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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

‘Should we Ban TikTok?’: Middlebury weighs in

Even Middlebury College is on TikTok these days.
Even Middlebury College is on TikTok these days.

Rarely do the words “Alexander Hamilton” and “TikTok” appear in the same sentence outside of the musical theatre community, but on April 11, the Alexander Hamilton Forum presented an event entitled “Should We Ban TikTok?” in BiHall. The event was situated in the context of the recent bill, H.R. 7521, which aims to either ban TikTok or force divestiture by ByteDance to enable American ownership. In an unusual display of Congressional bipartisanship, H.R. 7521 has already passed the House by a vote of 325–65

At the Middlebury event, during which a speaker represented both sides of the debate, the discussion hinged on whether concerns about Chinese Communist Party Surveillance and manipulation through TikTok are great enough to justify banning an app that so many Americans freely chose.

Klon Kitchen represented the pro-TikTok ban position. With a background in national security, intelligence and foreign policy, he is currently a non-resident senior fellow at the center-right think tank The American Enterprise Institute. His roles have focused on examining the intersections of technology and American foreign policy. Kitchen’s central concern is one we have heard echoed by many policymakers: China is using TikTok as a means of spying on and manipulating Americans.

On the other side of the debate, Paul Matzko defended the use of TikTok. Matzko is the author of the 2020 book “The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement.” He currently works as a research fellow for media studies at the Cato Institute. He also has 46.6k followers on TikTok. 

In addition to claims that the TikTok ban would not achieve its purported goals, Matzko emphasized in his argument that such a ban could be considered a violation of Americans’ rights to freedom of speech.

To start, each speaker was given about 20 minutes to plead their case. Kitchen went first. After letting the audience, primarily students, know that he does not judge us for using TikTok because, unlike him, we don’t have to think about the “bad people out there,” he launched into an analogy taken from one of his old tweets: “What if I told you China has deployed 120 million sensors around the US that can track your travel, your friendships, your habits, where you live, where you work, and 1,000 other details? Would that scare you? Well, [TikTok] has more than 120 million US users.”

Throughout his presentation, Kitchen emphasized the geopolitical tension between the United States and China. He pointed out the fact that the Chinese Communist Party has the right to request data from any company based in mainland China (ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, is based in Beijing). 

There is precedent for this bill, Kitchen argued: The Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States forced Chinese divestiture from Grindr in 2020 (notably, the committee has not made any decisions about TikTok). Emphasizing the risk he perceives, Kitchen noted that if he, while working for the CIA, could have built an app to spy on Chinese citizens, he would have done so without blinking. This brought him to his final point: China has banned American social media apps, so why shouldn’t we do the same? He failed to mention that TikTok’s senior leadership is based in Singapore, and the app is fully banned in mainland China.

Matzko said his piece next, highlighting the lack of material evidence upholding the allegations that TikTok has a direct line to the Chinese Communist Party. He noted that historically, vague appeals to national security have burned Americans; his examples included the American invasion of Iraq, founded on unverified claims about “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” as well as the McCarthyism campaign, which violated numerous American freedoms in the name of “fighting communism.” 

He conceded that the Chinese Communist Party could hypothetically request data on Americans from TikTok, but that no evidence exists for such activity. Matzko argued it is strange that, given the desire for evidence of surveillance, and the large amount of hypothetical eyes needed to move this data out of the U.S. and into China, no whistleblowers have come out with proof of data transfers. In the absence of such evidence, Matzko described that the U.S. has no right to bar access to an app that simultaneously serves as a platform for free expression, entertainment and education, as well as a professional resource for many Americans, from influencers to small business owners.

It’s worth noting that, based on their casual remarks, both speakers tended to presume as a matter of fact that the vast majority of Middlebury students were avid TikTok users. Although this is certainly true for myself and others, it is not the rule. Based on the conversations I’ve had on campus, it seems that far more Middlebury students used to have TikTok than have it right now. TikTok’s addictiveness and the potential it holds to be a distraction is often cited as the reason use is discontinued. The addictive aspect of the app (which is true of most social media platforms) was not a focus of the conversation during this event.

During a relatively heated Q&A session following the speeches, Kitchen recapitulated his argument that China is spying on Americans: 80% of TikTok’s developers, he said, are based out of China. Matzko responded to this by saying that developers are not the people who would ever look at raw data. 

In another back-and-forth, Matzko alleged that Rep. Mike Gallagher, a key advocate for the bill, was to take a job with the surveillance technology company (and defense contractor) Palantir, which also called for the ban. In his rebuttal, Kitchen said he knew Gallagher personally, and he actually hadn’t decided for sure yet. 

Many of the day’s arguments played out in spaces of ambiguity, abstractly exploring the meanings of free speech and the hypotheticals that would enable or disable Chinese Communist Party access to TikTok. Given the relative lack of material evidence presented during the talk, the audience’s prior personal convictions likely played a large role in their views of Matzko and Kitchen’s arguments. It seemed based on audience questioning that many were skeptical of the idea that TikTok posed any legitimate threat to national security.

From this murky, subjective discussion, one particularly tangible point arose. In the contemporary digital ecosystem, all of us are getting our personal data logged and sold at competitive prices on an open, legal and international market. What’s more, many of the companies who participate in this market-oriented surveillance are American. The Chinese Communist Party is readily able to buy any of this data, so what use do they have for another avenue to access this same information? Matzko made this point in his speech, and during the Q&A, one student asked it explicitly to Kitchen. 

While Kitchen argued that the Chinese Communist Party was both surveilling through TikTok and buying data, he provided no basis for this claim. Eventually, Kitchen conceded that banning TikTok would not limit the Chinese Communist Party’s access to American data. By the end of the Q&A, Kitchen’s argument hinged essentially on convincing us that he had access to information beyond the audience’s security clearance.

Should Kitchen be trusted? Does he privately hold evidence that would verify claims about the danger TikTok poses to American security? Or is this, as Matzko argued, just another situation in which vague appeals to national security legitimize actions with dangerous implications? One thing is certain: Whether or not we are allowed to go on TikTok, as online Americans, our data is not private — it is a publicly available commodity. 

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