In The Square and the Tower, Prof. Niall Ferguson looks at the impact Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press; how the most influential figures of the Protestant Reformation, such as Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon, capitalised on the new technology to publish their pamphlets, disseminating them across the Holy Roman Empire and Europe. This, then, led to the radical ideas of a select brave minority in the early 16th century, reaching the minds and tongues of millions.
The printing press – like modern social media platforms – came with some downsides, such as the second highest-selling book being the Malleus Maleficarum, which encouraged the first mass witch-hunting movements.
This comparison between our times and the Reformation has merit, but there is a stark contrast between the effects of the printing press to the invention of social media as a form of information dissemination. Namely, the rapidity with which it has devoured our minds and culture. Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517, just over sixty years after the invention of the printing press. Donald J. Trump became President in 2016, just nine years after the invention of the iPhone, and ten years after Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were created. In comparison to the world of Gutenberg, we had a sixth of the time to adapt to the new technology that was also orders of magnitude more powerful, influential, and addictive.
The other major change that has taken place since the creation of social media has been the tightening of governmental control over the lives of ordinary citizens. Whereas the Reformation inspired a culture of intellectual curiosity and, thus, anti-establishment ideas, the Faustian bargain of signing into your social media account, nowadays through a slick smartphone, is that of 24-hour surveillance. By storing our technology and online conversations, governments have complete access to our private lives if required. As whistleblower Edward Snowden made clear, our governments sieve through hundreds of millions of emails, conversations, and online interactions. It’s the sort of government interference that the great totalitarians of the twentieth century would have dreamed of, and about which Huxley and Orwell so presciently warned. Yet we are perfectly comfortable with it all as long as we continue to have access to new technologies.
‘Everything is Seen in China’.
For many, the line is drawn at intent. Philosophers and Politicians have recognised the human trait of wishing to trade liberty for protection throughout the centuries. It’s the most fundamental step towards Hobbes’s Leviathan-like state. This was made evident again by the tacit bargain between state and individual: you get your social media, and we get to keep a close eye and keep you safe. And while Western governments fumbled around to weaponize the internet against the public, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has already perfected the art, with its TikTok app serving a means to atomise generations of Westerners.
The app was first launched in 2018 by a CCP-linked tech company called Bytedance. As of January 2023, it had more than 1.5 billion active users across the world, and is considered the most influential social media platform on Earth. Current fashion, cultural, political, and musical trends originate on CCP servers. TikTok was introduced with intentions more nefarious than people are willing to recognise. Its algorithm was created to ensure its users are as ‘active’ (in other words, addicted) as possible.
The algorithm’s aims are twofold; firstly, that of retention, meaning to ensure people keep returning to the app as regularly as possible; and, secondly, that of longevity, thus, maintaining people on the app as long as possible. And thus far, this has been fruitful considering the average user opens the app 19 times a day and spends more than an hour and a half every day on the app – and let’s not forget that those people most likely have all of the other social media apps.
The algorithm succeeds in maintaining the TikTok consumer by feeding information the user wants to see, as well as finding videos that are of a shorter duration, which encourage ever-shortened and more frequent blasts of dopamine. It’s so powerful that after minutes of scrolling through videos on the site, the app can predict one’s interests, likes and dislikes, musical tastes, state of mind, mental well-being, and even sexual orientation. Therefore, it wishes to latch on to and appeal to the most personal and intimate parts of one’s humanity to keep them scrolling through the app.
Once collected, all of this information is analysed and stored by the Chinese Communist Party, who, according to leaked testimonies, have access to everything if they so wish.
According to a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety department, “everything is seen in China,” and there is an engineer referred to as ‘Master Admin,’ who “has access to everything.” Worse still, is the fact that the terms and conditions of using the app make it explicit. A TikTok user agrees to share with the app their IP address, region, screen resolution, operating system, the apps that have been downloaded on their phone as well as their keyboard strokes and patterns, meaning everything they type, upon signing up for an account.
There’s a good reason for this.
The creators and engineers working on TikTok’s algorithm are instructed to promote all things degenerate and immoral on the app. The Chinese version of TikTok, called Douyin, also owned by Bytedance, promotes engineers, scientists, adventurers and members of the Chinese public working hard to achieve their dreams. Whereas the Western version promotes baseless political ideas, and soft pornography by way of half-naked girls and boys dancing suggestively. The Western version glorifies mental illnesses and emotional instability, all the while celebrating violence, crime, and instant self-gratification.
The ultimate goal of the Chinese government is that of total corruption and atomisation of Westerners, by dumbing down the content that they receive, attacking their ability to concentrate and assume self-control, as well as promoting pernicious and iniquitous ideas and beliefs amongst the youth of rival countries. Such an effort would have been inconceivable ten years ago. Yet now, parents are allowing their children to be corrupted by a hostile, megalomaniacal foreign government hellbent on capturing their attention and pacifying them through endless scrolling – if the parents aren’t themselves consumed by TikTok, that is. And for some unbeknownst reason, there’s little effort or resolve to remove the app or to recognise it as a true threat to western stability and health.
One doesn’t read or hear much about the app or the dangers thereof. That’s even though Donald Trump tried to have the app banned when he was in office, and the ongoing discussions of the Biden administration about whether to ban the app or heavily restrict its usage – interestingly, one of the only points of public policy upon which Democrat and Republican politicians unite. After so much evidence, it’s astonishing that the British government, for example, hasn’t raised it as a talking point. There are no ongoing debates in the UK Parliament concerned with its influence and safety, and how it has captured the minds of the younger generations in this country. There’s plenty of concern about Andrew Tate and his effects on young boys, however. But how do people think he became such a sensation last year? He figured out a way to utilise the algorithm on TikTok for his benefit. Yet no one raises these concerns about the app itself.
Liberalism has failed in its approach to public policy when TikTok has such a stranglehold of billions of young, suggestible Westerners. The classic idea of J.S. Mill’s harm principle, one of Liberalism’s central tenets, which asserts that people are free to act however they so wish provided it doesn’t infringe upon the freedom or rights of others, is not the solution. Were it such, then why would there be a problem with entire generations signing up for an account of their own, free, volition? After all, they’re not infringing on the rights of others. Moreover, if they agree to be monitored by the CCP, then why should they not have the right to? As demonstrated by the American government, this is clearly not the solution.
Instead, a conservative approach is necessary to act accordingly to the dangers of TikTok. And by conservative, I don’t mean libertarianism, which offers the same neglect as Liberalism in this instance; on the contrary, a strict governmental approach aimed at preserving the safety and values of its citizens, promoting a morality that argues foreign powers have no business in using their citizens as pawns in a cold war.
It would be a small-c conservative approach, aiming to protect the rights of its citizens. It wouldn’t be a meddling or interfering government were it to ban TikTok, for if the government is not there to counter aggressive acts or intentions from foreign powers, then it serves no purpose at all. Human beings have (broadly) accepted taxation because they recognise the necessity of a well-fortified wall and equipped city watch. We pay our taxes to fund programmes that are supposed to secure safety from the invader. It just so happens that in the 20th century, war is not merely restricted to an army laying siege to a town or city. Instead, enemies can permeate the homes and minds of their adversaries with software and ingenious algorithms. To fight against it, people must be made aware of the dangers of the app and have those elucidated by their governments.
The more one learns about Bytedance and TikTok the more pernicious it all becomes. Western governments must act incredibly quickly against the tech company to stop it from harvesting information about their citizens – and the fact that it has to be stated explicitly is disconnecting as it should have happened a long time ago. The longer it takes, the more people will sign up, the more information is collected by the CCP and, therefore, the more difficult it is to remove as a result of the influence it holds.