I cannot emphasize enough how messed up this entire “sell TikTok to an American company” saga is. The latest twist is a deeply confusing set of executive orders banning transactions with ByteDance (TikTok’s Chinese parent company) and WeChat (a Chinese texting app). The legal dubiousness of this move is the least strange thing about it.
But there is no use in dwelling on it. As of writing, ByteDance is in talks to sell TikTok to Microsoft. The only question worth thinking about is why this matters to ordinary Americans — more specifically, should we be afraid of Chinese apps like TikTok?
In July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News that Americans should only use TikTok “if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.” It’s not just the GOP administration lashing out, either; the Democratic National Committee has also previously issued warnings to campaign staff not to use TikTok on their work phones, citing how much data is gathered.
The thorniest privacy dispute of 2020 isn’t about privacy or technology at all — it’s about China
TikTok does gather a lot of personal data, but it’s no more than what Facebook and other social networks also gather. The difference between TikTok and Facebook is that we have a great deal of transparency into the process by which Facebook gives your information to various governments. And specifically, Facebook does not release data to the Chinese government.
When it comes down to it, the thorniest privacy dispute of 2020 isn’t about privacy or technology at all — it’s about China. The question “Is Facebook better, worse, or the same as TikTok?” is more or less the same as “Is the United States better, worse, or the same as China?”
And in 2020, this is becoming a genuinely difficult question to answer. China is detaining over a million Uighurs in internment camps, citing national security issues. The United States detains migrants in its own internment camps, even going as far as to place children in cages. China is not a democracy; the American president has proposed to unconstitutionally delay this year’s election. China brutally represses its political dissidents; in America, law enforcement in military camouflage have grabbed protesters off the streets and shoved them into unmarked vans.
I am writing this column from Portland, Oregon, with my gas mask hanging next to my desk
Earlier this summer, the American president decided to tweet “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” in response to mass protests — only a few days before the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. I am writing this column from Portland, Oregon, with my gas mask hanging next to my desk. When I go to tie my shoes, my laces emit faint puffs of residual tear gas.
The protests in my city are the same protests happening elsewhere in the country — protests against police violence and racial discrimination. As these protests were raging, Secretary Pompeo gave a speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia where he attacked The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which originated as a special issue of The New York Times Magazine containing articles examining slavery and its lasting legacy in everything from mass incarceration to pop music.
“They want you to believe that Marxist ideology that America is only the oppressors and the oppressed,” said Pompeo. “The Chinese Communist Party must be gleeful when they see the New York Times spout this ideology.”
In a tweet that excerpted the speech, he called the project “a slander on our great people.”
One might ask, why on earth would the Chinese Communist Party give a damn about a year-old article on the relationship between race and the construction of the interstate highways?
Pompeo’s invocation of the Chinese government only makes sense if you break apart the assumptions piece by piece. The 1619 Project criticizes America; to criticize America is to make it weak; to make America weak is to make China strong.
I call this ideology information-nationalism. Here’s how I would describe its assumptions:
1. When your country acknowledges human rights abuses, you are made weak
2. You can weaken rival nation-states by exposing their human rights abuses
For a long time, China’s crackdown on all references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre has been held as the prime example of the dangers of internet censorship. It is also the clearest example of information-nationalism: to allow Chinese citizens to speak of or remember Tiananmen Square is to cultivate weakness.
So China can’t acknowledge Tiananmen Square or its present-day treatment of the Uighurs. For the inverse reason, Russian disinformation operations on Facebook have promoted real videos of police brutality in America and attempted to organize Black Lives Matter protests. Before that, Russian state media outlet RT excelled in its coverage of Occupy Wall Street and WikiLeaks. For years, Russia has sought to emphasize and even exacerbate existing tensions in the United States, presumably because it believes this is in Russia’s own interest.
Now, the American government is spinning the 1619 Project as “slander” that aids the Chinese Communist Party.
When you play the game of information-nationalism, you don’t slander your enemies; you tell the truth about them
Information-nationalism is part of a larger trend toward authoritarianism in the world, but it should still be distinguished from its other facets. It is related to totalitarianism, which frequently relies on propaganda and surveillance, but it is not exactly the same. It walks closely with fascism, which thrives on mythologizing shared national identities.
But information-nationalism is not about mythologies or misinformation. When you play the game of information-nationalism, you don’t slander your enemies; you tell the truth about them, while hiding the truth about yourself.
The major players in this game are China (with its unrivaled surveillance-censorship apparatus and Great Firewall), Russia (with its highly successful RT network and its shadowy Internet Research Agency), and the US (which still lays claim to some of the biggest tech companies in the world). At this point in time, the leaders of all three countries have bought into the same values and same assumptions about information-nationalism. It is not so much a cold war as it is three identical Spider-Mans pointing fingers at each other.
Ten years ago, I would have deemed the project of information-nationalism to be an authoritarian delusion in the face of an unruly and powerful technology. Come on, guys, it’s the internet! But consider this 2018 New York Times article about social media use by the younger generation in mainland China.
Chu Junqing, also 28, a human resources representative, said she spent two to three hours watching funny short videos after work on Tik Tok. She reads news sometimes on the news app Jinri Toutiao but found that many countries were embroiled in wars and riots. “China is so much better,” she said.
The same article goes on to describe a survey of 10,000 Tencent users born in 2000 or later. Nearly 8 in 10 believed that China had either never been better or was becoming better every day; almost as many were optimistic about the future. (A Pew Research Center poll of Americans in the same year found that 44 percent were somewhat or very pessimistic about America’s future.)
This is not to say that this is because China is winning at information-nationalism. (Consider the protests in Hong Kong.) But because it has successfully built an ecosystem of China-specific apps and services all tied to a centralized censorship-surveillance apparatus, it is capable of engaging in information-nationalist warfare at a level the US presently cannot. (Consider how TikTok — which carried footage of the protests — is now blocked in Hong Kong.)
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compared Chinese censorship to an “information iron curtain.”
For many years, the United States ran its own version of the Chinese state-controlled internet apparatus, but we just called it “the internet.” It’s not only that its predecessor, the ARPAnet, was an American military project. In very recent memory, the global internet was dominated by services like Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. These companies — founded in the United States, and run primarily by Americans on American soil — implicitly transmitted American values and culture to other countries.
Google, for instance, pulled out of China in 2010 when the company discovered the country had been attempting to hack into activists’ Gmail accounts. The company felt it could no longer stay for “moral reasons.” And although China’s censorship of the Tiananmen Square massacre was not the official reason that Google pulled out, it became a pretty good post facto justification. The company’s immediate response to the hack was to stop censoring search results. Shortly after, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech at the Newseum in which she compared Chinese censorship to an “information iron curtain.” In the same speech, she was supportive of Google, saying, “I hope that refusal to support politically motivated censorship will become a trademark characteristic of American technology companies. … It should be part of our national brand.”
In 2000, Yahoo! fought against French laws banning the sale of Nazi memorabilia, citing American free speech rights. (They lost in 2006.) In 2009, as photos and videos of Iran’s Green Revolution exploded across Twitter, the Clinton State Department privately reached out to the company asking them to delay scheduled maintenance, lest they disrupt information-swapping by Tehrani dissidents.
American tech companies behaved as an informal arm of the US State Department
In these instances and more, American tech companies behaved as an informal arm of the US State Department, operating on the assumption that the freedom of expression and the freedom to dissent against any government are not just inherent goods, but values that, when spread abroad, will strengthen America’s diplomatic position. Free speech, capitalism, and Coca-Cola for all.
This, as it turned out, was a neat piece of hypocrisy, as revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013. Just like China had tried to use Google to spy on its activists, the National Security Agency had been secretly collecting bulk data from almost every American company you could think of. The mass collusion of American tech companies in programs like PRISM created a disillusionment that gradually decayed into a kind of moral ambivalence in Silicon Valley. If America does it, why not let China? And conversely: if China does it, why not America?
But still, hypocritical or not, the old American internet was in no way equivalent to the Great Firewall of China. And neither is the old foreign policy equivalent to the new. Regardless of how the American government behaved in secret, its public-facing policy was once to promote liberal democracy. Now it is openly engaged in information-nationalism.
Information-nationalism pervades many arenas, beyond the issues of racism and political dissent. The federal government has made it harder to see numbers on coronavirus infections. The president has even said on the record that increased testing will make him look bad. The logic behind this is the same logic that drove the Chinese Communist Party to hide the pandemic in Wuhan in the very early days, much to everyone’s detriment. The similarities in their behavior will not stop the president from blaming China for a cover-up — that’s exactly how information-nationalism works.
The United States has embarked on a new relationship with the world, and with truth, that will shape technologies in the years to come. It will motivate economic regulation, censorship statutes, export laws, and even domestic bans of foreign apps and services. This is not to say: “Companies good; government bad.” Rest assured, everyone and everything is bad. It’s bad all the way down. What I’m saying is, this is the context in which various proposals to regulate tech — both the meritorious and the inane — are being developed.
In May, Twitter attached a fact-checking note to two of the president’s tweets about mail-in ballots. For this display of floppy-yet-still-extant spine from Twitter, Inc., the White House issued an executive order of dubious legality threatening to take away Communications Decency Act Section 230 protections from tech companies based on rule-making by the Federal Communications Commission.
Although this executive order purports to limit Section 230, that’s not the real goal. Without Section 230, Twitter would be liable to a host of people affected by President Trump’s own tweets — like Joe Scarborough, who the president has smeared with a murder accusation. If Scarborough sues Twitter, the logical result is that Trump’s tweets are censored.
The executive order is instead better understood as an attempt to bully companies into regulating speech according to the government’s tastes. What that would look like can be stitched together based on who or what they claim is being censored.
Keep in mind that the executive order was prompted by a fact-check of a claim about election fraud in mail-in voting. Since then, the president has again tweeted the same claim, this time using it to suggest that the election should be delayed. (The co-founder of the conservative Federalist Society, Steve Calabresi, has called the tweet “fascistic.”)
Social networks have a baked-in bias in favor of conservative speech, in that they will use a newsworthiness exception to avoid moderating the president’s increasingly unhinged posts
But let’s set aside the part about American democracy dangling by a thread and look at other examples of unfairly censored speech — speech that, according to the government, should be protected from the caprices of social media moderation. One study has been touted as “proving” that conservatives are censored more on social media, but a closer look is deeply damning. The study chose, among others, the following accounts to represent the conservative side: the former KKK leader David Duke, the white nationalist Richard Spencer, and — I am not making this up — the literal American Nazi Party.
The study may be an outlier in its brazenness, but that’s what it takes in order to claim that there is a bias against conservative speech. Social networks have a baked-in bias in favor of conservative speech, in that they will use a newsworthiness exception to avoid moderating the president’s increasingly unhinged posts, even if they break the rules.
Twitter broke with precedent when, the day after the executive order on social media was signed, the platform censored a presidential tweet saying “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” on the grounds that it “glorified violence.”
The tweet was about the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis, but that’s not where the phrase originated: a Miami police chief used it in 1967 announcing “a ‘get tough’ policy in the city’s Negro district.” Like so much speech in the Trump era, the racism is closer to text than subtext. In order to defend the tweet, one not only has to erase the origin of the quote, but twist oneself into knots over the historical connotations of “thugs” and “looting” and the present-day context of applying those words to a Black Lives Matter protest.
That’s, of course, the point. Information-nationalism is not an inherently racist ideology. But in order to confront racism, one must be clear-eyed about the country’s past and present. It’s no coincidence that anti-Semitism is tied so closely to Holocaust denialism, or that racists today claim that the Confederacy rebelled for reasons other than slavery. Under the logic of information-nationalism, forgetting is strength and remembering is weakness. Thus, anti-racism becomes dangerous, while racism is just another valid political viewpoint.
So what would a rejection of information-nationalism look like? The opposite of information-nationalism is not free speech as Americans know it. It is rather found in Germany, a country with strict hate speech laws that are antithetical to the American civil libertarian tradition.
I think a lot about the New Yorker profile of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, especially this passage that describes the halls of power that Merkel walks. Red Army graffiti from the conquest of Berlin — including “Moscow to Berlin 9/5/45” and “I fuck Hitler in the ass” — is kept on display. Reminders of the horrors of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime litter Berlin’s landscape. The New Yorker’s George Packer concludes, “Like a dedicated analysand, Germany has brought its past to the surface, endlessly discussed it, and accepted it, and this work of many years has freed the patient to lead a successful new life.”
America has never really officially grappled with its past
In 2020, one may very well question this stirring conclusion. (A right-wing extremist shot a regional German politician in the head in 2019; this February, another extremist murdered nine people of “foreign heritage” in Hanau.) Still, there’s something to be said about the German approach. It stands as opposed to information-nationalism as any country can get, and yet Germany has not fallen.
American leaders are not eager for the United States to take its collective self to the psychiatrist’s couch to hash out its hidden pathologies. That’s nothing new — America has never really officially grappled with its past. (To be fair, very few nations do!) Still, there is a big difference between not teaching Howard Zinn in high school and banning Howard Zinn. For the secretary of state to attack an anti-racist examination of history as a national “slander” is a significant step toward the latter.
That doesn’t mean ordinary Americans want to participate in information-nationalism. Indeed, people literally lined up on the street to get free copies of the 1619 Project magazine issue on the day it published. The majority of Americans believe that Black Americans are discriminated against, especially by the police.
For months, protests have been widespread in cities across the country. In early June, a poll found that 54 percent of Americans believed that “the actions of protestors, including the burning of a police precinct, sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police” were either fully or partly justified. In my home of Portland, Oregon, the protests have been going on for over 60 days, with an uptick in conflict in just the past three weeks, after local news reported that federal law enforcement had seized at least one protester off the street and pulled him into an unmarked minivan.
We still live in a country where government funds can be used to criticize the government
Lately, I have seen Portlanders using traffic cones and water bottles to trap and defuse tear gas canisters, or using leaf blowers to blow the gas back at the police. These are strategies they learned from watching videos of the Hong Kong protests, videos disseminated on TikTok and Twitter.
In order for the project of information-nationalism to gather steam in the United States, it will have to overcome not only the will of the people, but traditions like the freedom of the press. The news outlet that first reported the unmarked van arrest by federal agents was Oregon Public Broadcasting, which takes a small part of its funding from the federal government. We still live in a country where government funds can be used to criticize the government.
But institutions — and popular dissent — erode under steady pressure. Time and new technologies can carve out unthinkable landscapes. China did not forget Tiananmen Square overnight; Russia’s Internet Research Agency wasn’t built in a day. The banning of apps, the passage of new digital surveillance laws, the regulation of speech on platforms, the government sponsorship (implicit or explicit) of new technologies — these are the battles that make up information-nationalist warfare.
For what it’s worth, I do not think America will build its own Great Firewall. But this has less to do with faith in the strength of American values and more to do with the sheer scope of such a project. I’m pretty sure America can only make a very poor imitation of the Chinese surveillance-censorship apparatus, just like I’m pretty sure TikTok by Microsoft is going to suck balls.
In other words, the United States has embroiled itself in a war it cannot win and has no business fighting in the first place. I suppose that is one American tradition that won’t be easily undone.