Taylor Lorenz, the New York Times‘s resident expert on teen culture, recently highlighted an "excellent piece" by former Times editorial board member Sarah Jeong. The piece, published in The Verge, criticized the Trump administration's efforts to ban TikTok, the Chinese-owned social media app popular with sexy teens who like to dance.
Jeong, Lorenz, and other TikTok apologists appear to have settled on a familiar argument in response to concerns that the data-harvesting app's relationship with the Chinese government is problematic. In essence: Data-harvesting is bad, but U.S. companies like Facebook also harvest data; the Chinese government is bad, but the U.S. government is also bad. Therefore, banning TikTok would be unfair and hypocritical—and probably racist as well.
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.
She's got a point. The Chinese campaign of ethnic cleansing against its Muslim citizens bears a striking similarity to the Obama-era policy of detaining undocumented immigrants and their children in cages. The Chinese government's brutal repression of political dissidents might be distressing, but so is the fact that people posted mean things about Sarah Jeong after she criticized the U.S. government.
Freedom of the press is an area where the differences between China's government and ours are practically nonexistent upon close examination. For example:
In China … authorities recently arrested pro-democracy journalism tycoon Jimmy Lai on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces, while hundreds of agents raided the Hong Kong offices of his Apple Daily newspaper. Senior executives at the paper were also arrested, as were two of Lai's sons, as was a freelance reporter for the U.K.-based network ITN. Agnes Chow, a 23-year-old pro-democracy activist, was arrested and charged with "inciting secession."
In the United States … CNN reporter Jim Acosta suffered the attempted theft of a microphone he was using to ask President Trump a question during a press conference at the White House. When the Trump administration revoked Acosta's press credentials after the incident, CNN sued in federal court to get his credentials restored, but dropped the suit after the White House backed down. Acosta went on to publish The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America, a bestselling memoir about being a journalist in the Trump era.
It really is quite eerie to see the situations in the two countries laid out next to one another. Are China's efforts to police the media any more sinister than Trump's? As Jeong correctly argues, that's a genuinely difficult question to answer.
Failed novelist Ben Rhodes made yet another excellent point on Twitter, the social media app that is like TikTok for people who don't have any hobbies or friends. He argued that so-called "democratic" countries such as the United States and Israel are practically indistinguishable from authoritarian regimes in Russia, Turkey, Hungary, and Zimbabwe, among others.
It really makes you think, doesn't it?