Is Tik Tok a Modern Day Tojan Horse?

I have written several postings related to Various topics including the military, Voting, the economy, religion and etc in America. A list of links have been provided at bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address additional issues in these topics.

People are easy to dupe. Give us something for free and we will open the door to just about anything in return, including our most sensitive family, health and financial information. 

The ancient Greeks knew something about the human psyche when they built a massive wooden horse and put it outside the enemy gates at Troy. Unsuspecting Trojans marveled at the gift and ushered it inside unexamined. Hidden in the horse were the Greek men of war who emerged to sack the city. 

The Chinese know something about human nature too. 

TikTok is China’s Trojan horse.

Enwrapped in millions of comedic, cute, and catchy little videos, TikTok has slipped in deftly under our defenses and found a home behind America’s security walls. It is a free, easy-to-use, app taking the world by storm, one naive user at a time. It was the most popular iPhone app download in 2021 and the most popular overall app downloaded globally in 2020 and 2021. There are over 78.7 million U.S. users, with a projected 90 million users in 2023.

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, one of China’s most valuable private companies. As an app, its lofty mission — it calls itself “the leading destination for short-form mobile videos with a mission to inspire creativity and bring joy” — seems quite benign. But that belies its corporate character. Most private companies in China come under direct or indirect control of the Chinese government, which is notoriously secretive and opaque on ownership and operational details.

TikTok seems to be no different. Its algorithm is at once simple and sinister. Download the app on your smartphone and you are connected to millions of viewers across the world — very simple. Download the app on your smartphone and you have given China access to all your data — very sinister.

This opens a treasure trove of data on millions of Americans for the Chinese government to use whenever and however they choose. And history shows they use that data for nefarious purposes. 

US suspicion

Many cybersecurity experts believe the Chinese government intends TikTok as a propaganda or censorship tool or to somehow blackmail users. This is especially ominous for today’s millennials and Gen Zs, who are the next generation of American leaders. 

Over the past three years, TikTok has come under the scrutiny of both Congress and the Executive Branch. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) opened an investigation in 2019 and Democratic and Republican Senators asked the Director of National Intelligence for a review of the company’s practices.

Citing national security concerns, President Trump first asked ByteDance to divest its ownership in 2020, and later imposed a ban on TikTok if it was not sold to an American firm within 45 days of the executive order. Microsoft and Oracle both engaged in serious discussions to buy the company, but there was staunch resistance from TikTok’s Chinese leadership, which reportedly did not want the company’s algorithms or AI technology to fall into foreign — American — hands.

Later, TikTok filed a series of federal lawsuits against the Trump administration, amounting to a stay in the company’s operations. When President Biden took office, he issued an executive order in June 2021 reversing the Trump ban on TikTok and mandating a Commerce Department review into the national security ramifications. That review has not prompted any further U.S. action against the company, which continues to operate unfettered today.   

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr has become a latter-day Paul Revere. He recently tweeted: “TikTok is not just another video app. That’s the sheep’s clothing. It harvests swaths of sensitive data that new reports show are being accessed in Beijing. I’ve called on @Apple & @Google to remove Tik Tok from their app stores for its pattern of surreptitious data practices.” That warning, thus far, has fallen on deaf ears.

Implications for Facebook

TikTok’s battle for social media primacy presents both challenge and opportunity for Facebook, its main competitor. To be sure, Facebook has its own share of problems: layoffs; poor morale; investigations by regulators in Europe and the U.S.; multi-state litigationprivacy issues and more. Facebook has been eclipsed by TikTok as the app that users spend the most time with at 850 minutes per month.

But TikTok’s foreign ownership — and indeed its practices — may yet be its own undoing. 

Recently, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, took down a network of fake accounts from China that sought to interfere in American politics ahead of the November elections. If Facebook can distinguish its privacy and security practices from TikTok, among others, that should earn plaudits from U.S. security agencies who should be concerned — very concerned. Whether that is enough to save the company from the raging competition from Beijing or further regulatory action remains to be seen.

What the US should do

As the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Congress and the Justice Department continue to scrutinize Big Tech leaders including Facebook, Google, and Amazon, they should not lose sight of the serious national security issues presented by TikTok, especially during election season.

A look at TikTok’s privacy policy states that “We may share all of the information we collect with a parent, subsidiary, or other affiliate of our corporate group” — and that means the Chinese Government too.

American policymakers and regulators should also keep in mind TikTok’s marketplace realities. According to Influencer Marketing Hub tracking TikTok statistics:

  • It has the highest engagement rate per post of any social media
  • It boasts over 1 billion monthly active users and is the most popularsocial media app for American kids and teens
  • 61 percent of American Tik Tok users are women 
  • 80 percent of its revenue comes from China
  • It earned $19 billion in gross profit in 2020

When it comes to TikTok, millions of Americans have been laughing, dancing and singing along with the popular and entertaining videos.

But we should not overlook what is actually happening under our very noses. In America’s simple, silly and sublime desire for endless entertainment, we are literally dancing with the enemy.

TikTok can be used as an ‘aggressive weapon’ by China against the US, FBI director says

  • FBI Director Christopher Wray reiterated the bureau’s concerns about TikTok, which he said can be compelled to ‘do whatever the Chinese government wants’
  • Young people are increasingly eschewing Facebook and Twitter for the popular short video app, which has millions of users in the US

FBI Director Christopher Wray reiterated the bureau’s long-standing national security concerns about Chinese-owned video app TikTok to lawmakers Tuesday and said the agency is sharing its views with officials who are weighing a deal that would allow it to keep operating in the US.

Wray told lawmakers China’s government could use the app to control millions of users’ data or software, and its recommendation algorithm – which determines which videos users will see next – “could be used for influence operations if they so choose”.

“Under Chinese law, Chinese companies are required to essentially – and I’m going to shorthand here – basically do whatever the Chinese government wants them to do in terms of sharing information or serving as a tool of the Chinese government,” Wray told the House Homeland Security Committee. “That’s plenty of reason by itself to be extremely concerned.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has passed along its concerns to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, the government body that’s reviewing the deal.

“As Director Wray specified in his remarks, the FBI’s input is being considered as part of our ongoing negotiations with the US Government,” said TikTok spokeswoman Brooke Oberwetter. “While we can’t comment on the specifics of those confidential discussions, we are confident that we are on a path to fully satisfy all reasonable US national security concerns.”

The popular video-streaming app, which has millions of users in the US, has emerged at the centre of a long-running national security debate. At the same time, it’s become key to reaching young voters, who are increasingly eschewing social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

The Biden administration is weighing a proposal to allow TikTok to continue to operate in the US under the ownership of Chinese parent ByteDance Ltd. The arrangement would include routing US user traffic through servers maintained by Oracle Corp, with the US-based database giant auditing the app’s algorithms.

However the effort has stalled over concerns the app would remain a threat, with China hawks on the Hill expected to criticise any agreement that stops short of an outright ban, or the sale of the platform to a US company. Congress is weighing legislation that would officially ban TikTok from all government phones.

Two influential Republican lawmakers wrote in a Washington Post column last week that TikTok should be banned outright in the US. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin said they planned to introduce legislation to ban the platform along with others “that are effectively controlled by the CCP”.

Wray offered to give lawmakers a classified briefing about the FBI’s concerns about the platform and the potential deal. He said the bureau’s foreign investment unit is providing input on the potential deal through the CFIUS process and that he expects its concerns will be taken into account in any agreement.

The Justice Department, which oversees counter-intelligence operations in the US, has long harboured concerns about the app. The department’s No 2 official, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, has expressed concerns in private that the agreement designed by the Biden administration doesn’t go far enough to keep the data of US users safe from Chinese actors, Bloomberg has reported.

Wray said the FBI is concerned about the threat specifically from the Chinese government, saying its laws are used as “an aggressive weapon” against US and Chinese companies “to do whatever the Chinese government wants them to do”.

Intelligence Expert: Is TikTok China’s Trojan Horse?

On June 28, 2022, U.S. FCC commissioner Brendan Carr called on “Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores for its pattern of surreptitious data practices” in a letter to the two tech companies. He states “TikTok is not just another video app. That’s the sheep’s clothing. It harvests swaths of sensitive data that new reports show are being accessed in Beijing.” As managing director of a cyber security company with a whitepaper focused on TikTok and a former intelligence professor, this announcement falls in line with other behavior exhibited by China and begs the question: is TikTok a trojan horse?

New reports by Buzzfeed and Internet 2.0 reveal that TikTok has the capability to function as a sophisticated collection and surveillance tool that records extensive amounts of personally identifiable information for the Chinese government. Why does this theory stand up to scrutiny? One reason is that data collected in the U.S. has repeatedly been available in China.

On June 30, TikTok responded in a letter to the U.S. Senators admitting, “Employees outside the U.S., including China-based employees, can have access to TikTok U.S. user data.” This is not a surprising revelation in a time without privacy. Institutions like the ACLU in 2020 advocated for Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat to exist on U.S. app stores despite the banning of every major U.S. tech firm in China. The ACLU continues to champion the cause of China and criticize the Biden Administration citing free speech protection. The administration’s position is not a surprise considering Biden himself made declarations on the campaign trail in 2020 identifying TikTok as a “matter of genuine concern” since the “Chinese operation” had “Access to over 100 million young people particularly in the United States of America.”

China has banned all major U.S. tech firms for years, from Google to Facebook, YouTube, TwitterReddit and Snapchat. Even Winnie the Pooh is not safe from censorship, suffering eternal banishment from China internet for his striking resemblance to Xi Jinping. China has expelled or imprisoned foreign journalists and professionals accusing them of espionage.

These actions, along with the data collection practices through TikTok, plant the seed that China is waging an all-out war on U.S. media, corporations, academic institutions and even game companies. When the CCP brutally suppressed and destroyed democratic institutions, organizations and citizens of Hong Kong, anyone who supported the Hong Kong Freedom Protests was attacked, including game companies, the television show South Park and even the Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey was sacked.

Mark Kern, one of the designers for Blizzard, stated, “We are in a situation where unlimited Communist money dictates our American values. We censor our games for China, we censor our movies for China. Now, game companies are silencing voices for freedom and democracy.”

China and Russia Bans

In the Spring of 2022, Russia banned Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Radio Free Europe, the BBC and other news services. Companies in the U.S. responded by banning Russian state media from their platforms: YouTube removed the RT news channel, DirectTV removed RT America and Apple deleted the RT news app.

Recently, in the first face-to-face meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Blinken told reporters, “We are concerned about the PRC’s alignment with Russia.” He stated that he did not think China was behaving in a neutral way as it had supported Russia in the United Nations and “amplified Russian propaganda.

It is clear the Chinese government’s actions have a history of misalignment with their stated desires to productively contribute to the global order. The reports of U.S. data collected from TikTok being available in China are simply the latest example. If the U.S. government, as a matter of national security, does not ban TikTok from the U.S. market and U.S. devices, the United States Department of Defense and other U.S. departments need to pick up where it left off and ban the use of TikTok on government and personal devices. TikTok is proving itself to be more than an application. TikTok has the capability for surveillance and influence line-of-effort funded and supported by the Chinese government (and its friends). If U.S. leadership is concerned with influence operations, botnets, misinformation and disinformation campaigns by other foreign governments, why wouldn’t they remove the trojan horse that can allow an enemy in the front door?

Bob Doucette: TikTok is fun, addicting, and might be a Trojan horse

Most people didn’t give much thought to the influence TikTok could have until teen users of the platform duped Donald Trump’s campaign into thinking tens or even hundreds of thousands of people would attend his 2020 rally in Tulsa. The crowd was much smaller than anticipated, drawing the ire of the former president. But behind the scenes, national security experts already had other concerns about the platform.Ian Maule, Tulsa World file

Before the summer of 2020, all most of us knew about TikTok were all those addicting lip-synched dance videos.

By then, we’d gone through several waves of social media innovators — first MySpace, then Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat before TikTok became the app favored by the younger generations.

But when then-President Donald Trump came to Tulsa, we got a whole new view of how influential this platform could be.

Back then, the country was struggling through the first surges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus threatened to undermine Trump’s reelection hopes, so the thinking was that a triumphal restart of his highly attended campaign rallies — which had been on hold for months — would give Trump and his supporters a boost of needed energy.

We all know what happened next. Teenage TikTok users found a flaw in the ticketing system used by the Trump campaign for its rallies and created a mirage of demand. Campaign officials were expecting tens or even hundreds of thousands of supporters to converge on downtown Tulsa. Instead, Trump flew to town to see a BOK Center arena that was a little more than half full.

TikTok was in his gunsights, and he publicly threatened to ban it in the U.S. Most took this as a backlash against all those clever kids who posed as supporters gobbling up tickets to the rally, only to become a horde of no-shows.

But TikTok drew concern from national security experts well before Trump’s Tulsa rally fizzled.

The Chinese-owned company, like other social media providers, was a relentless collector of user data.

The U.S. military, the Transportation Security Administration and others banned employees from downloading the app on government-issued devices dating as far back as 2019. Earlier this year, the chief administrative officer of the U.S. House of Representatives warned members of Congress against installing the app because of the data it collects.

And the real fear is not just the data that’s collected, but who has access to it. While TikTok maintains that it keeps its data secure from the Chinese government, there are concerns that such a firewall is not nearly as secure as TikTok claims.

Furthermore, at a time when social media platforms are weathering criticism about censorship, TikTok in particular has been viewed as heavy-handed in its moderation policies, especially regarding any content that could be seen as critical of the Chinese government.

TikTok is owned by a Beijing company called ByteDance. It created a video-based platform called Douyin, which still serves as the Chinese version of TikTok. The app we’ve come to know was born when ByteDance bought an American company called for $1 billion, then combined that with Douyin in 2017.

Since then, TikTok has been downloaded by about a billion users worldwide and boasts 135 million users in the U.S. alone.

TikTok, like other social media apps, makes money by selling ads. But to do that effectively, it aggressively mines its users for data. It notices what videos you watch, which ones you like, and then targets you with similar content — and ads — designed to appeal to specific user profiles.

But it doesn’t stop there. TikTok can access your contacts, device location, calendar, other running applications, WiFi networks, phone numbers and even the serial number on your cellphone’s SIM card.

All of this data, tracked over years, is stored in ByteDance’s servers.

These facts — not just the undermined Trump rally — were the main drivers behind a push to ban the app in the U.S.

That didn’t happen, but it did force ByteDance to “silo” its TikTok data from the rest of the company. It insists that there are high barriers that keep the Chinese government away from U.S. user data.

“Employees outside the U.S., including China-based employees, can have access to TikTok US user data subject to a series of robust cybersecurity controls and authorization approval protocols overseen by our U.S.-based security team,” said TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, as quoted in Wired magazine.

Chew also said the company has not “provided U.S. user data to the (Chinese Communist Party), nor would we if asked.”

That doesn’t sound ironclad, and if Beijing were to gain access to U.S. TikTok user data there isn’t an equivalent U.S. beach head; Chinese social media platforms are closely controlled by the government, and U.S.-based social media platforms aren’t allowed to operate there, meaning there’s no sly way of accessing Chinese social media user data beyond breaching Beijing’s substantial internet firewall.

Even if we were able to take Chew’s word for it, there have been other signs that the Chinese government has its hand on the TikTok wheel.

Accusations of censorship have been numerous. In 2019, a leaked document showed that TikTok content moderators were told to take down videos that mentioned Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence or the banned religious group Falun Gong.

It also restricted content that highlighted controversial subjects (ethnic, sectarian or religious conflicts) and anything about a list of 20 foreign leaders and well-known figures. That list included people like the Kim family rulers of North Korea, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Donald Trump and Barack Obama, among others.

The company says it has since changed those policies: “As TikTok began to take off globally last year, we recognized that this was not the correct approach, and began working to empower local teams that have a nuanced understanding of each market,” the company said in a statement to The Guardian. “As we’ve grown we’ve implemented this localized approach across everything from product, to team, to policy development.

“The old guidelines in question are outdated and no longer in use.”

Still, more accusations have arisen. The Independent Lens documentary “TikTok, Boom” profiles the plight of Feroza Aziz, some of whose posted videos were taken down and her account suspended.

Aziz is the American daughter of Afghan immigrants and has spent much of her online time posting fashion videos. But in other posts, she highlighted the persecution suffered by the Uyghur people of western China, about a million of whom have been detained and sent to detention camps in what many say is an act of ethnocide by the Chinese government.

Aziz went public, accusing TikTok of silencing her on behalf of the Chinese government. The company apologized but blamed her ban on a satirical post she made on another subject that they said ran afoul of company user guidelines.

Aziz wasn’t having any of it.

“Do I believe they took it away because of an unrelated satirical video that was deleted on a previous deleted account of mine? Right after I finished posting a three-part video about the Uyghurs? No,” she posted on Twitter in 2019.

Censorship accusations, data collection and the outsized role that social media are taking in people’s lives aren’t new. Facebook has been blamed for fueling ethnic cleansing in numerous developing world countries, while Twitter was a favorite platform for Russian cyberwarriors bent on sowing discord in the United States and other Western democracies.

Both were seen as instrumental in the rise of Q-Anon and the resulting violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

But the challenge of TikTok is different. It’s wildly popular, particularly among the young. It’s mostly innocuous fun. But it’s hard to shake the idea that TikTok, despite reassurances from its corporate leadership, might have a Trojan horse quality to it that has national security implications.

TikTok: Trojan Stallion

The platform’s potential for espionage is a concern. Its use for propaganda is a clear and present danger.

Late in the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin published a report detailing how the British army had enlisted Native American tribes to commit atrocities against settlers. One tribe, he reported, had provided its British paymasters with 102 scalps, including 18 marked with flame — the scalps of children whose parents had been burned alive. The story appeared in the Boston Independent Chronicle and was picked up by the English press, dampening support for the war. Historical footnote: Franklin made the whole thing up. Made up the reporting, forged the copy of the paper it was “published” in. Franklin wasn’t even in Boston — he published his fake paper in Paris.

Propaganda and Pessimism

We tend to think of propaganda along the lines of what Franklin did — falsehoods designed to smear an opponent or build up a leader. Mussolini claimed he could only shave with Italian razors, because his beard was too tough for flimsy American steel. The U.S. invaded Iraq because Colin Powell assured us, waving a vial, that Saddam had “weapons of mass destruction.”

However, the state-of-the-dark-arts strategy is to destabilize opponents from within, supporting divisive figures and topics, promoting messages of fraud and corruption in a “firehose of falsehoods” that atomizes the enemy (the citizenry). Volume and tone are everything, specifics are irrelevant. It works best when the firehose has no visible connection to the water supply.

Just like attack aircraft and bombers, propaganda has another new feature that makes it more lethal: stealth. It’s the propaganda of influence without fingerprints, leaving people with the illusion that they’re making their own decisions.

In Western media, messaging has gone stealth with anonymous accounts, bots, and outlets whose mission isn’t news, but shaping the news to buttress a predetermined narrative. Mental health is in the news today, as it’s being used as a weapon of mass distraction by actors who want to shift the conversation away from gun control. “News” is increasingly about persuasion instead of illumination. Which means what most of us believe is news isn’t really news.

pie chart showing news platform preferences, with digital devices accounting for 50% of news consumption. Source: Pew Research

The key to a sting (con) is that the mark never believes they’ve been conned. Just as 80% of people think they’re above-average drivers, few people believe they’ve been manipulated at a cost to their country. The reality: Half of us are bad drivers. Ben Franklin, way ahead of his time, didn’t put his name anywhere on his forged newspaper and included a (forged) letter from real-life naval hero John Paul Jones.

Vladmir Putin is a seventh-level wizard at this. He has poured state resources into high- and low-tech means to pit Americans and Europeans against one another, with only a fraction positioned as official state messaging, or even connected to Russia. His objective isn’t to win an argument, it’s to defeat our will. To generate pessimism, not popularity. And the launch vehicle for this weapon is the guy/gal next to you in the foxhole (your neighbor, aunt, etc.).


The most mendacious enemies hide in plain sight. And this enemy is in your pocket. Social media now captures and holds more of our attention than all traditional news outlets. The hand that holds the social graph has its grip on how the next generation of Americans and Europeans feel about capitalism, democracy, and BTS.

But, no, this post is not about Mark Zuckerberg.

Line animation of a finger swiping up on the tiktok logo on a phone


TikTok is the ascendant tech platform of the decade. The app brings the chocolate of social media together with the peanut butter of a streaming platform, commanding more attention per user than Facebook and Instagram combined. Think Netflix, but with near-zero production costs and a recommendation algorithm that responds to an unmatched range of micro signals: whether you scrolled past a video, paused it, re-watched it, commented, followed, and so on. This gives TikTok the ability to calibrate/cook the meth. That’s not fair to the TikTok algo; the short-form video platform is more addictive.

Finally, and this is the most overlooked aspect of TikTok: It has a talent pool as deep as the Mariana Trench. Fifty-five percent of its users are also creators, meaning there are approximately 700 times as many creators working for TikTok than there are professionals producing content in film and TV across the globe. Most aren’t as talented, but many are.

graph showing average monthly hours spent per user over time across various social platforms, with Tiktok leading over Facebook, Instagram, and Whatsapp by a wide margin. Source:

Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are radicalizing us for profit, but it’s not in their ultimate long-term interest to crater our economy or degrade our world view … too far. Smart parasites keep their hosts alive. As things have worsened at U.S.-based social platforms steadily for the past decade, we are now reaching for guardrails — shareholder pressure, regulatory agencies, and whistleblowers.

In the lush, thriving, and maturing social media jungle, the new apex predator is TikTok. This looks to be the year TikTok converts usage to serious revenue: It’s projected to grow from $4 billion to $12 billion in 2022. Interestingly, a billion users, which TikTok reached last year, was also the point when Facebook became a nuclear reactor of cash, though it took it two years to grow from $4 billion (2012) to $12 billion (2014). However, in contrast to Facebook, which remains under the control of a sociopath interested only in power and the greater glory of Facebook, TikTok serves a different master. A master that is, unlike SNAP/TWTR/GOOG/FB, concerned with the well-being of the commonwealth. Its commonwealth. Patriotism in conflict with the well-being of our (U.S.) well-being.

Graph showing annual revenue since founding, with TikTok crossing the $10B mark by year 6, much faster than Snapchat, Facebook, or Youtube. Source: The Wall Street Journal

No, this post is not about ByteDance.

Trojan Stallion

ByteDance is the Chinese company that owns TikTok. Interestingly, of the billion global TikTok users, none of them are in (wait for it) … China. The country doesn’t permit TikTok to operate in its home market, just as it blocks Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter’s social graphs from extending into the Middle Kingdom. The CCP prefers homegrown variants that aren’t nuisanced by Western neuroses such as privacy and data ownership.

The Chinese government has the power to access the data of private-sector companies whenever it wants. A wide range of laws makes this possible, including the Law of Guarding State Secrets: If you’re suspected of harboring sensitive state information, you must grant access. The state takes small ownership positions known as golden shares (that typically come with board seats) in businesses deemed strategic to the state.

One of those golden share arrangements is with ByteDance. And though TikTok is not accessible to Chinese consumers, Chinese access to TikTok’s data is not in dispute. In June, Buzzfeed obtained over 80 audio recordings of internal TikTok meetings, confirming Chinese management at ByteDance had unfettered access to TikTok’s data. A TikTok manager refers to an engineer in Beijing, known as the “Master Admin,” who “has access to everything.”

China is not America’s friend. There is a dangerous sentiment emerging in the U.S. that members of the “other” political party are the enemy. No, Americans are still the best allies for other Americans. If you blanched at the previous sentence, in my view, you have been targeted by propaganda from bad actors and/or manipulated by algorithms or cable news editors whose profit incentive pits us against one another.

The Chinese government aims to weaken the U.S. Its investment in kinetic power is massive (a third aircraft carrier took to sea last month), but it probably won’t match raw American might for decades. So the Chinese press on our soft tissue strategically and play the long game with tactics that offer a greater ROI: IP theft and propaganda. America is most like itself when we perceive an external threat as the real threat, and when we’re optimistic about the return we’ll realize from long-term investments at home: education, infrastructure, research and development. Pessimism is our kryptonite.

Tip of the Spear

The tip of China’s propaganda spear is TikTok, which has a direct connection to the midbrain of a billion people, including nearly every U.S. teenager and half their parents. Facebook is the most powerful espionage vehicle ever created, and now China commands the most powerful propaganda tool. Putin and the GRU can manipulate an amoral Facebook from the outside, it just takes money. It has been easy, to date, to exploit management that’s indifferent to teen depression, much less national security. But it will likely get increasingly difficult. Xi Jinping can simply pick up the phone. When he does (if he hasn’t already) the shift in TikTok’s messaging will be subtle, invisible in the details, hiding in plain sight.

What would China’s propaganda look like? It would look like us. Public figures ranging from Professor Jonathan Haidt to Joe Rogan to Kim Kardashian who command enormous bodies of work and followings. They are all talented and, to the best of my knowledge, concerned about the well-being of our nation. (Note: I know this is true of Professor Haidt.) But a decent amount of their content (e.g., polarization, the potential harm of vaccines, and women needing to work harder), when taken out of context, can paint a bleak image of America. Subtle manipulations to TikTok’s algorithm will promote the negative messages, elide the context. As with art and merchandising, propaganda isn’t about what’s in the message, but what isn’t. Specifically, nuance and who is promoting certain types of content over others. (See above: the anonymous source of water.)

Another NYU prof has made dozens of videos claiming that higher ed in the U.S. has become the enforcer of an emerging caste system. Thumb on the scale. A U.S. representative claims the mass shooting in Highland Park was orchestrated by the rival political party to foster support for gun legislation. Thumb on scale. Americans with spears, tactical gear, and nooses storm the capital. Both thumbs.

Dial up wholesome-looking American teens with TikTok accounts railing against the evils of capitalism. Dial down the Chinese immigrant celebrating the freedoms afforded in America. Push Trump supporter TikToks about guns and gay marriage into the feeds of liberals. Find misguided woke-cancel-culture TikToks and put them in heavy rotation for every moderate Republican. Feed the Trumpists more conspiracy theories. Anyone with a glass-half-empty message gets more play; content presenting a more optimistic view of our nation gets exiled. Hand on scale.

The network is massive, the ripple effects hidden in the noise. Putting a thumb the size of TikTok on the scale can move nations. What will have more influence on our next generation’s view of America, democracy, and capitalism? The bully pulpit of the president, the executive editor of the New York Times, or the TikTok algorithm? A squirt gun, a musket, and a Tsar bomba, respectively.

In addition, progressives’ right of passage seems to be shitposting about our government’s surveillance apparatus, and many of our most talented young tech workers are more concerned about the work Big Tech does for our defense department than who or what the DoD is defending the U.S. against. Concerns about TikTok are bipartisan, but the GOP has been louder and clearer about the danger. In 2020, Trump declared TikTok a threat to national security. He was right, and then went on to cement his reputation as corrupt and stupid, thinking he could piece out the firm to his friends and supporters like a fucking birthday cake.

He grew bored and moved on, in weeks. He demanded ByteDance divest TikTok to a U.S. company, which I correctly predicted would never happen. It wasn’t a bold prediction. The Chinese realized they just needed to let the man-child tire himself out.

Ban TikTok

The latest revelations of Chinese access to TikTok confirm that the threat isn’t just a cable news mudfest. Real action is needed. Last week, FCC commissioner Brendan Carr wrote a letter to Apple and Google asking them to remove the platform from their app stores. Carr cited national security concerns, saying parent company ByteDance is “beholden” to the CCP and “required by law to comply with surveillance demands.” As Senator Ted Cruz has put it “TikTok is a Trojan horse the Chinese Communist Party can use to influence what Americans see, hear, and ultimately think.” Messrs Carr and Cruz are right. The platform’s potential for espionage is a concern. Its use for propaganda is a clear and present danger.

Resources, “TikTok is China’s Trojan Horse.” By Adonis Hoffman;, “TikTok can be used as an ‘aggressive weapon’ by China against the US, FBI director says.”;, “Intelligence Expert: Is TikTok China’s Trojan Horse? Past actions may predict what we can expect for the future.” By Michael Lammbrau;, “Bob Doucette: TikTok is fun, addicting, and might be a Trojan horse.” By Bob Douchette;, “TikTok: Trojan Stallion: The platform’s potential for espionage is a concern. Its use for propaganda is a clear and present danger.” By Scott Galloway;

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