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March 30, 2023
Positively Dreadful
TikTok Dirty To Me

In This Episode

A social media app is causing a bipartisan furor in U.S. politics, and it’s the one where young people make funny dance videos. Because TikTok is owned by the China-based company Bytedance, Congress is concerned the platform is more of an espionage front than an entertainment medium. TikTok at least theoretically allows China to collect private data from Americans, sow division in U.S. society for geopolitical gain and even inundate U.S. users with propaganda to influence our elections. On the other hand, it isn’t hard to think of reasons why banning TikTok might be a bad idea. Are we just cowering to anti-China demagogues? What are the implications for free speech? And what are the political costs of banning an app that tons of Americans, particularly young Americans, love? Add it all up, and it’s hard to figure out the least-bad option. Data-privacy specialist Julian Sanchez joins host Brian Beutler to stress test the pros and cons of banning TikTok, and add nuance to what looks like a stark choice between either flooding our society with more anti-democracy propaganda or engaging in the kind of censorship we’d normally decry if another country did it.

 

 

TRANSCRIPT

 

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Brian Beutler: A quick programing note for listeners. While we were finalizing this episode, a New York City grand jury returned a sealed felony indictment of our disgraced former president Donald Trump. And we’ll be covering that story for you next week. [music plays]

 

Unidentified Speaker: I feel a little bit of bad advocating for TikTok because I know that there’s problems with it psychologically with like dopamine and how it affects your brain. But honestly, I just think it’s incredibly ironic that the US wants to crack down on TikTok, an international company that’s stealing our data. And yet don’t let so many domestic companies like Facebook steal our data at the same time.

 

Brian Beutler: Hello and welcome to Positively Dreadful with me your host, Brian Beutler. I’m going to age myself a bit here. In fact, I think this is probably a decent way to ballpark a lot of people who are about my age. I don’t have a TikTok account and I probably never will, or at least not one that I’d use for any of the app’s intended purposes. My team and I actually discussed whether I should create one for myself before we recorded this episode for research purposes. But I kept not doing it and then just chose to read about how TikTok works instead. But I’ve seen tons of TikTok videos because I do have a totally unremarkable Instagram account and some of the people I follow there repost TikTok videos to their stories, which means my sense of what TikTok has to offer is highly filtered, highly curated by people who I know and trust to some degree or other. So if you’re in my demographic too old to have a TikTok account but not old enough to find Instagram totally befuddling, you may not fully appreciate the furor TikTok has created in US politics.

 

[news clip]: TikTok is the spy in American’s pockets. / Your company continues to feed our children this dangerous and harmful content. / Quite frankly, your testimony has raised more questions for me than answers.

 

Brian Beutler: For instance, there’s a rare bipartisan consensus, or if not a consensus, then a major bipartisan faction which holds that the American government should ban TikTok in the US altogether. All these American minds poisoned by Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and various right wing Twitter knockoffs. And we’re going to ban the one app where young people make funny dance videos. Why is that? Well, that’s mostly what my guests and I are going to talk about this week. But the short version is that TikTok is owned by a company based in China called ByteDance. And the consensus stems from a concern that corporations based in China are much more directly controlled by the Chinese government than companies here are controlled by the US government. And to the extent that’s true, TikTok with its huge user base may well be more of a two way espionage front than an entertainment medium. We’re funneling user data over there. They’re controlling the content we consume over here. That sounds really bad. On the other hand, you might wonder how that’s so different from US based media and social media companies operating in China or anywhere else in the world. And I think the answer is there are similarities and there are differences. One difference is that TikTok, at least as I understand it, is less a social media service than a distributed broadcasting service. You don’t really follow friends on TikTok. You can’t easily use TikTok to check in on a handful of creators who you like. What you do is you create content, which TikTok then feeds to users based on its algorithm’s understanding of those users preferences. And you consume content which TikTok feeds you based on its understanding of your preferences. In that sense, it’s much less modular than Twitter, Instagram, or even Facebook. Elon Musk has fucked up Twitter in many ways, but because I can easily control whom I follow, who can follow me, and whether I consume content from people I don’t know. I’ve barely noticed a difference. Another thing which I alluded to already is that ByteDance answers to the Chinese system of government rather than US lawmakers and regulators. I think it’s safe to say that if ByteDance were based in Canada or England or Mexico, there’d be no political mad dash to do something about it. By contrast, a mad dash would probably continue if a Russian company bought TikTok from ByteDance. Our security services surely mine US based social media companies for foreign intelligence, and I don’t think we’re naive enough to believe the Brits or the Canadians don’t or wouldn’t do the same. But I don’t think we’d worry about them exploiting their influence over social media companies to sow division in US society for geopolitical gain, or to inundate US users with propaganda to influence our elections. We don’t think they try. And we also think that if they did try, their societies are free enough that the companies would just tell their governments to fuck off. So these strike me as valid concerns. Some of our elected officials who want to ban TikTok may have ulterior motives, but the US government as a whole does have a legitimate interest in preventing the kinds of espionage it suspects Twitter is a cut out for. On the other hand, it isn’t hard to think of reasons why banning TikTok might be a bad idea. The TikTok controversy is a magnet for anti-China demagogues. Banning TikTok may or may not violate the First Amendment per say, but it does seem offensive to broader conceptions of free speech. And just as a political matter, tons of Americans love TikTok, particularly younger ones.

 

Unidentified Speaker: I find TikTok to be a nice source of comfort, especially when I go through something hard. And I know a lot of people around the world go through similar experiences and you don’t know until you connect with people online.

 

Brian Beutler: This audio we’re playing came from our associate producer, Emma Illick-Frank, and she spoke to students at Northwestern University about the looming possibility of a TikTok ban, and—

 

Unidentified Speaker: It is really impeccable timing that they want to do this now because TikTok is an incredible platform for organizing protests and other activism and political opinions and educating people. And I think that getting rid of TikTok would get rid of a huge platform for political organizing and young people.

 

Unidentified Speaker: I also think this idea of banning when instead we could further legislate or moderate the platform is kind of ridiculous because we could just edit what information they’re allowed to use. And I think there should be more transparency with tech companies in general.

 

Unidentified Speaker: I think Gen Z like uses TikTok for a lot of great empowering reasons. And while there can be like data breaches and some I guess reasoning why they want to have a ban on TikTok, I think there are more important things to worry about than trying to get rid of a platform for Gen Z to connect with each other and to just figure out life.

 

Brian Beutler: So yeah, I think it’s safe to say that banning TikTok would not be popular with young people who are most liberal minded voters. And if you care about defending the US against malevolent authoritarian influence, antagonizing young people may not be the best way to go about it. So add it all up and I’m torn over what our least bad option is, and I hate feeling torn. But since authoritarian meddling in US politics gives me more of the heebie jeebies now than it did in the past and since I think algorithm driven social media services are bad in general, I’m probably more sympathetic to the idea of heavy handed government action in this case than I would be in general. So I just want to stress test the pros and cons of banning TikTok with someone who knows the subject matter much better than I do. Julian Sanchez is an old friend. We’ve known each other since before there were smartphones back when he was a journalist for Reason magazine. He then spent many, many years doing research and issue advocacy for the Cato Institute as a data privacy specialist. So he’s much more fluent in these issues than I am, and I’m hoping he’s going to tell me that the choice before us isn’t as stark, as either flooding our society with yet more anti-democracy propaganda or engaging in the kind of censorship we’d normally decry if another country did it. Julian, thanks for coming on the show.

 

Julian Sanchez: Thanks for having me.

 

Brian Beutler: Did I explain all that okay?

 

Julian Sanchez: Yeah, I think that covers it reasonably well. I think it’s worth mentioning just  right out of the gate when we talk about so stark options. You know, TikTok has been for the last couple of years in a kind of extended negotiation with CFIUS, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, has already taken a series of measures partly aimed at placating CFIUS, partly aimed at trying to defuse a political backlash that it calls Project Texas, which is basically about trying to ensure that US user data is stored domestically, trying to ensure that moderation is localized. So there’s US persons doing content moderation on on US users. So there are steps the company has already been sort of pressured into taking. So it’s clearly not the case that that our our options are prohibition or nothing. That said, there’s really two categories of argument that are raised about TikTok. And it’s not that they’re frivolous, but neither of them, I think, is very compelling when weighed against the sort of the First Amendment and free speech interests of US users of the platform. So the one concern that’s raised has to do with US user data. Right so TikTok, like most other companies that operate online and make apps, collects a fair amount of data about its users, geolocation data, other kinds of metadata. And, you know, that’s not a bad reason to say people with sensitive national security positions, maybe shouldn’t have this installed on their phone. But sensitive national security users already have a lot of restrictions on what sort of data can be on their phone. So if the proposal is, look, you know, someone who works for the Pentagon shouldn’t have TikTok installed certainly on their government device and maybe not even on their personal device. Yeah, absolutely. But in terms of the sort of the broader concern about US metadata being accessed, trying to ban TikTok, I think it would be like establishing a Maginot line. Right. The real problem here is we don’t have comprehensive data privacy rules, so you don’t need TikTok to get a hold of US user data. All the data that TikTok collects is the kind of data that anyone can buy from a data broker that is not TikTok. You don’t need to own a US based social media app in order to collect data on US users. And so in a way, I, you’re like focusing on TikTok as the well somehow this concern will be addressed if we restrict this one company is sticking our head in the sand and in a way alleviating pressure on a kind of more meaningful and comprehensive solution. You know, that’s a hard problem that we should be interested in solving, not pretending. Well, if we regulate TikTok, but let all the same data flow through a thousand other channels. That’s a problem that’s going to be solved. So one concern is about data privacy and banning TikTok doesn’t really meaningfully address this issue. It seems to me, frankly, like a way of avoiding the hard work of seriously addressing that issue. It is a fundamentally unserious response to an actual problem. And so the second issue people raise is, well, propaganda. First of all, both of these concerns are really fundamentally kind of vibes. There have been incidents that have been documented of ByteDance employees being fired, for example, for improper access to data. But the idea of a sort of mass scale China data collection on US users or mass scale interference when US. TikTok users for propaganda purposes are both basically kind of vibes based. So this is sort of dramatic, a dramatic action by the US government against a company with this enormous user base you’d think would be based on something a little more robust and than largely hypothetical concerns. But when it comes to propaganda, you know, I think the point to be made here is, one, you don’t need to own up a platform to do propaganda, right? Russia doesn’t own Facebook. It was able to get propaganda out through lots of different channels. But also, you know, that’s not that’s fundamentally not a good excuse for regulating and potentially shutting down a media platform. Right. Americans, as part of our First Amendment rights can go and access Russia today and state based media and, you know, deploy our own judgment about. About how seriously to take the claims made there. I think, you know, certainly it makes sense to monitor. But when it comes to propaganda, you know, I think the point to be made here is, one, you don’t need to own a platform to do propaganda, right. Russia doesn’t own Facebook. It was able to get propaganda out through lots of different channels. But also, you know, that’s not that’s fundamentally not a good excuse for regulating and potentially shutting down a media platform. Right. Americans, as part of our First Amendment rights can go and access Russia today and state based media and deploy our own judgment about how seriously to take the claims made there. I think, you know, certainly it makes sense to monitor whether TikTok appears to be skewing content in a way that’s favorable to the Chinese government. If they start doing that in the future, that’s something that should be reported on. But in general. Right, the First Amendment means foreign governments and other people abroad can make the case for the interest of foreign governments. Tucker Carlson can sound a whole lot like Russian state media and, you know, that’s part of our freedom to access information. So, you know, look, these are two somewhat legitimate concerns, but I think vastly overstated and in a way that has a lot more, I think, to do with, I guess, pandering to kind of people who want to sound hawkish on China as well as, frankly, serving the interests of domestic companies that would very much like to see a major foreign competitor shut down or forced to sell to them at bargain basement prices.

 

Brian Beutler: To your point about the fact that they’ve been in negotiation with US government entities about how they can change to make their continued availability here more palatable, and that suggests that there is a compromise to be had. I think they’ve also in a way that’s that sort of sleazy but also sort of indicative of maybe like they really are sincerely trying is I think they’ve retained the services of SKDK or one of the big corporate Democratic aligned consultancies in D.C. to I think to sort of try to negotiate a truce with with the Biden administration. So I do want to get in a minute to like what a more palatable detente might look like. But the reason I wanted to talk to you specifically about this, apart from the expertise you bring to the issue, is that on the one hand, I, I can tell that you’re pretty libertarian minded about questions like what apps Americans should be allowed to use. On the other, I also think you share my disgust and alarm at the proliferation of authoritarian propaganda in the US over the better part of the last decade. And I’m wondering if you feel tension there between what your sort of ideological inclinations are and also like what your experience of the last seven years has been.

 

Julian Sanchez: You know, look, I share your your sort of revulsion with the spread of of all sorts of disinformation, although I note the sort I’m most concerned about tends to be domestic in origin. And, you know, I don’t know if I’m more worried in in pragmatic terms, in terms of kind of the future of US democracy. I don’t know if whatever propaganda Russia or China are putting out is more harmful than than the stuff we’re minting at home. [laughter] I think it’s frankly, the home grown variety seems to be much more viral and much more compelling to US audiences. But I think, you know, we also all recognize, look, this is a problem. We can talk about the steps that, you know, private platforms can take to to to mitigate it. What kind of responses US journalistic organizations should be taking, whether they should be more aggressive or more effective in different ways of countering, you know, the viral spread of disinformation, but empowering executive branch regulators to crack down in on what it perceives that or deems disinformation or companies that it deems to be facilitating disinformation, I think is is is probably a cure worse than the disease. You know, look, I’ll note, as you alluded to earlier, in the case of TikTok, this is a a platform that skews relatively young. Right. The median TikTok user is 20 something. I mean, I have I have the app on my phone, but I don’t I don’t really use it very much like you. I wait for those things to show up as Instagram Reels two weeks later. [laughter] But, you know, if there’s a lot of disinformation spreading on a lot of platforms, there’s disinformation spreading on Facebook, disinformation spreading on Twitter, there’s disinformation spreading on TikTok. And yet I note younger and more progressive leaning folks are more likely to be on TikTok and organizing on TikTok and it seems like older and more conservative folks are disproportionately getting their news and their information on on Facebook. So there is not really a politically neutral move here. If you say. Well, TikTok is a disinformation problem, we’ll knock that out and, you know, see where where millions of 20 somethings go to get their information and create content and organize and stat. I think, you know, this is one reason that the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which Donald Trump tried to use to attack TikTok during his administration, has a carve out for services that primarily deal in information because there was a desire, you know, there was understanding that there is this federal authority to essentially interfere, intervene in economic transactions and investments that may have national security implications. But it was an attempt to sort of limit this. So it was not a kind of carte blanche for the executive branch to interfere in deals that had First Amendment implications and could affect the First Amendment rights of US persons. And I think that remains a dangerous power to confer on the executive branch, whoever whoever happens to be holding it. So, you know, it doesn’t mean I’m happy about the quantity of disinformation flowing, but it doesn’t make me more eager to say, well, the commerce secretary or the president should have a kind of plenary power to decide that an app which may be heavily used by people who are opposed to the person holding that office is suddenly going to be dealt a death blow.

 

Brian Beutler: Let’s let’s dive more deeply into the concerns I laid out in the intro one by one.

 

Julian Sanchez: Sure.

 

Brian Beutler: What is the data privacy concern about TikTok and how, if at all, is it different from the data privacy concerns we’ve had for years now with companies like Facebook?

 

Julian Sanchez: The fact is that China’s national security statutes require Chinese companies to turn over information, essentially at the government’s request, without a whole lot of of due process. So the concern is that in principle, China could demand that ByteDance exfiltrate data from its US, from its US subsidiary, so that China could use that information for whatever nefarious purpose that it has in mind. You can make up your list of of what that might be. It’s, of course, of particular concern with respect to, you know, people within the US national security establishment itself, people who, you know, for example, might be geo located so that they can be tracked using a TikTok metadata. You know, you can imagine a hypothetically be blackmailed by, you know, exfiltrating some kind of information that might reveal some embarrassing personal facts about about what they’re doing. A lot of the most serious concerns there, again, I think are addressed by the fact that every division of the US government with a significant national security role, has robust rules about what apps are permitted and not permitted on government devices and can impose, you know, broader rules on their employees in terms of what what apps they’re allowed to use. As I suggested earlier, I think the real core of concern here is right, an enormous amount of data is being collected about US persons at all times, about every country’s citizens all the time. And we tend to have pretty lax rules about how that data can be transferred internationally. And that is, to some extent a good thing because it makes it less burdensome to have international commerce, to have companies with data centers located in different places, to have, you know, startups that arise for innovative people in different places offering their services around the globe, but does also make it very hard to to, you know, establish effective privacy guarantees because you can have data use rules in one place. But if the data flows elsewhere and you haven’t, you know, attach some some serious restrictions to it, it can be difficult to know what’s happening to it once it leaves at once it leaves those borders. I’ll note just in passing, right. A degree of hypocrisy here, because it’s true that China can order companies to turn over data without a lot of judicial process. But it’s also true that the NSA is [laughs] balls deep in Google and and Microsoft and, you know, Facebook and basically every other social media company. Every major US tech firm under Section 702 of FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. We have a process where hundreds of thousands of foreign persons every year are targeted for extraordinarily sweeping surveillance with the systematic assistance of US tech companies. But, you know, look, the US government is obviously not China. We are not a, a, totalitarian surveillance state that abuses human rights on the scale of of China. But nevertheless, we give our intelligence agencies pretty broad access with fairly limited due process to the data of foreign persons stored on our tech companies servers. So, you know, again, there’s an element of hypocrisy here. It’s it’s hard to see on what basis if we do this, if we say, well, TikTok’s not allowed for national security reasons, that essentially any other country on the planet would not be justified in saying, all right, well, fine, Google can’t operate here because, you know, NSA and FBI, get pretty broad access to the information that you’re collecting as well. [music plays]

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Brian Beutler: Look, I would take a detente where we ban TikTok and China bans Facebook and we just call it even. How about that?

 

Julian Sanchez: Well, look, you know, China does [laughter] in fact, ban—

 

Brian Beutler: Right. A lot.

 

Julian Sanchez: —US social media.

 

Brian Beutler: Tons of it.

 

Julian Sanchez: And, you know right there is the argument, well, look, if they’re not letting us operate, you know, shouldn’t we you know, shouldn’t we treat them in kind? I think there is enormous symbolic value to. Hammering that distinction to saying, look, the US is a free country where our citizens are free to access foreign websites, to access apps and platforms overseas or owned by overseas companies in the United States. We don’t control the data our citizens are permitted to look at in the interest of protecting them from propaganda or, you know, contamination by by bad information from foreign sources. That’s the kind of thing that China does. And, you know, I think it’s a it’s a a kind of propaganda self own in a sense if we say, you know, just kidding, we need to copy China on that score because we don’t trust our our people to be so smart about their own social media usage.

 

Brian Beutler: That point is really well taken. Your other point about, you know, the government already has the power to prohibit people with access to national security information from from using TikTok also well taken, although it just called to mind and surely will happen now that we’re going to wake up in a few days and Matt Gaetz or some other idiot member of Congress will have like gotten into a skiff and started TikToking with all kinds of national security secrets visible. Okay. But just—

 

Julian Sanchez: I mean, look, you can you can you can look you can hypotheticals, right? Okay. Right. Someone with a role in the intelligence community has children and the kids have TikTok on their phones. And so, you know, can the Chinese government hypothetically track that person, you know, through their kids? You know, hypothetically. Sure. I mean, you can spin out scenarios like that. But I think, again, these are scenarios best, best dealt with by rules aimed at those persons. And, you know, about sort of [laughs] sanitizing what kind of networked devices are around them when they’re engaged in sensitive activity. Not by saying 150 million US users need to find a new place to to to get their information.

 

Brian Beutler: So on your point about, you know, China being like having basically plenary authority to take from TikTok what they want. And, you know, we have something analogous over here with slightly more oversight and accountability. But what does that mean if there’s like a fuzzy line between data privacy concerns and like espionage? If if I ultimately do make a TikTok account for myself and I start sharing videos of my dog being a goofball on from my phone.

 

Julian Sanchez: Right.

 

Brian Beutler: What will ByteDance know about me? Other than that, I have a dog in my condo.

 

Julian Sanchez: So ByteDance knows a lot about you whether or not you have TikTok installed. Right. I mean, they have tracking, tracking pixels sort of all over the web. So TikTok probably does actually know a fair amount about your web browsing habits, just like, you know, Facebook and a number of other companies do. So they don’t need you to have TikTok on your phone for that. But there’s other kinds of of metadata that are more easily acquired. So like a lot of apps, there’s the geo location sensitivity as as part of the data can be stored in TikTok. So they may have more detailed information about your about your physical location. They might have, you know, potentially more detailed information about your browsing habits, what kind of content you’re interested in and what kind of content might appeal to you if they if they wanted to target you with with algorithms in the future. You know, what are the potential intelligence applications of that? Well, you know, it depends. It’s a broad range of things as I  suggested earlier. If your browsing habits are sufficiently embarrassing, that could be used either as direct blackmail or to set up some kind of a honeypot exploiting their knowledge of of of what kind of stuff you’re looking at. You know, in general, you you take data and you combine it with a lot of other data, and that can be used in a variety of ways to predict people’s habits to, you know, can potentially guess their passwords for, for poorly secured devices. Right. There’s a range of, of uses that you know, we know we can make. Of of detailed metadata to help us gain insight into people’s preferences and behaviors. But as I you know, as I said stressed earlier is this data that China needs TikTok to get access to. And the answer is no. And so if we want to solve that problem, focusing on one explicitly, the China control or the China company controlled company isn’t really going to plug the gap. It’s establishing a kind of digital Maginot Line. The data is flowing around that constantly. And I think if we are concerned about that, we should be pressuring Congress to establish comprehensive data privacy regulations that solve the problem more generally. Not that, you know, give someone an excuse to say, well, we you know, we stood up to the big, bad China.

 

Brian Beutler: Okay. But so it’s not like malware scooping up my text messages and photos and emails and sending them back to the Chinese government. It is like a normal app that if it was controlled by a, okay. And—

 

Julian Sanchez: I have a feeling, look. Hypothetically, could they try to do that? Yeah, but app stores, right. Do security reviews of the stuff that they they push through their stores. So I mean right in theory, right. Any company could be, you know, infiltrated or compromised by an adversary and try to push out a new version of the software that’s trying to break the security on your phone and collect other stuff. But one, there’s a security reviews of the software within the the the company that make that somewhat difficult. And two, right the operating systems on our smartphones themselves are designed to prevent that. Right. Your you know one app in general on your phone cannot access the data from your email just because they happen to be sitting on the same device. Those things are those things are siloed. And so one app is not going to have permissions to access data from another. And in general, you usually have to approve the activation of things like like location tracking. So there’s I don’t think there’s really a more pressing concern there with respect to TikTok than there is with respect to other apps. It would be bad if someone tried to compromise that and somehow snuck malware through the security review at app stores. But I don’t know if that’s that’s a bigger problem with TikTok than any other app.

 

Brian Beutler: All right. So on the propaganda issue, and I think that this maybe like stress test your point about it’s like a propaganda self own to do to TikTok what the Chinese government does to US social media companies. But like I read someone draw a comparison between ByteDance owning TikTok to like if China or the Soviet Union bought up tons of local TV stations in the United States during the Cold War and started sort of tweaking the programing to inflame hatreds or partisan tensions here and like. It would. That just wouldn’t have happened.

 

Julian Sanchez: Yeah.

 

Brian Beutler: But if it if it started to happen, I don’t think that people would be persuaded by this idea that it’s like, well, we in America are confident in our citizens ability to detect truth from, you know, totalitarian propaganda. And so we’re we’re going to be hands off about it.

 

Julian Sanchez: All right. So, I mean, that’s a fair point. But I think. I think there’s a somewhat different context. One, you’re talking about buying up a limited number of of local broadcasters using scarce spectrum. So that right under this sort of hypothetical, right, you might have a situation where the sole news source available to people, at least in terms of television or radio news, is controlled by a foreign adversary. I don’t think that, you know, the government would permit that. I don’t think they should permit that. But I don’t think that’s the situation we exist in today. And then if, in fact, we do allow foreign, right, you know, foreign media to to exist on on US platforms, I mean, go look at Russia today on on on YouTube if you want. Right. We don’t actually say you know media that promotes the interests and viewpoints of of foreign governments isn’t permitted in the US because we need to protect people from that. You know, you can construct hypothetical scenarios where I might say, okay, you know, this is sufficiently sweeping that I, I might endorse a response, but I would sort of want it to be more than a hypothetical. I mean, again, at this point we are mostly talking about vibes. If you if you go back to 2018, 2019, you can find examples of ByteDance moderating or restricting content, having to do with anti-China protest as part of a kind of a broader stance, try to limit sort of anti-government or protest agitating content. But, you know, in terms of, you know, what’s going on today. I would be more sympathetic to this argument if you could point to an analysis that says, well, here is how the the TikTok algorithm is skewing things in a way that redounds to the advantage of China’s favorite political party or the interests of the Chinese government. I mean, that would be an interesting thing to add to the debate. But at present the argument is, well, hypothetically, they could. Right. They could start doing this. You know, with with impact, you know, hard to gauge. You know, part of the question is, all right, look here should we think about this as analogous to, you know, the Chinese or Russian government buying up all the major network news stations? Or should we think of it as, you know, something equivalent of Chinese state media having a YouTube channel? And then we can talk about the sort of practical impact of that level of propaganda flow and how harmful it is from a security perspective. At the moment, at sort of the level on which we’re dealing with this is well China could do this at some point in the future and wouldn’t that be bad? Well, I don’t know how bad it would be, and I don’t know what the US response would be, not just the response of the US government, but the response of US users. If we detected that kind of bias, what kind of backlash would there be?

 

Brian Beutler: How would we know is my, like. So, for instance, you know, you were you mentioned it like we do a ton of in-house propaganda like Fox News is is nightly pumping out tons of propaganda. And Sinclair owns TV stations all over the country. And it’s all produced here in the good old US, US of A. And a big part of that propaganda is like Joe Biden is a demented old man and somebody—

 

Julian Sanchez: Yeah.

 

Brian Beutler: —else is really running the government. Right. And like, that is definitely something that you get on TikTok. [laughs]

 

Julian Sanchez: Yeah.

 

Brian Beutler: It is available to America’s young people on TikTok. And in a sense, it’s American created in a lot of cases, because I assume many of the creators pumping that onto TikTok are based here. But how would we know if, for instance, ByteDance on its own or by like because the Chinese government ordered it to do so, was turning up the dial on that ahead of the election so that like across US demographics, people were just being inundated with that message, which, you know, there’s a kernel of truth. He’s a very old guy, but he’s like not a demented figurehead who’s like being puppet mastered by by people who are compos mentis. Right. It’s it is propaganda. And it’s meant to make him lose the election. [laughs]

 

Julian Sanchez: Yesh.

 

Brian Beutler: And how would we know? Would we be able to tell?

 

Julian Sanchez: Yeah, I mean, that’s a fair question. I mean, one thing I’d say is look, if it’s sufficiently subtle that you’re worried, we wouldn’t be able to tell. There’s some question of, well, then how concerned should we be about the the impact of it? But it’s a fair point. Right? There are there are subtle things you could do to tweak what is being amplified or downvoted by the algorithm that that might be hard to to quickly detect. I think one, you know, potential bulwark against that sort of thing is, again, this Project Texas move. I think it’s not a bad idea to sort of pressure the company to have a US based moderation teams such that it would be relatively difficult to make that kind of change without a bunch of US based people, you know, at minimum becoming aware of it and risking exposure which would obviously not redound to TikTok’s benefit. You know, is that does that completely eliminate the risk? No. You know, I agree it doesn’t. But again, the question is how relative to the sort of the benefit of this of this platform for expression of a large group of people, how concerned are you that something like this, you know, A would happen, B go undetected by the US teams that are, you know that are working on moderation and and you know, managing the algorithms and C, that it would actually have a sort of measurably deleterious impact beyond the sort of preexisting impact of a lot of sensational and and often false content being elevated by by homegrown platforms. I’m not saying it’s not a concern at all. I’m saying I think if you weigh the equities involved, it’s hard for me to say that that is a concern sufficiently dire in the context of our existing media environment to justify shutting down a platform.

 

Brian Beutler: Okay. I mean, we can’t sitting here know. And like, it is sort of like, as you say, a vibe like this seems like it’s maybe not totally on the level. And I think, you know, some of us. In the universe of people who who are like either pro ban or maybe sympathetic to the idea of banning. Yeah, there’s US based tech companies who might want to avoid competition and we have propaganda that’s in house here in the United States. I think some of some of the people who are pro ban or flirting with the idea of a ban, people in Congress even are snake bit by what happened in 2016.

 

Julian Sanchez: Yeah.

 

Brian Beutler: And my sense of of 2016 is that that Russian social media manipulation, which they did without owning any of the platforms that they used, wasn’t nearly as powerful a contributor to the subverting of that election as the computer hacking crimes and then how our own media covered the stolen contents. On the other hand, and this is sort of like the values based counterpoint to the like in the United States, we don’t try to protect our citizens from information we think might be bad for them or whatever. You know, we deal with in-house propaganda merchants buying up US media. And we never contemplate banning it. Right. Like there’s no effort by the Democratic Party, for instance, to try to shut down Fox News by law. And it wouldn’t work if they tried. So we know that that US citizens are going to be consuming a ton of crap and we just kind of live with it and we hope that we can beat the crap with better information, that citizens will just develop decent mental habits and try to figure out what’s true from what’s not. Maybe a vain hope. But then like on the third hand, I think it’s like the difference between a couple fighting over housekeeping and bickering a lot about you’re messy. I don’t care if it’s messy, whatever. And then like, a shitty neighbor overhears this and tosses his junk. Into their yard. And it’s like just because our place is already messy doesn’t mean you can dump your trash here. [laughs] It’s like there is something meaningful about whether it’s coming from here versus from another sovereign state that has, you know, like its own reasons for wanting to mess up what our citizens hear, particularly before elections. But in any case, you know?

 

Julian Sanchez: Yeah. No, I really I think that’s right. And I think if we had some good evidence of a systematic campaign of the kind you’re talking about, that would be you that would change the conversation significantly. But, you know, the question is what what how drastic a measure are you are prepared to take on the basis of the potential for such a campaign being conducted in the future. You know, you might weigh the equities differently, but. You know, I think you to run into. Right. So there’s too many questions about then what if the potential is sufficient. You know, how much foreign influence or foreign employment or on tech companies are, what steps are you willing to take to intervene when any kind of foreign based app becomes popular in the United States, sort of on the basis of a largely hypothetical, you know, capability for propaganda? I will say. I, I, while again, I think there are the balance of equities is against drastic measures. One reason I’m a little more concerned about TikTok than about other platforms is that it’s not really a platform that’s designed to do search or responses very well. So in the sense that, well, if you discover a bad piece of information on Facebook or on any other kind of text based US platform or even on YouTube, it’s usually not that hard to just do a search for for the claims made and find a response. Whether people actually do that is another question. But I do, and just sort of curmudgeonly at terms, worry a little about TikTok because it seems so designed for a kind of constant stream of consumption and moreover a constant stream of consumption where the curation process is kind of outsourced to the algorithm without a ton of very active user engagement beyond what it is that you pause on. So, you know whether or not. China is putting a putting a thumb on the scale. And again, I think we we’re lacking good evidence of that, at least since the app blew up in in the US market. And, you know, the TikTok domestically has sort of good PR reasons to try and assuage concerns about that. It is. Maybe a platform that it’s [laughs] probably not ideal for democracy if it becomes the primary primary way people are obtaining political information—

 

Brian Beutler: Yeah.

 

Julian Sanchez: —for reasons that have nothing to do with China.

 

Brian Beutler: Right. Right. I mean. There’s a whole separate conversation about like how a free society tries to plead with its citizens to get the fuck off their phones because their minds are being poisoned by a bunch of nonsense from them, especially if that’s just how they get their, like, critical information as opposed to like their entertainment. But what do you make of the, my understanding is that, like the the outcome the US would prefer is that ByteDance just sells Tik-Tok to a company that is housed in a friendly country. And that’s the end of the story. But my understanding is also that the Chinese government is like fully opposed to that. Does that suggest to you that the Chinese government just thinks it would be like an affront diplomatically and and sort of to its image if if, if ByteDance’s were forced to sell under these circumstances and on that basis or is or does it suggest to you that the Chinese government really just doesn’t want to give up this source, this like very invaluable source of of data and outside reach?

 

Julian Sanchez: Yeah I don’t know what the Chinese government is thinking. Again, I think, you know, so far we don’t know whether they’re actually or we don’t have public evidence that they’re actively exploiting the platform in that way, at least within with respect to US users. But, you know, certainly the potential to do so is probably part of their calculation. But I don’t think we need to have to recur to that to explain why they might be unhappy about the idea right it was a huge sort of global success story for them of right in the same way that Google and Facebook are for us of a you know local local boy makes good. Right. It’s a a homegrown company that has become internationally hugely popular. And so in a way, it’s something that is good for their image with or without, you know, potential or intelligence applications. And I will say, you know, if it were compelled to divest. Right. You know, you can make them kind of transfer the existing content or the existing users. But. One of the reasons, you know, TikTok has been more successful than, you know, a dozen other also rans that US based firms have tried to spin up. Right and we talked about things like Reels on on Instagram and YouTube is trying to do it with Shorts. TikTok nevertheless, remains hugely popular because they’ve designed a platform that is for whatever reason, including, I think, a significant part of its recommendation algorithm, more appealing to a whole bunch of users. So considering that a lot of attempts by homegrown firms to kind of make their own TikTok have not met with comparable levels of success, it’s I think at least an open question whether so transferring the user base to a US company would leave you with a service that had the same the same properties. Right? There’s proprietary stuff involved in, for example, that recommendation algorithm that, you know, the parent company might not be too eager to hand over to a foreign competitor. So, know, would divestiture include the things that have made TikTok as successful It is. I don’t know. You know, there’s not really any way we can compel them to cough that up.

 

Brian Beutler: Yeah. All right. So there’s a third reason I wanted to hear from you over other sort of anti ban people.

 

Julian Sanchez: Mm hmm.

 

Brian Beutler: And that is that a lot of the people a lot of the arguments against banning TikTok if you go looking for them are rooted in the First Amendment and it’s kind of like a conversation stopper because it doesn’t really matter what sort of national security or values based arguments you make in response. It’s sort of like the old men in robes told us we can’t do it. So that that’s that’s the end of the debate. But but it is an important question, if only because somebody will get this to the Supreme Court if we choose to ban it. Do you think that there is a real serious First Amendment issue with banning TikTok?

 

Julian Sanchez: Yeah, no, absolutely not, because the foreign corporation itself has ByteDance, at least the parent company has First Amendment rights, although subsidiary does to the extent that it’s operating here. But that right you have again, hundreds of millions of users. You have people who have uploaded right so gain billions of hours of of their own content, who have established networks on this platform, who are actively using it, not just to share stupid dancing videos, but to share their political opinions, to share their policy takes to share crazy conspiracy theories. To engage in political organizing. I think, you know, maybe one of the reasons Trump was not a fan of it was that some pranks against his rallies were spearheaded by users on TikTok. There is a lot of political speech by US users that takes place on TikTok. And, you know, I think those people would have an interest that could be that could be recognized by the [indistinct] interest that the courts could could take note of and continuing use of that platform. And it’s something that, you know, we look at the Trump administration’s attempts to to, you know, again, force divestiture of TikTok were blocked, you know, in at least two occasions by by by federal courts. So, yeah, I think there’s a non-trivial first man issue there in terms of, you know, the enormous burden it would impose on people who already have existing audiences there built up, existing content created there. You know, certainly if we’re talking about a move that would potentially shut the shut the service down and at the end of the day, that’s what we’re talking about. It’s, you know, ideally they would divest to sell the US company, but that has to be backed with the threat of or you’re going to be shut down. And so ultimately the gun to the to the company’s head is or, you know, access to this platform is going to be shut down. That’s something that implicates the privacy, the speech interest, rather, of a really large number of of US users. And, you know, is that a completely insuperable barrier if there’s really profound national security interests on the on the on the other side of the equation? You know, maybe not it maybe maybe it could be outweighed, but you’d have to make, I think, a fairly strong showing because the the downside for the US users of saying we’re going to shut down this, this, this, this platform where many of you have enormous audiences and enormous quantities of speech being broadcast on a daily basis versus, you know, harms that that are to a large extent about what we’re worried might potentially happen in the future.

 

Brian Beutler: Well, this here is a question I actually have no idea what the answer is like. There are TikTok competitors. You mentioned several of them. I think Facebook makes one too, and they’re seemingly not as good for some reason or another because they’re not as popular. And the the existing networks that are on TikTok can’t just be ported over. But to what extent does the First Amendment at all touch on your preexisting built up clout as opposed to your ability to just speak in public platforms, whether you have a large audience built in or need to attract one, a new or just nobody gives a shit what you’re saying because you’re bad at content creation. [laughs]

 

Julian Sanchez: Right.

 

Brian Beutler: Like, like is that a First Amendment issue?

 

Julian Sanchez: Well the [indistinct] the First Amendment right doesn’t sort of care. Well, sometimes it does, but in general. Right. This is not a this is not a a way of getting around First Amendment restrictions. Right. Saying, you know, well, this newspaper is going to be is going to be shuttered. But there’s another newspaper where you could speak instead or this you know, this online forum is going to be shuttered. But there are other online forums you could go to instead. Is is in general not not a compelling First Amendment argument. Right. You know, that’s where people are currently speaking. That’s where people’s audiences currently are. Now, you say, well, hypothetically, you could go to, you know, YouTube or whatever and try to build up your audience from scratch on that platform in the same way, you know, I don’t know how many you know, you probably have tens of thousands of followers on Twitter. The government shut down Twitter and said, well, but you could go to Mastodon and try to kind of crawl your claw your way back up to to a similar audience. I mean, that might be true, but it would nevertheless be the case that in the interim and maybe sort of permanently, your speech to that audience had been disrupted. So in general, and, you know, not just categorically, but as a a broad statement, the fact that in principle there are other places you could go to speak is not a knockdown argument against right a measure that would, in fact, disrupt the current and ongoing speech of large numbers of people. [music plays]

 

Brian Beutler: Do you think it’s either appropriate or wise for, I guess, in this case, Joe Biden, to to contemplate the the you know, the way people feel about TikTok here. I mean, I mean, obviously, like we’re a democracy and he should be sensitive to public opinion, but. Like it can get venal or something. I remember a few years ago Trump got on board with his FDA’s proposal, I think it was to ban flavored e-cigarettes.

 

Julian Sanchez: Mm hmm.

 

Brian Beutler: And then. And then they did it. And then the reporting, at least, was that Trump instantly regretted it because, like, surprise, lots of Trump voters enjoyed vaping.

 

Julian Sanchez: Right.

 

Brian Beutler: And they were pissed at him for taking their drug of choice away. And I think that’s a pretty close comparison in some ways. But like. If you are a public servant, you should be at some level be balancing abstract concerns like public health or national security or whatever else against the small d democratic ones. Like is this going to piss off a lot of my voters?

 

Julian Sanchez: Yeah. Yeah. Look, I mean, again, there are there are equities on both sides here. I think the equities on the national security side have been overstated and are adequately addressed by other mechanisms than, you know, an outright ban or a potential ban in the effort to force divestiture. But I will say in terms of sort of weighing the equities on the other side, I do think, you know, maybe to some extent the fact that a lot of. Members of Congress and Joe Biden in particular are older, make it easier to under weight the sort of speech equities on the other side, not just in terms of, you know, kind of raw political calculus I’m going to piss off my voters, but also in terms of, you know, hey, what is the benefit to the democratic discourse of people having this avenue open? You know, I bet Joe Biden doesn’t use TikTok and doesn’t have a lot of friends who use TikTok. And indeed, it seems like the you know, to the extent that there’s a split on the in the Democratic caucus about this, it’s you have members who are active and using TikTok as a way to communicate with their constituents that see the value added are most hesitant to to move to drastic steps that threaten the continued existence of the platform. I think if you are if you are Joe Biden or if you’re someone maybe even like us is older, doesn’t use it a lot themselves and have a lot of friends who use it themselves, it is easy to say, well, you know, this is just a place where people’s share of silly dance videos is low value speech. And so if that gets shut down eh it’s not that big a deal, it’s not that big a loss. And the the national security equities maybe loom a lot larger in in your view. And I think that in a sense is almost the only thing that could explain the degree of seemingly rapid consensus around this, because otherwise, you know, any other platform with that level of audience and domestic popularity, I think you would it would be somewhat shocking to people that you were suggesting potentially shutting it down, banning it, forcing divestiture without exploring a lot of more modest steps in the interim. And I think the fact that that is has so, so quickly emerged as to some extent a consensus position is is a function of the fact that this is seen as a platform for low value, frivolous speech used by young people who are not very well organized politically and whose interests I therefore don’t have to take into account very seriously—

 

Brian Beutler: So, yeah, there were three there were three things that, like as I was researching, this episode, made me sort of like, this is actually maybe like a bad idea. One is what you were just talking about, just like these are. These are old, cosseted elites who want to ban TikTok and they’re prone to moral panics. And they’re also just they don’t understand how young people are. So that was one. The other is like just in my head, like imagining this scenario that I described earlier of like it turns out TikTok is turning up the dial on anti Joe Biden being senile propaganda or whatever. Like if Republicans found out that that’s how the Chinese government was using TikTok, I think we know from the last seven years experience their objections to Tw— to TikTok would disappear. And then the third is my understanding of how this legislation works. And it’s why I think. At least some of the people advocating for it aren’t sincerely concerned about the dangers it poses. Is that and correct me if I’m wrong. The bill doesn’t ban TikTok the bill delegates to Joe Biden—

 

Julian Sanchez: You’re talking about The RESTRICT Act.

 

Brian Beutler: Yes.

 

Julian Sanchez: Sponsored by Warner and Thune. Yeah.

 

Brian Beutler: Yes. It doesn’t ban TikTok. It delegates the authority to Joe Biden to choose whether he wants to ban TikTok or not.

 

Julian Sanchez: It sets up a framework for the secretary of commerce to evaluate the potential national security risks of companies with foreign stakes in a way that is actually essentially sort of duplicative of the existing CFIUS process in a lot of ways, except without the restriction that’s in the the International Emergency Economic Powers Act that says, hey, you know, these powers shouldn’t be used with companies that deal primarily in the transfer of information.

 

Brian Beutler: So I’m not sure if my like generalized understanding, basically it’s a delegation to the administration. It’s not a it’s not like Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer and Hakeem Jeffries are all calling on Joe Biden to link arms with them and saying, we’ve decided to put politics aside and do this for the good of the country, because we are we have a real concern just based on some information that we can’t share and some that we can. And we are going to own this together, but we’re not doing it like to get an edge on the other party or our political opponents or whatever. Like the delegation raises my spidey sense that, like the goal here is to take advantage of an opportunity to demagogue against China. And then when Joe Biden, either because he believes he should do it or because he caves to pressure to do it, makes the call to ban TikTok that people get outraged and either that hurts him. Directly or the people who were just calling on him to do it can turn around and say, we didn’t do it. Joe Biden did that, and that’s not what you do if you actually think there’s a grave national security—

 

Julian Sanchez: I mean, I’ll say I think it is better to do it this way than to have a piece of legislation naming one company. So, you know, if you’re going to do something and I’m not sure this is a case where something needs to be done, but if you’re going to do something, I think. Having Congress write a bill that says, you know, this company is a less good idea than saying we’re going to have write a broad set of procedures and standards for dealing with this kind of problem. I think that, you know, does make more sense than it is kind of periodic political popularity contest where you say, well, what company is unpopular this week, what company can we sort of raise a stink over this week and we can get a bill with with with their name in it. I think far better would be to go even broader and say we’re going to have comprehensive data privacy regulation that deals with cross-border cross-border data flows in a kind of generic way that’s not specifically about, you know, the moral panic about about the company that people care about right this second. But on the one hand, yeah, I think that’s somewhat wiser than. You know, again, these sort of borderline bills of attainder. But on the other hand, you know, this is a more general delegation. So there’s the one the political concern you mentioned is one aspect of it, but also. Right, creating a kind of additional executive process with fairly limited sort of points of interaction and redress that lacks a kind of critical First Amendment mirroring safeguard that is present. And the existing statutes that are meant to deal with this kind of problem. I think that’s something we should frankly also be concerned about. We should strip away a bunch of the safeguards and then say, all right, well, this you know, this executive branch official now is going to be in charge of making assessments, which may have very rapid and direct impacts on what kind of media platforms are permitted to operate in the United States. You know, I think that’s there are there were sort of, again, speech related safeguards in the existing versions of statutes meant to deal with national security implications of economic integration that are there for for for good reason. And, you know, whether or not you think that Joe Biden, Secretary of Commerce, is going to use those responsibly, I think he should ask more broadly, is this a power you are comfortable with being delegated to the executive branch, whoever occupies the Oval Office?

 

Brian Beutler: I hear that. I also I mean, you know, if they wanted to do it this way, but also alleviate any political concern that the goal was just to, you know, sort of get one over on Biden in this instance is like, couldn’t you do it to be like we delegate the authority to make the determination to the administration? But if the determination is we need to take drastic action like shutting down TikTok, then it comes back to Congress for a vote on a res— Like like we will be obligated to vote on it. But Congress is going to have to have buy in on this, too. But because it’s a drastic step and to to sort of make it clear that this isn’t just some partisan exercise or some power grab or just that, you know, the politicians are going to let their election interests interfere with their sense of what’s right for the country.

 

Julian Sanchez: Right. I mean, it’s not clear how different that is from the status quo right CFIUS does these kinds of evaluations of the national security implications. The administration can respond when it sees the need in in the Trump case, because there’s this sort of First Amendment like carve out in IEEPA. That essentially died. I mean, that that attempt got enjoined and held up by the courts, and eventually those orders were repealed by Biden. But it’s not clear to me what really is being added to the process. Right. You, you already have CFIUS doing these kind of assessments. Congress is already free to take action in a situation where, you know, maybe CFIUS recommends the administration act, but the existing authority doesn’t. You know [indistinct] First Amendment reasons doesn’t doesn’t provide sufficient authority. I’m I guess I’m just I’m not sure what is added as opposed to what is. Yeah, I am. I’m not I’m not sure what what is added to this for the status quo by taking that kind of steps. You know, we already have sort of elaborate processes for this and. In a sense, a lot of what’s going on here seems to be, well, we want the Secretary of Commerce to do it, too. In addition right to the Office of Foreign Asset Control. So we can say we did something else.

 

Brian Beutler: So how do you see this like, just pure prognostication. Will TikTok be banned? Will there be a big political blowback? And will, apart from the political blowback, this government come to regret its decision either quickly because of the political blowback or down the line because it, we’re opening up a can of worms that that future more corrupt administrations will.

 

Julian Sanchez: It remains to be seen, I guess. But I am I’m reminded a little bit of the fight over SOPA and PIPA back in 2011 maybe. These were ill conceived bills designed to. Essentially make it easy in a very streamlined way and with very little due process to block and force American providers to block foreign websites that were believed to be engaged in pirating US intellectual property, you know, movies and and music that was very heavily supported by the movie and music industries. Everyone sort of assumed it was going to pass. It had huge numbers of sponsors. And then, you know, essentially a bunch of US tech and Wikipedia and Google and the companies decided to sort of put their thumbs on the scale and say, we don’t think this is a good idea. The congressional switchboards basically crashed overnight. And suddenly this bill that had been on the road to passage with no real question about it was so radioactive that co-sponsors of the bill were lining up to say that they were going to vote against it. I think you could, you know, as this gets measures like this get closer to reality, you could very easily see. It’s a kind of TikTok, orchestrated backlash where, you know, you’re just you’re seeing switchboards inundated and folks who thought this was a no brainer in one direction, discovering they have, you know, irate constituents who who who don’t approve. But on the other hand, you know, TikTok can’t sort of mobilize calls quite as easily as some of these other platforms could. So it remains to be seen whether and, you know, they may have reasons of their own not to not to intervene with that kind of direct call to action that might be seen as sort of confirming the kind of concerns Congress has. So I think one interesting angle here is what is the the the TikTok user community going to do itself with or without the sort of the intervention of of the company? The company has reasons to maybe hold back from mobilizing the user base in that way, but the user base itself may mobilize politically as they have in in a variety of ways in the past. But. Uh, you know. If this sort of vote tally doesn’t change, if you’ve got the administration basically pushing, pumping for this, the administration has endorsed the RESTRICT Act. Republicans are basically lined up 100% against it. And Democrats are split. But you’ve got a substantial body of Democrats in favor of it. I mean, it seems like at present the votes are probably there. So it would take some kind of significant backlash, I think, to change the calculus and in favor of in favor of, you know, more a more measured response.

 

Brian Beutler: All right. Well, I mean, I haven’t I hadn’t actually contemplated the idea that TikTok itself would be the engine that that that saves it from like [laughs] the American government’s effort to ban it. But now that you mention it, like that, seems to me [laughs] like what’s obviously going to happen. But it’ll be it’ll be interesting to watch. I can’t say that this hour and 15 minutes has like made it seem like a simpler problem in my head. [laughs]

 

Julian Sanchez: Sure.

 

Brian Beutler: But I definitely understand the contours of the debate better. And like, I appreciate the sort of the can of worms we might be opening by banning it, even if some of the our sense of why we should ban it seems well-informed based on recent history.

 

Julian Sanchez: Yeah. No, look, you know, I think like a lot of issues, this is not clean. You know, it’s not 100% of the considerations are on one side of the issues are are there are equities on the other side. There are reasons certainly at least to be concerned about TikTok. It’s the question, you know, as always is when you weigh when you weigh the equities, where do the balance of interests fall? And you know, I know where I think it falls, but if you if you think if you think they fall in every direction, hey, you know, make make a video dancing about it.

 

Brian Beutler: [laughs] Julian, thanks for spending so much of your time with us.

 

Julian Sanchez: Thank you. [music plays]

 

Brian Beutler: I entered this episode slightly supportive of banning TikTok in the US, but having talked the issue through, I think I lean slightly against the ban now, and yet I’m also haunted by the sense that we’ll live to regret not banning it while the opportunity is ripe if we take a pass. That sense stems from what I mentioned in the episode. The last seven years have been an object lesson in the depths of Republican opportunism. We’ve seen over and over again that they’ll welcome foreign autocratic interference in US elections, so long as the interference is meant to help them win. And they’ll do it all while claiming the mantle of patriotism. Their current, perhaps fleeting support for banning TikTok is rooted in anti-China demagoguery, which is itself meant to help them win elections, and also in Donald Trump’s lasting grievance that TikTok teens used the app to embarrass him a few times. But if and when we come to learn that TikTok has decided to torque its algorithm just so to further fracture American society or elect quisling Republican candidates, Republicans will suddenly discover how much they love TikTok, and the window to protect US sovereignty from this particular threat will be closed. All that said, the point Julian made about the projection of weakness, the propaganda own goal we’d be committing if we ban TikTok is very compelling and there’s a political analog to it, which is that banning TikTok because you’re scared of how it might be exploited in the future to help Republicans is also a show of weakness. More crassly, I really doubt Democrats will pick up more votes from China hating Midwestern white people by banning TikTok than they’ll lose by shutting down a service that tens of millions of younger Americans really like. Also, and I think this is only starting to become clear now, 20 years after MySpace was a thing. We know that nothing in social media is forever or we should suspect as much in that span of time I’ve watched MySpace and Friendster yield to Facebook. Facebook lose power and influence to Instagram, which it now owns, and to Twitter, Instagram lose influence to Snapchat and YouTube and TikTok. And I’m starting to think there are better ways to use our precious policymaking time than banning a single service that’ll fade in relevance all on its own. [music plays] Positively Dreadful is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is Michael Martinez. Our producer is Olivier Martinez and our associate producer is Emma Illick-Frank. Evan Sutton mixes and edits the show each week. Our theme music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos, and thanks additionally to Bobby Axelrod, a sophomore at Northwestern University and a friend of the pod for helping us gather TIkTok testimonials from Gen Z users.