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Revenge of the States

Just like in Star Wars Episode 3, Revenge of the Sith, where Anakin Skywalker has turned to the dark side, US lawmakers have moved forward to turn freedom of expression to the dark side with the passing of legislation to ban the hugely popular social media platform TikTok.

On March 13, the US House of Representatives (Lower House) passed a bill banning app stores and internet service providers from distributing ‘foreign, adversary, controlled’ applications. The generics may sound vague, but the target is clearly Tiktok, the platform on which 170 million Americans spend an average of 56 minutes per day. The demographics of the user group are predominantly youngsters, aged below 35, the future generation.

In a least-developed country like Myanmar, Tiktok is ruled by young and not-so-young girls showing off their individual assets, dancing and bouncing the same style, through gyrating their hips, backsides and oranges, with the fat hope of becoming celebrities of some kind, where Tiktok will eventually pay them for doing such nonsense. They might be better off buying the Aung Bar Lay lottery. The probability of getting some returns is far greater in the latter.

But the issue in the US is not only about such girls or boys as celeb wannabes but also about the rise of TikTok news. Based on yearly Gallop polls conducted since 2016, the level of trust in mass media and 24-hour reporting of news, such as CNN, has been the lowest this year. The viewership has turned to news on social media, including TikTok. Although normal popular tiktokers are less wary, the most popular TikTok newscaster, News Daddy, has more than 10.3 million followers, a number far greater than the NY Times, Washington Post and Daily Mail of the UK combined. Hence, the dangers of spreading fake news to more than half of the US population if algorithms can be somehow manipulated.

Who would have wanted to manipulate algorithms in such a way? Undeniably, Facebook has become world #1 in the promotion of fake news, taking down factual content and, at the same time, not paying taxes to the country where they derived their ad revenues. Just think of what’s happened in Myanmar in the past three years! Scared of a ‘what-if’ scenario of the same thing happening in the USA, perpetuated by Tiktok through targeted algorithms, the US government decided to walk the talk by advancing the idea of the platform being associated with the Chinese government.

Despite evidence to the contrary and Tiktok denying any Chinese government interference, the LA- and Singapore-based global video sharing platform has been subpoenaed to Congress too. Tiktok is a subsidiary of ByteDance Group, headquartered in Beijing and incorporated in the tax heaven of Cayman Island. Tiktok has tried defensive maneuvers, including asking its members to lobby congressmen, highlighting that its shareholders include US venture capital and hedge funds and getting Oracle to safeguard US-specific data (in the hope of averting spying allegations). All efforts went into deaf ears as politicians tried to score points in the election year and possibly take revenge on the United States based on the past treatment of US digital giants operating in China. Take note: all Google services and Facebook are still banned in China.

Fears of Tiktok behaving like Facebook are overblown. There is no evidence of spying. Nor was there political intrusion akin to fake news on Facebook. Other than bias over Gaza coverage, there is no evidence to corroborate that Tiktok algorithms are in line with Beijing. May be the youth demographics of Tiktok users simply like to stay more on the side of ‘from the river to the sea’, in tune with Beijing’s purported policy. Tiktok did admit to the removal of Tiananmen-related videos in the past, probably not to anger Beijing.

The lawmakers passed the bill 352 to 65. The so-called Foreign Aid Bill proceeded to the Senate (Upper House) and passed too. After President Joe Biden signed the bill in April, this law is moving like a speedy Gonzales, giving Tiktok little time for Plan B. After the President signed the bill, Tiktok had to shut down US operations within nine months. It either has to become a US-owned entity or a public company and cut ties with Beijing, but the Chinese government prefers neither.

Tiktok shareholders would be at the top of the losers list as a direct consequence of this revenge of the States. Western consumers lose out too, depriving them of alternative platform choices. They may also miss out on the innovations from the Far East, which evolved through competition with US digital behemoths. The top beneficiary seems to be Facebook, whose video sharing service ‘Reels’ competes directly with Tiktok. Insta, Youtube, X, and Snapchat are also expected to gain at Tiktok’s expense, in that order.

It is impractical just to carve off US operations of Tiktok and sell separately, even if buyers like Amazon might be keen to snap up the Tiktok shop, which is gaining huge popularity as an alternative e-commerce route. Listing Tiktok as a separate entity might be a possibility, yet a company worth trillions of dollars in valuation might not be an easy float, facing current objections from Beijing.

Whatever the future lies, Tiktok will forever be written in the annals of civilization, and its case of having to shut down in the US will become a case study in freedom of expression vs. silencing competition in the disguise of being an armlet of a so-called  foreign enemy.