What if I told you that in your pocket — RIGHT NOW — there’s a listening device? That device is controlled by The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and is collecting every bit of information about your life so that it can infiltrate America and destroy us from the inside? What if I told you that your favorite app, TikTok, was an insidious tool designed to subvert American democracy and wield internet supremacy over the globe for generations to come?
If I told you those things, I probably would have been spending a little too much time in the Trumpier corners of Twitter. If you listen to the President’s supporters, you would believe that TikTok — that sensationally popular app that, honestly, I still have no idea how to use — is a secret CCP tool designed to infiltrate America and destroy us. If only it were a simple distraction to jive with their coronavirus narrative of everything being China’s fault. Kung Flu 2, if you will.
So where did this CCP infiltration theory come from? China. Duh. TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a company based in Beijing. That’s…pretty much the extent of the conspiracy. I’ll admit that TikTok is not without its security risks — under Chinese law, the company cannot refuse to share user data with the government if compelled — but outside of that, there’s no objective reason to believe that the CCP is in any way involved with TikTok like the GOP would have you believe. Huawei this is not.
So why is the GOP making such a big deal out of this, aside from the xenophobic blame game they’ve become accustomed to under Trump? As usual, it’s yet another power grab.
TikTok has been operating lawfully in the US since its launch in 2017, providing countless stupid videos for us all to make and watch. Starting in 2019, people started investigating the app to see if there were potential security breaches that were being exploited, including location and biometric data information. Since then, TikTok has been investigated by, among others, the US Senate’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). It remains under review there. There are a lot of conflicting reports on whether its data security is sufficient, but none of the investigations have found any links, nefarious or otherwise, to the Chinese government.
Not one to be dissuaded by facts and evidence, Trump continued to move forward with threats under the notion (fueled on by his gang of MAGA Twitterers) that TikTok was a Chinese cyberweapon.
In May 2020, Twitter put a misinformation warning on one of Trump’s (obnoxiously irresponsible) tweets for lying about mail-in ballots and calling them fraudulent. Not to be outdone by a website, Trump responded with an executive order purporting to change Section 230 of the Communication Decency Act. In a nutshell, Section 230 is the reason you’re allowed to say whatever you want on social media without fear of government censorship. It’s the single most important piece of internet freedom legislation and was responsible, almost single-handedly, for the explosion of social media. Here’s a good article on how people are trying to twist its meaning for politics. Trump’s executive order didn’t do anything — presidents can’t change federal law on their own — but it was the first shot.
In early July, Mike Pompeo announced that the government was planning on banning TikTok, notwithstanding the fact that it’s a major free speech platform like Twitter or Facebook. But this time, they could get away with it because it’s Chinese-owned. Later in July, Trump announced he would be banning the app. That ban was supposed to go into effect yesterday (court challenges are keeping it alive for now).
In order to carry out the ban, Trump declared TikTok (and WeChat) a national emergency and used emergency powers under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) to ban them. In the strictest sense, doing so probably wasn’t illegal, but you should still be scared by this sort of abuse of power. The ACLU has fought the ban on First Amendment grounds.
Trump got his revenge on those evil Chinese who attacked us with COVID and somehow made him helpless to do anything about it. End of story, right? Not even close.
This past weekend, Trump announced a deal with Oracle and Walmart to buy the US distribution rights to the app, so that America could be the ones controlling (and abusing?) the data. We will not be outdone. As part of that deal, Trump expected to get a kickback to the US Treasury for “facilitating” the deal. He later learned that “Amazingly, I find that you’re not allowed to do that, you’re not allowed to accept money.” Imagine that.
Instead of doing the blatantly corrupt thing, he took it a step further. As part of the proposed deal, Oracle (and it’s Trump-loving billionaire CEO Larry Ellison) would pay $5 Billion into an education fund in Texas. What kind of education fund, you ask? A fund designed to support Trump’s newly-announced “1776 Commission”, a policy designed to teach students “the miracle of American History.” Trump has declared the 1619 Project — a New York Times historical effort designed to raise greater awareness of the historical impact of slavery on the American founding — “toxic propaganda that will destroy our country.” He says that “left-wing rioting and mayhem are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools” and the 1776 commission will save the United States from all of those things. I am reticent to use such words unless they really apply, but you don’t have to be a brilliant historian to know that this is just straight-up fascism. This is page 1 out of the fascist’s Rise to Power Playbook. Scary stuff.
To summarize — Trump used emergency powers to ban a lawfully-operating foreign social media company from doing business in the US. Then he extorted that company by forcing them into a deal that will make his billionaire pal a huge amount of money. As a kickback, he essentially got a $5 Billion campaign contribution with the stated purpose of literally spreading fascist propaganda.
And you thought China was bad.