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The election-year dance over ByteDance and TikTok

Do lawmakers really want to upset 170 million potential voters?

A forced sale of TikTok could, by some estimates, bring in as much as $150 billion.
A forced sale of TikTok could, by some estimates, bring in as much as $150 billion. (Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

There are many compelling reasons to recoil at Chinese ownership of TikTok, starting with the quashing of political freedom in once freewheeling Hong Kong and the brutal repression of the Uyghurs.

But those reasons, of course, were not why the House voted overwhelmingly last week to force the sale of TikTok, an app that is used by 62 percent of American adults under the age of 30. Instead, the predominant rationale behind the vote was the fear that the Chinese government could deliberately spread misinformation and harvest user data.

Paranoia about the manipulation of the young and the hidden hand of foreign influence is a hardy perennial of American politics.

In 1954, at the height of Cold War panic over Soviet subversion and fears of juvenile delinquency, a Senate subcommittee held highly publicized hearings about the frightening power of comic books. In essence, just reading a comic book with a title like “Weird Tales” would supposedly inspire susceptible teenagers to rumble in an alley and maybe knock off the local gas station.

Okay, that was an extreme, but ever so tempting, example.

The House’s divest-or-die assault on TikTok is predicated on things that might happen but, based on the evidence, have not yet occurred. In an election year, the TikTok algorithm could spread falsehoods and subtly promote a presidential candidate or political party.

But two naturalized U.S. citizens, Rupert Murdoch (Fox News) and Elon Musk (owner and destroyer of the app X, formerly known as Twitter), have been already working overtime to add right-wing slants and discredited claims to the political debate.

We also have no idea what is under the hood of Google, Facebook and Instagram. They may be American-owned, but their mysterious algorithms shape what we read and see about politics. Moreover, their dominance has decimated the news media and thereby reduced the amount of reliable information available to voters.

The fight over the future of TikTok also involves money. Sorry for delivering that shocking revelation without warning.

A wounded TikTok would bring a gusher of revenue to its biggest competitor in sharing short videos: Instagram reels, which is owned by Meta, the creator of Facebook. Are you perhaps beginning to see a pattern here?

A forced sale of TikTok could, by some estimates, bring in as much as $150 billion. That number limits the number of bidders, assuming that its Chinese owners, despite their current denials, would be willing to sell. Potential buyers may also trigger antitrust concerns — and the last thing America needs is further concentration in Big Tech.

Steven Mnuchin, Treasury secretary under former President Donald Trump, announced last week his plans to bid for ByteDance, the company that owns TikTok. Mnuchin burbled to CNBC, “I understand the technology, it’s a great business, and I’m going to put together a group to buy TikTok.” It is worth noting that Mnuchin’s private investment firm is partly funded by Saudi Arabian money.

A pro-Trump, pro-Saudi version of TikTok is just what America’s beleaguered and bleeding democracy needs in 2024. Trump, by the way, has been a weather vane on selling TikTok: The oft-indicted former president was, I think, for it, before he was against it, before he was for it.

Political junkies will recall a devastating TV ad deployed by George W. Bush against John Kerry in the 2004 campaign. The spot featured footage of Kerry windsurfing as the narrator ticked off a series of Senate votes on which Kerry took contradictory positions. The devastating kicker to the commercial: “John Kerry, whichever way the wind blows.”

None of this is to diminish the genuine threat to American interests from China.

Unlike Russia, where almost every day brave dissenters find new ways to protest Vladimir Putin’s thuggish regime, China under Xi Jinping has created an authoritarian state for the 21st century. The Chinese government’s absolute control over news and information is Orwellian in its implications.

China covetously eyes Taiwan, with an actual invasion possible in the coming years, testing implicit U.S. security guarantees. Japan and South Korea, two of our most vital allies, nervously look to Washington for protection against an increasingly belligerent China.

Nothing makes America look more like a diminished superpower and a pitiful helpless giant than the failure of the House to approve desperately needed military aid for Ukraine. The message is unequivocal: If America cannot keep its word in supporting Ukraine, how can the U.S. possibly be trusted to fulfill its commitments in Asia?

It would be funny, if it were not so sad, that House Speaker Mike Johnson was so willing to rush anti-TikTok legislation to the floor but has resisted for months a bipartisan plea to allow a vote on funding to provide bullets for Kyiv.

Johnson said last week that he was considering bringing up the Ukraine aid as a separate bill, knowing he would need an outpouring of Democratic votes to ensure passage. But with Johnson, who is perpetually frightened by the GOP’s right-wing Freedom Caucus, his word is not necessarily a predictor of the future legislative agenda.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has radiated a what’s-the-hurry attitude about TikTok. The hastily written House measure has its obvious flaws. For example, a six-month timetable for divestiture by its Chinese owners is ludicrous given the financial and legal complexities of any potential sale.

All this suggests an obvious trade-off amid the election-year zeal in Congress to contain China: a House vote on aid to Ukraine this month in exchange for prompt Senate consideration of the TikTok bill.

But to a large degree, the dance over ByteDance is pure political posturing. No legislator who wants to stay in office would ever vote to shut down an app used by 170 million Americans.

Walter Shapiro is a staff writer for The New Republic and a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is a veteran of USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post.

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