Accusations of Chinese tyranny are often based on demands from Beijing that Google and Facebook comply with their censorship orders as a condition for remaining in China. Reports over the years suggested that these firms typically comply: Google was building a censored search engine suited to Chinese demands; The New York Times has claimed Facebook developed a censorship app as its entrance requirement to the Chinese market, and Vox accused Apple of succumbing to Chinese censorship demands by banning an app from its store that had been used by protesters in Hong Kong demanding liberation from control by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
But now the tables appeared to be turning when it comes to U.S. censorship demands and TikTok. Threats to ban or severely limit the Chinese-owned-and-controlled platform from the U.S. have been hovering over TikTok’s head through both the Trump and Biden years. The most common justification offered for the threat is that TikTok’s presence in the U.S. empowers China to propagandize Americans, a concern that escalated along with the platform’s massive explosion among Americans. Since early 2021, TikTok has been the most-downloaded app both worldwide and in the U.S. In August, Pew Research conducted a “survey of American teenagers ages 13 to 17” and found that “TikTok has rocketed in popularity since its North American debut several years ago and now is a top social media platform for teens among the platforms covered in this survey.”
Concerns over China’s ability to manipulate U.S. public opinion were based on claims that China was banning content on TikTok that was contrary to Beijing’s interests. Western media outlets were specifically alleging that the Chinese government itself was censoring TikTok to ban any content that the CCP regarded as threatening to its national security and internal order. “TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned social network, instructs its moderators to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong,” warned The Guardian in late 2019.
Rather than ban TikTok from the U.S., the U.S. Security State is now doing exactly that which China does to U.S. tech companies: namely, requiring that, as a condition to maintaining access to the American market, TikTok must now censor content that undermines what these agencies view as American national security interests. TikTok, desperate not to lose access to hundreds of millions of Americans, has been making a series of significant concessions to appease the Pentagon, CIA and FBI, the agencies most opposed to deals to allow TikTok to stay in the U.S.
Among those concessions is that TikTok is now outsourcing what the U.S. Government calls “content moderation” — a pleasant-sounding euphemism for political censorship — to groups controlled by the U.S. Government:
TikTok has already unveiled several measures aimed at appeasing the U.S. government, including an agreement for Oracle Corp to store the data of the app’s users in the United States and a United States Data Security (USDS) division to oversee data protection and content moderation decisions. It has spent $1.5 billion on hiring and reorganization costs to build up that unit, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Perhaps one might view as reasonable U.S. concerns that China can weaponize TikTok to propagandize Americans and destabilize the U.S. through its power to censor the platform. Note, however, that this is precisely the same concern that countries like China, Iran and Russia all invoke to justify censorship compliance as a condition for U.S. internet companies to remain active in their country. Those countries fear that American tech companies — whose close partnership with U.S. security agencies has long been well-documented — will be used to propagandize and destabilize their populations and countries exactly the way that the U.S. Security State is apparently concerned that China can do to the U.S. via TikTok.