Not long ago, I was regaled with a litany of conspiracy theories by a person in their 20s at a social event. Yes, this person was slightly “lubricated,” but that only opened the floodgates. The beer did not fill their mental reservoir. What came through the gates — a spill of nonsense from polluted intellectual waterways — was what mattered.
After listening to the conspiracies about vaccines, billionaires, misogyny, and genocide, I paused and asked, “Are You on TikTok Much?”
The answer: “Yes.”
The level of engagement with TikTok is probably worth asking about for anyone sharing opinions of the conflict in Israel and Gaza, as Scott Galloway wrote about recently. The answer may correspond with what those opinions are.
In his piece, Galloway noted the divergence in views of Israel by age:
A lot of these discrepancies may be explained by how prevalent the use of TikTok is among the various age groups.
Congressman Mike Gallagher (R-WI) has argued that TikTok is the reason Hamas and Palestinians have garnered sympathy in the West, while an expert found that his TikTok stream turned rabidly anti-Israel once he started engaging with such posts.
We know of TikTok’s predatory nature because the app has several versions. In China, there is a safely sanitized version called Douyin. That version, using much of the same technology, shows kids science experiments and other educational content, and its use is limited to forty minutes per day. Here in America, the application’s algorithm is exquisitely tuned to prioritize polarizing outrage and addictive, brain-numbing nonsense (at best) and dangerous propaganda (at worst). Put differently, ByteDance and the CCP have decided that China’s children get spinach, and America’s get digital fentanyl.
China’s ploy with TikTok is part of a larger geopolitical conflict, just Facebook and other social media site were weaponized by China and Russian during many of the election cycles since 2016 in the US, Canada, France, Germany, and elsewhere. As Galloway writes:
There is a nonzero probability that TikTok is being manipulated and leveraged by the CCP to sow division in America. That probability is high. . . . The CCP has control over the most powerful, yet elegant, weapon in the history of propaganda, and the default position is they (i.e., the CCP) are not using it? I have stated this view before. China cannot beat us kinetically or economically, but it can beat us by tearing us apart from the inside. TikTok, in my view, has the potential effect of several carrier strike forces. A 21st century Trojan Horse that also generates $100 billion in annual revenue.
Galloway continues, citing the leader of the CCP’s public statements to this effect:
Xi Jinping has described the Internet as “the main battlefield in the battle for public opinion,” and in 2013 he said, “online public opinion work should be taken as the top priority of propaganda and ideological work. Many people, especially young people, do not read mainstream media and get most of their information from the Internet. We must face up to this fact, increase investment, and seize the initiative on this battlefield of public opinion as soon as possible. [We must] become experts in using new means and methods of modern media.” ByteDance employees have confirmed the CCP has backdoor access to American TikTok user data, which it has used several times. In addition, the CCP has refused to let TikTok’s parent company ByteDance go public for national security reasons. FBI officials have themselves stated TikTok could be used as an "aggressive weapon" against the U.S. and China’s enemies at large. In sum, the CCP’s manipulation of TikTok is hiding in plain sight.
The US government forbids workers and representatives from using TikTok on their phones. Many companies do, as well. They know it is a security and national security risk.
The conflict in Gaza is making it clear it is also a powerful and subversive propaganda tool.
- “Are you on TikTok much?”
When the answer is a proxy for your worldview — and an affirmative answer makes you more likely to mistake terrorism for legitimate conflict — we have a problem.