt 10:45
Notwithstanding that there are cyber security risks and issues. You could paint a picture and indeed, some are painting a picture here that do the Chinese government equivalent of biological and chemical warfare. This is just social media warfare, that this is just an ingenious investment and ingenious way to figure out how to manipulate the American public to learn about the American public and that manipulate the American public that seems very different than a cybersecurity. Is that is that overblown is that?
Julia Angwin 11:16
Well, I would just like to point out that we the evidence we have of manipulation of social media platforms by other nation states, the best example we have is Russia, and their attempt to manipulate the 2016 presidential election through Facebook and authentic accounts. And what we don’t have is an equivalent example of that happening with TikTok. We do have right obviously concerns that that might happen in the future. And that’s why TikTok has made these promises that they would do something completely unprecedented, which is essentially put its US data about everyone in the US who uses the platform in a kind of lockbox, that would be overseen by the US government. So basically, they have said, we’ll put all of our data at Oracle, and actually, or it will be overseen by the Committee on Foreign investment in the United States. So this is the Treasury lead committee that would have the ability to oversee that data and actually oversee the algorithms to make sure that it’s not promoting disinformation, on behalf of any nation states. And so they’ve offered to submit to sort of an incredible level of state control that we haven’t seen any other social media platform have to submit to. So I think it’s important in the conversation about TikTok and the threats to also talk about what they have suggested as a way to mitigate those threats.
Andy Slavitt 12:37
So Sarah, is that mitigation? Is that satisfactory?
Sarah Kreps 12:41
Yeah, no, I think the mitigation strategies have been interesting to watch and follow because we saw what happened in 2016. Now we have this big explosion of social media platform in the form of Chinese own company that was around 2020, when President Trump tried to ban it just got pushed back at the courts, and then the city has review, you know, the Committee on Foreign Investment, the US has now been engaging in these conversations about well, okay, let’s, again, grant that this might be an issue. So are there ways around this that are short of banning the platform? And, you know, it is interesting in the case I always think about in these contexts is in a sort of social media privacy, for an own concern is Grindr. So a few years ago, Grindr, which was is a gay dating website, was bought by a Chinese own company, in the same […] review said you, this is not something we’re comfortable with. There is HIV data that users post on this platform. And now the Chinese government, you know, we don’t trust that they would use this necessarily favorably toward US interest. So they then forced that this company by be divested from this Chinese owned company, and so but this doesn’t seem to be the direction that ByteDance is willing to go here. And so trying to mitigate this, while recognizing that there are these very actually fundamental civil liberties issues of freedom of speech is really become pretty intractable and you have these I think that’s where you’re seeing the impasse and a lot of equivocation on Capitol Hill about how we should thread this needle.
Andy Slavitt 14:23
Let’s do a quick break and come right back. I just got back from Washington. So when I reflect on how this became a very big political hot button, we’ll be right back.
Andy Slavitt 14:53
Okay, we’re back with Julia and Sarah. Sarah, I just got back from Washington DC and I will tell you’d like I could tell what the hot issues are by seeing who’s advertising billboards in Washington Reagan National Airport, and TikTok is everywhere. They’re advertising, about their data privacy policies they’re spending, reportedly, you know, millions and millions of dollars. And the senators Warner and Thune, Warner, Virginia Democrat, Thune is a South Dakota Republican, both relatively senior, both, I think, relatively centrist, both pro-business and, and Warner certainly put themselves out as someone who’s very pro tech, he’s got a technology background. He’s one of the more knowledgeable people about tech, they proposed something called the Restrict Act, which is a bill that would give the Commerce Department authority to ban apps like TikTok. And the bill would also target technology from China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela. It’s this populist push against these regimes. Is that an overreaction to 2016? And 2020? Or is it hey, we know more. Now we know better. Now, these things can be weaponized. We need to be careful. And we need to be able to take even severe actions.
Sarah Kreps 16:19
Well, I mean, it’s interesting approach, because one thing that this legislation would do is engage in the kind of statutory reform that wasn’t an antecedent to when Trump did this in 2020. And that’s why it got held up in the courts. So it seems as though these members of individuals on Capitol Hill have learned from that and now are doing the kind of statutory reform that would need to be in place. And what’s interesting here, too, isn’t, as you said, it’s not just a partisan issue, was also rare in Washington is bipartisanship. And so the fact that there’s this Unison on the issue is surprising. And I think then, what you also see is in the White House, Jake Sullivan has said, please send us something that we can send that the President can sign. So there’s his galvanization of this, and momentum toward a band. Now it does seem in the last day or two, there are some sort of usual polarization fractures and fissures that are starting to emerge. But it is surprising how much consensus there seems to be.
Andy Slavitt 17:27
Julie, I find that there are two issues that are universally bipartisan. There are a couple of others, but two of them have come together in this situation. One of them is just hating big tech. The Republicans or Democrats hate big techs, approach slightly different reasons and China, fair about China in this sort of the national security issue. Yet something like a ban would come at an enormous cost. I mean, we’re talking about half the country who uses this app, Rand Paul, someone who I don’t recognize for his common sense all the time. I’ll just say that in a, you know, where I stand, and Rand Paul had said, if they ban TikTok, it would sink GOP electoral results for a generation. And he doesn’t believe it would be held up in court. And of course, there’s Democrats who don’t support a ban and people who say there’s a slim it’s free speech. It’s just an odd precedent. Where do you see the argument playing out? And how would the decisional over security overlay Trump some of the other interests we have as a country in this issue?
Julia Angwin 18:29
I mean, I think that Sarah’s point is a good one, which is that the we haven’t seen the intelligence that is supposedly leading to this conversation. And, you know, Congresswoman Alexandria, Ocasio Cortez put out her first TikTok. And she said, You know, I want people to know that normally, when there are national security concerns, Congress receives a classified briefing, and we have not received that. And the reality is that the allegations being made at a national security level against TikTok are extremely vague, the only things that people have said have been a concern about us data, and be concerned about the algorithm. And tick tock has publicly addressed both of those. And so there’s just this lingering feeling well, is there some other secret thing that we don’t know about right? One thing that people have said is like, oh, TikTok app takes a lot of data from your phone. But in fact, I looked at the numbers, and it takes pretty much exactly the same amount that all the other apps do. Also, you have to admit that in addition to the vague unstated national security concerns, it’s also politically very expedient to have a common enemy. And we have chosen Washington has chosen China right now as that common enemy. And there’s a lot of anti-China rhetoric. And I think that’s probably a better frame for this conversation, honestly, than the big tech privacy concerns because those ones if we really cared about them, we would actually address them.
Andy Slavitt 19:53
Yeah, I think there are, both paths are being pursued. This just happens to be one issue and where their land who knows, but this just happens to be the one that should that’s at the heart of both of them. And it is interesting that there are people who are saying precisely what you’re saying, which is, it may be appealing on some level to feel that we want to have the exact consequences. But being concerned about this doesn’t mean that it justifies us taking actions like banning something. And I think lots of people are debating.
Julia Angwin 20:24
The US social media platforms for as much as we want to hate them, or actually emissaries for freedom of expression around the world. And in many, many cases, they are fighting in other countries to try to give users have the right to express their views without government censorship. Twitter has had a really public fight with the Indian government. YouTube has had fights with every single government, I mean, all of these companies actually are out there trying to make a case about freedom of expression. And so if we decide in the US to ban an app, just because we want to because we haven’t shown any actual harm, then it’s going to be harder for those company to make that argument. And it also hurts our case, generally as a proponent of freedom of expression. So I think it’s something to think about, as well. Right is what does that looked like for us as a country?
Andy Slavitt 21:14
Okay, let’s take one final break, and come back and talk about why the US government might have an alternative motive to really go after a ban on TikTok. So, let’s talk about the ultimate way to separate the national security issue from the tech issue, Sarah, which is US officials have proposed that you break the company up and that its US operations are sold by the Chinese government. Do you think that this idea Sarah, of a forced sale is ultimately a place where we’re going to land? Because it feels like one way or other they’re not going to take tic tac away from Julia, because Julia loves it. And she’s not alone. Half the country loves it. But it also feels like there are a number of people saying that there’s no way to really truly mitigate the we know what data they’re getting, unless they don’t own this anymore.
Sarah Kreps 22:28
Right. Yeah, no, and I appreciate both of these points. The kind of anti-China frame is really important here. I do sort of wonder whether this policies train has left the station though. So if we think about, I don’t know that we can necessarily look at tick tock in isolation from a broader set of policies the US has been engaging on. Tech is very much at the center of this kind of US China rivalry, we can think about a decade of efforts to ban 5G technology getting into the hands of China. More recently, we have semiconductor export restrictions, AI export restrictions. And I actually see this as kind of emblematic of this broader, I might even call it a strategy of trying to slow China down technologically, because the technology is at the center of their economy. It’s the center of their military. And you see this in all these export restriction press releases, which is we’re it’s not enough for us the US to get ahead, we have to slow China down. And this just seems like it’s sort of part and parcel of that broader set of policies. And so I actually normatively am with you Giulia, that this is not a good look for the United States, because we’re supposed to be the beacon of freedom. And here we are banning free speech. But we also are banning, Nvidia and AMD from sending their chips to China and China was 50% of their business.
Andy Slavitt 24:02
So they’re disguising, they may be disguising, basically, just pure, old US competitiveness issues as national security issues?
Sarah Kreps 24:09
I think it’s hard, unfortunately too, these points in the same direction. So it’s hard to sort of say, Oh, yes, the US is, is trying to, you know, engage in industrial policy, because look, if TikTok gets banned, who were the beneficiaries of that, oh, it’s US companies. But you know, we have other policies like the semiconductor chips, where these, these policies really do harm us manufacturers of chips, that for whom 50% of their business was in China. So, you know, that’s a case where you can see that these two things were at odds, but I do think the US, you know, we don’t have to look any further than 9/11. So many policies enacted with national security, kind of as the concern.
Andy Slavitt 24:50
But I don’t think this is really about a ban. I mean, I was with Secretary Raimondo. This week, she’s the Commerce Secretary that would be in charge of I’m overseeing this. And I just know her well enough that I could make the statement that what she needs is leverage. And I think the leverage, which use the leverage for who knows, but I don’t think it’s the ban, the app, I think it’s the figure how to force a sale, or something like that. But the end of the day, a law like this, that Warner and doing the proposed feels like it would just give some tools to the secretary. And again, whether it’s motivated by competitiveness concerns, most of the national security concerns, the fact that it would sit in Congress may tell you all you need to know.
Julia Angwin 25:37
I do think is worth pointing out that a ban would actually be really hard to pull off also, because it’s on 150 million phones. And so essentially, trying to force people to delete the app is actually pretty challenging. I imagine that the platform’s Google and Apple would not want to like reach into people’s phones and remove it. And then what you would have is a deprecated app that was slowly not being updated and actually becoming more and more of a security vulnerability. And so I think a ban is also just difficult.
Andy Slavitt 26:10
And people would find a way to get it, which is a good way. I think the talk of the band needs more of a leverage point, if I were to guess, to try to force the sale. But you know, the implications are far reaching. Maybe we close this way. You know how this turns out? What’s decided here seems like it also impacts how other foreign governments would view the many apps that are owned by companies that are based right here in Silicon Valley in the US, it seems like the tit for tat with China would be taken to an interesting place. I mean, China’s already banned use of a lot of us technology as well. So you could argue that, you know, we’re just stepping into a battle that they’re taking on. So I just want to close by asking each of you to give a sense of kind of the implications and where this goes, and what are some of the other things we’re likely to see maybe, Julia start with you. And Sarah, you could take the last word.
Julia Angwin 27:05
Sure. I mean, I’m gonna take like the optimistic view. So what I would love to see happen is some real momentum about a real privacy law. And because there is bipartisan bill, and there is a bipartisan movement towards real comprehensive privacy. And I do feel like during the hearing, there was a lot of conversation where the members were saying, you know, it is true that we are targeting you for practices that we still haven’t banned from our other companies. And so that would be a great outcome. And I think the other thing is that we need more data, as the public to really know what these national security concerns are, because they have not been well articulated.
Andy Slavitt 27:46
Thank you, Sarah?
Sarah Kreps 27:47
Yeah, Julia, that’s a great point. And I share that optimism. You know, one of the you mentioned earlier in the show, Andy about the couple of things that both parties can agree on. But the one you didn’t mention was the issue of child abuse, or child porn and both parties. That’s just one of these issues that I think really does kind of elicit a lot of bipartisan support for obvious reasons. And that’s exactly kind of the same sort of spirit in which I heard a lot of these hearings, which is, you know, people, these members of Congress, they are worried about their grandchildren, their children. And so I think there really is some momentum behind some comprehensive data privacy legislation. What I guess I would worry a little bit more about is this kind of growing antagonism between the US and China, and not just the US and China. But now, you know, just today, NATO said that they were banned in TikTok on any NATO device. So I just kind of think that these again, kind of tie in this TikTok ban to these broader set of measures that are kind of decoupling these two economies. almost seems like that’s worth a pause to reflect on kind of what really is the strategy on the US, part of the US government? Is it really possible to slow down China? And are there better paths in that regard than trying to ban you know, AI from getting into China’s hands which semiconductor chips are using TikTok in the US so but that does seem to be the direction the US has gone? And it’s unclear that that’s necessarily the most fruitful path forward.
Andy Slavitt 29:23
Well, thank you both for being here. And maybe we’ll have our next conversation on TikTok. Okay, let me tell you what’s coming up. It is election season. Once again, sadly, it’s been a nice respite. Tuesday’s Wisconsin election was of course the big Bellwether event of the year, but people are gearing up for kind of the pre-fight now that exists before the election. It feels like the election starts well in advance with the rules around how people can vote. And there’s a concerted effort. I think I’m safe in saying this to prevent young people, college students from voting, and that effort is meeting with some success, but also running into some brick walls that it needs a light shined on it because I actually find these efforts to prevent people from voting or making too difficult for people to vote to be bad. They’re just bad. I just think they’re bad. So have a great couple days. We’ll talk to you.
Thanks for listening to IN THE BUBBLE. We’re a production of Lemonada Media. Kathryn Barnes, Jackie Harris and Kyle Shiely produced our show, and they’re great. Our mix is by Noah Smith and James Barber, and they’re great, too. Steve Nelson is the vice president of the weekly content, and he’s okay, too. And of course, the ultimate bosses, Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs, they executive produced the show, we love them dearly. Our theme was composed by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill, with additional music by Ivan Kuraev. You can find out more about our show on social media at @LemonadaMedia where you’ll also get the transcript of the show. And you can find me at @ASlavitt on Twitter. If you like what you heard today, why don’t you tell your friends to listen as well, and get them to write a review. Thanks so much, talk to you next time.