The Strange Non-Death of TikTok

And The Current College Chaos

Ian Oxnevad

CounterCurrent: Week of 05/13/2024


CounterCurrent: China Edition is a monthly newsletter of the National Association of Scholars uncovering and highlighting the effects of the Chinese Communist Party's influence on American education.

Cognitive warfare is a technical term for altering the attitudes and behaviors of a specific individual or a population for political purposes by “degrading rationality” and changing perceptions of reality. At the end of last month, Joe Biden in his cognitive wisdom signed into law a bill that forces China to sell one of its foremost cognitive weapons: TikTok. Included as part of an aid package to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, the bill mandates that the Chinese company ByteDance either sell the app or face an outright ban in the United States. While TikTok’s looming legislative death sentence has upset Communist China and American libertarians alike, it will likely remain an enabler of college campus chaos under new ownership.

As a tool of cognitive warfare, China’s reasons for wanting and using TikTok are as evident as its effect. According to Congressional testimony from United States Army General Paul M. Nakasone, roughly a third of American adults get their news from the app, while one out of six children are chronic users of it. The FBI and FCC have noted that TikTok collects data ranging from a user’s history and location to biometric data and shares it with its Chinese parent company, ByteDance.

Regarding content, TikTok is an app parade of the ugly and horrible. Vinod Khosla, one of Open-AI’s major investors, has called the app an “AI-powered subversion weapon.” According to algorithmic studies of the app, after five hours on the platform, users are exposed to content harmful to mental health. Videos encouraging teenagers to commit suicide play alongside those enabling child exploitation. Anti-Semitism is plentiful in TikTok’s “Photo Mode,” and has faced allegations from whistleblowers over moderating content on the Middle East to favor Hamas. Osama bin Laden went viral at the end of last year, seemingly from the grave, on a viral TikTok. Add to the mix idiotic and dangerous TikTok “challenges” like cooking chicken with NyQuil, eating corn cobbs on rotating drill bits, overdosing on Benadryl, choking yourself until blackout, and eating Tide pods. Cognitive warfare not only works—it works too well. In China, TikTok is restricted to educational and patriotic content favoring the Chinese Communist Party.

ByteDance has been active in the minds of American students in more formal ways by contributing heavily to colleges and universities. In 2020, ByteDance announced it would donate $10 million to medical scholarships awarded for “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” ByteDance gave much more than that. In fact, ByteDance gave in excess of eight figures in donations that universities failed to disclose. Despite Beijing’s largesse, universities in predominantly Republican states have banned TikTok.

TikTok has played its role in the recent protests of Jews and Israel playing out across college campuses nationwide. According to a survey conducted by the data firm Kaggle, spending only 30 minutes a day on TikTok increases someone’s likelihood of holding anti-Semitic views. According to the study, “TikTok users are more likely to believe that Jewish people are dishonest in business, are disloyal to America, and have too much power in the media.” Kaggle’s findings are not unique, as its conclusions were verified by an experiment conducted by the Wall Street Journal that found teenagers exposed to “apocalyptic, conspiratorial” content warped in a lopsided anti-Israel position. It is no wonder that campuses are currently overrun with anti-Semitic mobs.

While banning TikTok or forcing its sale seems a logical step to safeguard national security, it nonetheless begs the question of whether such a move would be little more than a Pyrrhic victory. There is a good chance that TikTok’s algorithms, which contain its secret sauce of subversion, would not be included in a forced sale of the app to an American buyer. Even if out of the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, there is no guarantee that the “new” TikTok would not continue to erode societal cohesion and the mental capacity of young Americans. After all, other apps such as Facebook and Instagram have fostered similar discord.

One way to determine a political slant of an app’s content is to measure its hashtags to assess how they align with or against a given cause. The Washington Post found that hashtags for TikTok were lopsided in favor of #freepalestine against those in support of Israel. At the same time, Facebook posts with the #freepalestine dwarfed those of #standwithisrael by 39 times. Instagram’s posts in favor of the Palestinians were 29 times more numerous than those supporting Israel. TikTok may be waging cognitive warfare on young Americans; however, the darker truth is that China can only be blamed so much for the societal rot exemplified in today’s surge of anti-Semitism or the broader polarization in America. Americans are perfectly capable of destroying civilization on their own.

This brings us to the strange “non-death” of TikTok. With or without its algorithms, potential American tech investors buying TikTok will obtain an amazing tool to sway popular opinion for political purposes. In 2018, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg noted that Silicon Valley is an “extremely left-leaning place.” While major figures in the high-tech sector such as Peter Thiel and Elon Musk have shifted rightwards in recent years, there is no guarantee that a TikTok under new management would be any less conducive to societal fragmentation. TikTok may be the next leftwing app used by protest groups and promoting dangers to mental health. In other words, TikTok’s effects will likely never die, even if the app is effectively banned.

China’s strategy to make America angry and stupid with an app has proven remarkably successful. Still, it must be stressed that China’s efforts to sow discord only add momentum to cultural fracturing due to existing domestic dynamics. TikTok may help make students more anti-Semitic, but it only adds to what is heard in campus classrooms across the country where Western civilization is repeatedly condemned as illegitimate and Israel an oppressive, racist state. For those looking to Beijing’s app as the cause of today’s campus chaos, a mirror would suffice.


Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

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