TikTok: American Capitalists vs Chinese Capitalists

Whoever wins, we lose

There is a debate raging about what to do about TikTok, the Chinese-owned video platform. The app is the most visible success at crossing over from the Chinese tech industry into the American market. I’m not really a video person, so it doesn’t appeal to me a ton, but I get why people like it.

Critics of TikTok point to two main concerns: First, that TikTok could steal user data and send it to the Chinese state. A technical teardown of the app shows that TikTok has adopted the technical patterns common in top US apps, wherein user behavior and device metadata are rigorously siphoned up and sent to a server outside of the users’ control. Second, since TikTok pushes content to viewers through an algorithmic feed, it is possible that TikTok will censor certain viewpoints or push other viewpoints (propaganda) through the feed, all ultimately under the control of an authoritarian Chinese state.

TikTok hawks are now pushing for an outright ban, or at least a forced sale of TikTok to non-Chinese capitalists. These same critics tend to be the loudest defenders of what they call free speech and detractors of cancel culture, which is another topic, but I think it does point to a consistent critique of tech’s loudest boosters: they want free speech when it aligns with their interests, and they will encourage and utilize any force necessary, whether hate mobs threatening reporters or the full might of the US state, when speech does not align with their interests.

Today I’m going to respond to an argument put forth by Ben Thompson, author of the newsletter Stratechery. Thompson is a smart analyst and I read his work to absorb an understanding of the tech capitalist mindset. I usually disagree with Thompson’s views because I think he provides analysis for the benefit of tech’s owners, not its users or workers. Thompson portrays the question of whether to ban TikTok as a battle between liberalism and Marxism and ultimately comes down on the side of banning the app to defend US-led liberal free market capitalism. He focuses on the second problem I identified above and proposes that TikTok’s presence in the West cedes too much power to the Chinese state, which could push propaganda through TikTok’s algorithmically ranked feed.

A lack of imagination

My first problem with Thompson’s argument is that it presents a false dichotomy between TikTok being owned by Chinese capitalists or Western capitalists. He states his aims clearly: “My strong preference would be for ByteDance to sell TikTok to non-Chinese investors or a non-Chinese company, by which I mean not-Facebook.” I imagine his preference for a non-Facebook acquirer has less to do with Facebook’s shoddy record on user privacy and more to do with his devotion to competition as a principle for organizing production. Why are these the only options? I will not be happy if some capitalists who are friendly with the US state supplant some capitalists who are friendly with the Chinese state. This is like saying “My problem with Fox News is that it’s run by Rupert Murdoch, a foreigner. Let’s give it to Alex Jones instead.” Don’t we deserve better?

Let’s look at the problems with TikTok that Thompson raises: “TikTok’s algorithm, unmoored from the constraints of your social network or professional content creators, is free to promote whatever videos it likes, without anyone knowing the difference. TikTok could promote a particular candidate or a particular issue in a particular geography, without anyone — except perhaps the candidate, now indebted to a Chinese company — knowing.” That is a pretty scary power! I probably don’t want a foreign government having power over my society’s media. But, who would I trust with this power? Not a bunch of fucking capitalists!

No matter what capitalist ended up owning TikTok, the corporate structure that leads to addictive mechanics and potential for propaganda campaigns would remain the same. There would simply be nearby capitalists at the helm of it, and our attention would still be for sale. Rather than a propaganda campaign conducted from Beijing, we would continue to see propaganda campaigns conducted from DC, laundered through the neutral platform of the social media ad market. The heartbreaking radicalizing tendencies of autoplay algorithms would continue to farm us for ad revenue.

We’ve already seen where the liberal approach to media platform leads: election interference, radicalization, and systematized abuse, all driven by a ceaseless need to drive engagement metrics up and to the right. The ranked feed becomes a site of contest between moneyed interests, some of them backed by the state and some of them attempting to spend money to capture the state. All of them are driven by profit.

I’ve written about alternative structures for regulation before. The major theme to my ideas for getting the platforms under control is transparency. Why should TikTok get to hide how it chooses what videos to show me? Doesn’t that create an atmosphere where abuse, either explicit in the form of propaganda or implicit in the form of bias, is inevitable? Instead, the systems that show us content need to be transparent and inspectable. If the economic nationalists want to impose transparency requirements on TikTok, I’d support them in doing so. But I see no argument that could lead to constraining TikTok that shouldn’t also constrain American capitalist media corporations. The interests of the shareholders of the American platforms and my interests simply do not align; they want to force the most ads into my brain possible, and I do not want that. I have an adversarial relationship with ad platform owners, whether they’re Chinese or American. This echoes at a societal level as well: American political leaders have no problem destabilizing American society through American platforms, and we should stop abdicating our responsibility to govern our media by blaming outsiders.

But why do we even assume that platforms should be owned by anyone instead of everyone? Why do capitalists’ interests, to see time spent and ad revenue rise, prevail at TikTok and YouTube alike? What would a video platform owned by its creators look like? What about a cooperative platform, jointly governed by its creators, viewers, and developers? Transparency is a prerequisite to our ability to govern an open platform, thus a cooperatively-managed video platform would inherently be open for inspection. Try sneaking propaganda into such a platform and you would be found out. It’s a structurally secure alternative. But Thompson and the China hawks don’t say a word about democratic alternatives to US ownership.

Venture imperialism

Thompson should agree to transparency requirements and alternative means of ownership, if protecting users were his interest. I believe his interests lie elsewhere, however.

Thompson frames the conflict over TikTok as a battle in a war of ideologies. He quotes internal documents from the Chinese Communist Party claiming that an “intense, ideological struggle” has commenced between China and the West. He quotes Xi Jingping, “If we tailor our practices to Western values … The consequences will be devastating”, and Jian Zemin, “International hostile forces [seek to] westernize and divide China”. Liberal tech thinkers like Thompson rely heavily on a marketplace of ideas analogy. This is an idealist analysis: it asks whether liberalism or communism is a more powerful or dangerous idea and which should or should not be spread. As a Marxist, I am skeptical of the usefulness of this approach. I believe that focusing on the ideological aspect of a conflict between the Chinese and US states intentionally obscures the actual nature of the conflict, which is quite material.

In an earlier draft of this newsletter I wrote too many paragraphs about the breadth of US militarism and how China’s rejection of Western institutions is the only way for an alternative to arise that challenges US hegemony. This is not my area of expertise so I’m not going to go that deeply into it. I would suggest you read this short book by Noam Chomsky (or any book by him) instead.

Suffice to say, I think the battle at hand is about the 150 military bases and 71 nuclear submarines that US maintains around the world, not Marxism. It is enjoyable to see liberals like Thompson start to express fear about Marxism, though; for years being publicly scared of Marxism has been the domain of only the Tea Party.

I contend that Thompson and the venture capitalists he speaks to are fighting to seize TikTok not for ideological reasons or for the national interest, but for their own interests. You can see that the capitalists do not have any special affection for the people of the United States. They are happy to outsource high-wage jobs to Europe (Facebook engineers get paid 60% as much even in London compared to Menlo Park; Poland is even cheaper). On a tech campus it would be common to hear Hyderabad spoken as a metonymy for the offshore Quality Assurance team. And no one fully knows the breadth of the network of low-wage call center operations throughout Southeast Asia that comprise Silicon Valley’s content moderation operations. These capitalists are globalists when it comes to outsourcing your job but nationalists when it comes to foreign state capitalists muscling in on their territory.

Thompson will consider that China’s motivation in blocking Western platforms is a form of protectionism, but he falls back on a defense of ideological liberalism to obscure the fact that VC criticism of TikTok is clearly self-interested protectionism. Even though Western VCs have already invested in Chinese companies like TikTok, the Chinese state has not been cowed by Western capitalists like our own state, thus Chinese entities that cannot be ultimately controlled by rich Westerners are a threat to Western capitalists’ interests.

We want a democratic media

We should take this opportunity to step back and ask fundamental questions about the media we engage with. Whose responsibility is it to ensure we have an accessible, secure media? One poor answer would be the platform owners’. That would mean admitting we value property rights over our right to an accessible and democratic media. We would be forever stuck in this rut where different groups of capitalists fight each other for our collective time spent. Another possible answer would be the state, and I contend that is equally much an abdication. As critical as I am of Western for-profit social media, I certainly do not want the Chinese model to prevail here, either. When I learned that young dedicated communists in China are repressed by the state for organizing workers, I felt an intense affinity for these organizers. It clarified for me that the struggle is eternal, and no state in existence today can be relied upon; no one can solve our problems for us but us. I don’t want an American TikTok or a Chinese TikTok, or a for-profit media or a state media. I want a democratic media, and no capitalist can provide that.