Is the governance of social media driven by paranoia or fact?

By Aaron Newton: Political Columnist

US President Donald Trump rose to power on a nationalist ‘America First’ mantra, which directly opposes a lot of foreign-made products. China, being the world’s largest producer of export goods, is in the firing line. Attacks were made on the regime itself; attacks were made in the language of “Kung-flu” and “China virus” when appropriating blame for the COVID-19 pandemic, and now attacks are being made against Chinese-owned companies from Huawei earlier this year to TikTok. Is this as much of a ‘national security threat’ as it is made out to be? Is an app where teens dance to annoying trends really going to bring down the West?

At first glance, the decision to enact an executive order ban against TikTok seems rational and pragmatic. FBI Director Christopher Wray pointed out in a press conference that there are “over 5000 active investigations in counterintelligence”; with half of those against China or Chinese nationals. These claims are not without merit; China as a state is highly authoritarian and highly surveillant, from national facial recognition to enforcing compliance with national companies for their data. The US greatly fears for the 100 million US users of the app owned by the Chinese corporation ByteDance, as there is a lot of data on the table to be gathered should the administration come-a-knocking. It is already banned in India where concerns about the same issue grew. 

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ByteDance hit back, stating its data servers for US users is stored in the US with a back-up in Singapore. This might mean it is only a show of force from the Trump administration, and given whether this order is actually enforceable and legitimate currently is up in the air. It can only stop new downloads of the app, which means it would make no difference to the current users. According to experts, the US government would need to implement a block at a “network level between US users and servers”, which ironically is what China does for Facebook. This opens up a can of worms over First Amendment Rights violations as even data is a protected characteristic, so for Trump to clamp down on it it could result in large legal ramifications.

The timing of the decision is the most interesting thing: by acting as the ‘strongman’ his base needs him to be to protect American interests, he comes across as a President which will defend America against ‘foreign invaders’ which will be needed come the November polls. Additionally, in June of this year Trump held a rally in Florida which was almost deserted: TikTok teens and K-pop fans took credit for taking all the seat reservations, publicly “trolling” him.

This very public slight, as well as his U-turn on the ban providing that a “very American” company can take over the app (thus taking control of the data and allowing the merger to be taxable to the US Treasury) may point to the conclusion that this is more than a national security issue.

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