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Banning TikTok won’t fix the deeper problems posed by Big Tech

It’s not whether a foreign entity owns a social media platform that should worry US lawmakers.


The Biden administration and Congress have compelling reasons to force the Chinese company ByteDance to sell TikTok or face a ban in the United States by this time next year. China engages in cyberspying activities globally and uses its technological power at home to enforce social control and crush dissent. A senior US intelligence officer has said the intelligence community “cannot rule out” the possibility that China could use the platform and its formidable recommendation engine to influence its 150 million US users during the 2024 presidential elections.

But the bipartisan push to get ByteDance to sell TikTok misses the mark. Certainly, a hostile foreign government like China’s poses national security threats, but the perils posed by social platforms like TikTok arise from sources much deeper than simply who owns the platform.

The real threat comes from Big Tech’s continuing consolidation of power. Transferring TikTok ownership to US hands won’t eliminate the underlying problems: that hostile foreign governments can spread disinformation to influence the American electorate, and that user data on any social media platform is vulnerable to exploitation.

Because TikTok is so big, probably only a handful of US companies have the resources to buy it. This means TikTok will become part of an existing handful of powerful tech empires, whose only apparent virtue is not being controlled by China. In fact, an outright ban on TikTok would likely benefit Meta and Google by eliminating a major competitor. Either way, Big Tech wins. Would anyone really feel that much safer if TikTok were in the hands of our existing tech moguls?

Although Congress has acted swiftly to address a potential threat from a foreign adversary, it has consistently failed to confront how TikTok and US-owned social media platforms deliver harmful content to users through their recommendation tools. Research shows that the “for you” feed routinely targets teens who have an interest in mental health content with videos of depression, eating disorders, and self-harm. It has allowed misinformation and disinformation to spread across its platform about everything from climate change to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.


These traits are precisely what TikTok has in common with US-owned social media platforms: Facebook and Instagram, owned by Meta, have terrible records of allowing the same sorts of harmful content to permeate their platforms and have proved to be excellent recruiting tools for extremist groups. Far-right militias are back on Facebook after years of stricter controls in the aftermath of January 6. The YouTube algorithm steers young gamers toward videos on guns and mass shootings, and New York City sued Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and TikTok for fueling a childhood mental health crisis. The so-called Twitter Files exposed that top leadership at Twitter made politically motivated decisions regarding content moderation and shadow banning. When Elon Musk took over the platform, he boasted that he would make Twitter, which he renamed X, a free speech haven, only to turn it into an unregulated hell that arbitrarily amplifies all sorts of crap, including coverage of his own bromances with authoritarian leaders.

So when investment banker and former US secretary of the treasury Steve Mnuchin says the TikTok algorithm “could be rebuilt . . . under US leadership” and that doing so would make a tool that is “very robust and secure,” one has to wonder whether that’s true. The evidence suggests that it’s not.


Even if Mnuchin is right and even if China no longer has any involvement with the platform, it could still exploit the porous social media ecosystem in order to spread misinformation and collect users’ data. After all, Russia didn’t have to own Facebook to interfere with the 2016 US presidential campaign.

US policymakers will have to be much more ambitious if they want to actually solve the security problems they claim are posed by Chinese influence over Tiktok. The app has already been banned in a handful of countries and from government-issued devices in many others, including the United States and the members of the European Union. But only a few of those countries are seeking to meaningfully mitigate the larger harms and power consolidation of Big Tech.

The European Union is attempting to lead the way. The European Commission thinks Meta is not doing nearly enough to counter propaganda from Russia and other malicious actors related to the upcoming European elections. The commission has also issued the Digital Services Act Package, a set of rules forcing tech companies to protect users by going after illegal and harmful activities online and putting stricter guardrails in place against the spread of disinformation. The rules also seek to ensure that large tech companies don’t use their position to undermine competition and create a dysfunctional marketplace (as Meta has done in the United States). Time will tell if the EU regulations will be effective in practice, but the European approach understands the depth of the problem in a way that the US anti-TikTok law does not.


In the end, the TikTok problem lies with what former US Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis called the “curse of bigness.” His crusade against monopolies hinged on the fact that the robber barons of his time exploited rigged bids, controlled the patent systems, and could easily circumvent the few laws they hadn’t already had a role in writing. In a similar way, Big Tech has managed to operate with little oversight, and it poses a threat to our national security and functioning democracy equal to that of a Chinese-controlled TikTok.

Mattia Ferraresi is a writer based in Rome and the managing editor of the Italian newspaper Domani.