The United States Should Ban TikTok

by Kevin Munger on March 23, 2023

This is an unusual post from me, in that I’m far from unique in making these kind of arguments. Despite what I see as a growing chorus of thoughtful critics advocating for a TikTok ban, no one seriously seems to think it could happen. If TikTok is already un-ban-able, our capacity for democratic control is already lost. I am optimistic that this is not the case, and that this remains a stand worth taking.

In anticipation of the 2020 US Presidential Election, President Trump threatened to ban TikTok — and went so far as to sign an Executive Order to that effect.

This was a hastily conceived response to what is a genuine but complicated problem. The immediate polarization of the issue and the liberal framing that Trump’s motive was xenophobic have prevented the development of a more reasoned debate. TikTok is the first major social media platform developed by a geopolitical rival to gain widespread adoption in the United States.

Although President Biden rescinded Trump’s EO, his administration has continued to investigate the platform and is considering new regulations that reflect this novel challenge. There is no reason to give TikTok the benefit of the doubt. The major US platforms have consistently failed to be responsible stewards of the awesome power they have appropriated over our media and politics, and TikTok has demonstrated the same irresponsibility — except that they are far more vulnerable to pressure from the Chinese regime.

In a Congressional hearing in late October 2021, a TikTok executive said that TikTok “does not give information to the Chinese government and has sought to safeguard U.S. data.” Like so many other tech company executives, they were lying. Buzzfeed News released a major investigation in June 2022 that found that:

“engineers in China had access to US data between September 2021 and January 2022, at the very least…nine statements by eight different employees describe situations where US employees had to turn to their colleagues in China to determine how US user data was flowing.”

The reality is that TikTok — like Facebook and other massive social media platforms — is so large and so haphazardly constructed in their pursuit of explosive growth that no single employee can know everything about what data are collected, where they are stored and how they are used. So while I am sympathetic from an engineering perspective, we should have zero confidence in the ultimate security of any of these platforms.

They made this problem for themselves, and it is up to them to fix them. In the short run, the US government should follow the example set in the 2019 FTC $5billion Facebook fine and continue to impose harsh penalties for data breaches and irresponsible data collection. The hypergrowth mindset of these companies has polluted our information commons, but with sufficiently harsh penalties, we can change their optimal economic strategy from “grow as fast as possible, period” to “grow as fast as possible while still following the law and maintaining secure data practices.”

On this line of criticism, it is fair to say that TikTok is not significantly worse than other social media platforms — the data they collect is not categorically more intrusive, say. So it is legitimate to argue that banning TikTok and leaving the other platforms be is arbitrary is unfair. I’m willing to bite that bullet, and say that between banning none of them and all of them, given their track record so far, we should just ban them all.

Sure, this would be a huge blow to a major US industry and a serious disincentive to innovation in this area. But as I argued in my post about LLMs, is anyone really looking at the world today and saying:

“Things are going pretty well! My biggest worry is that things would be much worse if we were to dramatically reduce the rate of change of digital media technology.”

Buzzfeed identifies another concern: that “the soft power of the Chinese government could impact how ByteDance executives direct their American counterparts to adjust the levers of TikTok’s powerful “For You” algorithm. I believe that this is the primary concern, from the perspective of the fragile state of the legitimacy of our democratic elections.

2016 caused widespread alarm in liberal circles that Russian misinformation and other forms of “Fake News” had swung the election in favor of Trump. TikTok represents a far more serious vulnerability to Chinese interference in 2024. Imagine that TikTok subtly stops some forms of content moderation and then the “For You” Page algorithm is made to promote false content at a rate far larger than ever before.

The actual effect of this move — measured in the number of different people exposed to misinformation multiplied by the amount of aggregate time they spent consuming it — could be orders of magnitude larger than anything Russia did in 2016. And it wouldn’t even have to misinformation. What if they juiced the weights in favor of pro-DeSantis (or pro-Biden) content, shifting the partisan balance of the platform?

More troubling still is that the persuasive effect on the viewers might be small (as my read of the evidence suggests was the case in 2016) but that the mere fact of the informational attack would further delegitimize the election. Caesar’s wife is supposed to be beyond suspicion — and given the precarious state of election legitimacy, is it even conceivable that political activity on TikTok does not at least appear suspicious?

One concern might be that China will retaliate and ban US-based social media platforms from operating within their borders. This concern is somewhat lessened if we observe that China has been doing so for over a decade already. The move to ban TikTok is thus a move that puts us at parity with our primary geopolitical rival. Insofar as massive datasets and human-algorithm feedback are important resources in the current race to develop more powerful AI for both economic and military advantage, this strategic asymmetry is unnecessary and unwise.

More broadly, this move might accelerate the rise of digital protectionism and more regional and even national internet platforms. I argue that this trend is both inevitable and for the better. The conjunction of internet speed and global scale has made the potential profit from software and digital services so preposterous that it has warped the global economy.

“Software is eating the world,” Marc Andreessen wrote in a famous 2011 Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal. (I guess the WSJ readers somehow thought this would be a good thing?) He concludes by saying that “instead of constantly questioning their valuations, let’s seek to understand how the new generation of technology companies are doing what they do.”

Twelve years on, I think we have a good idea of how these tech companies are doing what they do: they expand recklessly quickly, setting themselves impossible tasks like content moderation at a global scale; they break local laws or share data with autocrats, as best suits them; they lie about user and viewership numbers to prop up a digital advertising house of cards; they prevent independent oversight of basic descriptive facts, let alone the possibility of legitimate democratic control.

Between software and the world, give me the world!

Several months ago, I was at a conference where some regulators and platform people were discussing campaign finance on social media. The regulators were all super concerned about targeted advertising. It’s unaccountable in that it can’t be viewed by everyone, potentially allowing unsavory niche arguments to be delivered without public scrutiny. One regulator said that his goal was to require Facebook to provide a list of the demographics at whom each ad was targeted — to see if a given ad were target at women, or Hispanics, or retirees, etc.

The Facebook engineer scoffed. “Do you have any idea how the ad auction at the heart of Facebook works? No one knows who is “targeted,” it’s all in real time and a super complex interaction between supply and demand.” The regulator, with a law background, was clearly out of his technical depth.

What the engineer was saying is true: most people don’t understand these ad auctions and his description was exactly correct. But as I told the lawyer: “Tell them to give you what you want or go to jail! Who cares what bullshit systems they use to maximize the efficiency of serving ads. The law creates reality.”

Someone is going to be build the future. The current technological revolutions and the closing of the long postwar era of Boomer Ballast means that reality is up for grabs; the present battle is ontological. The tech companies are creating a reality of code, of inhuman scale and complexity, one in which the human subject is reduced to a monkey in a Skinner box while the technocapitalists dream of annihilation.

I prefer liberal ontology, defined by institutions, the rule of law, and the reasoning liberal subject. Clearly, faith in this reality is fading: is it really possible to prosecute Trump? Can we really tolerate being governed by the collective will of our fellow citizens? Do we really accept the outcomes produced our institutions?

Can we really ban TikTok?



Keith Douglas 03.23.23 at 7:44 pm

Can one ban TT without looking massively hypocritical? If not, does this matter?


LFC 03.23.23 at 9:07 pm

The tech companies are creating a reality of code, of inhuman scale and complexity, one in which the human subject is reduced to a monkey in a Skinner box

The Skinner box was designed for human infants; it did not involve monkeys.


SusanC 03.23.23 at 9:17 pm

Part of the problem here is that the main US-based social media have got themselves a bad reputation for censoring news stories in a politically partisan manner. Sometimes in concert with government agencies (hello, First Amendment and state action),

So, although TikTok is (probably) censored by the Chinese govenment, it might be in some respects differently censored to the platforms that are censored by the US government (and its private co-conspirators). So that’s a reason to want to have access to TikTok.

If the government bans it, some people are probably going to claim the ban is a First Amendment violation, with good reason. (ie. a government ban of Tiktok is an attempt by the US goverment to prevent us citizens having access to news media which are not censored by the US government).


J-D 03.23.23 at 10:04 pm

Can one ban TT without looking massively hypocritical? If not, does this matter?

My answer to the first question is that if the United States did ban TikTok it would certainly attract criticism from some people, including some Americans, some of which could call the decision massively hypocritical; some of this criticism, for example from Chinese government officials, would itself be massively hypocritical, but some of it would be completely sincere. My answer to the second question is that the appearance of hypocrisy should not be a factor in deciding whether to ban TikTok. I’m not saying it should be banned; I don’t know that the case is strong enough; but the appearance of hypocrisy is not one of the things that should count as a consideration against doing so.


MisterMr 03.23.23 at 11:54 pm

If every country banned foreign owned social media, every country would have its own social and people wouldn’t speak to each other from different countries.
Also according to this logic every country should presume that they are tampering with their elections.

I think a simplier and less drastic approach would be to forbid all political communications on socials for, say, the month of the elections, and fining hard those socials that don’t comply.


MisterMr 03.23.23 at 11:55 pm

In my previous comment I meant:
“Also according to this logic every country should presume that the USA are tampering with their elections.”


Alex SL 03.24.23 at 12:30 am

It is fascinating to see how this post oscillates between

(1) All social media platforms should be banned because of their malign influence and untrustworthiness.


(2) Although all social media platforms have a malign influence and cannot be trusted, only TikTok specifically should be banned because China is our ‘rival’.

Needless to say, I find it much more difficult to accept the second as part of a sound ethical stance or even merely in terms of intellectual consistency. I prefer living in a democracy and wish tech corporations would face much stricter regulation, but an enormous amount of discourse around China is treating that nation’s government as uniquely malign for pursuing their global economic strategic interests in a way that receives no mainstream mention whatsoever when e.g. the USA or France do the exact same thing.


engels 03.24.23 at 3:45 am

The rest of the world should ban Hollywood.


Doug 03.24.23 at 6:53 am

I think I probably agree that the big social media platforms (let’s say Twitter, FB, Instagram, TikTok, and perhaps Youtube) should all be banned or heavily regulated. Banning TikTok and only TikTok for national security reasons, is not a meaningful step towards this goal. No regulatory framework is created which can be applied to other companies, and the vast majority of user attention (and attending individual and societal ills) transfers to other platforms which we have just agreed are toxic. So it seems like the only real argument for TikTok to be banned is that its imbrication with the Chinese state makes it uniquely dangerous. Granting for the sake of argument that this danger is real, it has to be balanced against another danger that goes unaddressed in this post: that banning TikTok would be seen (correctly, I think) as an escalation of the ongoing {war of words, trade spat, cold war, whatever you want to call it} with China, with potential consequences such as (to pick points near the extremes) increased inflation to global thermonuclear war. To me, banning TikTok and only TikTok seems hypocritical and irresponsible in the absence of a regulatory regime that also targets the other social media giants.

As an aside, I think this kind of “half a loaf” measure often results from trying to accomplish good policy A (here, banning or heavily regulating social media) in a basically incompatible ideological project B (here, the bipartisan consensus that China is a threat to US interests). I’d compare it to the small number of leftists who see JD Vance and Tucker Carlson arguing for some social-democratic reforms aimed at a certain kind of white male patriarch and believe that this might be better than no social-democratic reforms at all. In fact, I think this kind of “coalition” is worse than useless, and ultimately advances ideological project B much more than big-picture policy goal A.


roger gathmann 03.24.23 at 1:03 pm

I’ve been thinking – nations should definitely consider barring Hollywood film exports. They glorify violence and have produced all too many cosplaying shooters. Scarface, the de Palma film, was said to be the favorite of Pablo Escobar – enough said, amirite? I’m sure this will make the world a much better place. People, who don’t understand the power of media, can’t really make a choice on these decisions – they need to be made by technocrats!


Tim Worstall 03.24.23 at 8:08 pm

“is anyone really looking at the world today and saying:

“Things are going pretty well! My biggest worry is that things would be much worse if we were to dramatically reduce the rate of change of digital media technology.””


“The actual effect of this move — measured in the number of different people exposed to misinformation multiplied by the amount of aggregate time they spent consuming it — could be orders of magnitude larger than anything Russia did in 2016. And it wouldn’t even have to misinformation. What if they juiced the weights in favor of pro-DeSantis (or pro-Biden) content, shifting the partisan balance of the platform?”

Congratulations, you’ve just made the argument against the very idea of a free press. People might be told the wrong things!

Sorry about this and if it gets edited out then so be it. But the correct response to this sort of thing is “Bugger off, Matey”.


icastico 03.25.23 at 2:23 am

Feels like banning any media platform runs afoul of the 1st Amendment at some level. TikTok is nothing compared to many establishment media companies in terms of their danger to society.


oldster 03.25.23 at 10:08 am

I agree; the US should ban TikTok. It creates intolerable security risks.
The case of Kaspersky Labs is instructive here. This was a Russian company that made anti-virus software and sold it worldwide. The owner and founder seemed like a trustworthy pro-democracy opponent of malicious cyber warfare. He exposed some bad Russian operations, and he seemed like he was generally one of the good guys.
But in a totalitarian country like Putin’s Russia, the details of Kaspersky’s character don’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether he is actually a good guy or a bad guy. Because in Russia, Putin controls everything. He will get what he wants, whether by threats, blackmail, suborning, sabotaging, or what have you. If there is a successful business in Russia, it succeeds only at the pleasure of Putin. So, eventually, it will do Putin’s bidding.
In this case, we know that Kaspersky was eventually shown to be spying on its customers and collecting data, esp. on US national security targets. US govt entities can no longer use Kaspersky products which is how it should be.
The same lessons apply to Xi’s China. There is no private enterprise in China that can say “no” to the govt there. TikTok is already under the control of Xi, whether he has exercised that control already or not. Eventually, it will start spying on US customers and targeting national security targets.
The time to ban it is now.


Jake Gibson 03.25.23 at 12:27 pm

Other than the association with a foreign government, why is TikTok data collection so much worse than Google or Twitter data collection. Should we trust Elon Musk or Sergei Brin more than we do the CCP?


Phil H 03.25.23 at 1:28 pm

The ‘data might do horrible things’ argument seems horribly weak to me. Wait till it really does do horrible things before jumping down the throat of very successful companies.
However worried you are about data being in China, I hope you feel some assurance in realising that the Chinese feel just as worried about all their wealthy young people being educated in American universities. I think anything that entangles China and the US is great. There’s international tension coming, and anything that reduces the possibility of armed conflict must be a good thing.


engels 03.25.23 at 6:00 pm

What Roger said, but en serio.


SusanC 03.25.23 at 7:12 pm

One possible reason why US consumers (and government regulators) should trust Elon Musk’s twitter more than they trust TikTok is that if Musk does anything egregiously illegal, the US authorities can throw him in jail. If an overseas company does something bad to US citizens, you are straight out of luck.

And yes, I am aware that is also a reasons why regulators in any country that isn’t the US should distrust twitter.


William Berry 03.26.23 at 4:26 am

What “icastico” said, @12.

“MisterMr”, @12:

I think a simpler and less drastic approach would be to forbid all political communications on socials for, say, the month of the elections, and fining hard those socials that don’t comply.

When this happens, it will be under the 21st century American Nazi Party, going in a direction that is substantially different from what you seem to envision.

I mean no offense, but you obviously know very little about the First Amendment Fetish (in as neutral a sense of “fetish” as I can manage) of the U.S. public.

Whatever else obtains, we can, and will, fucking talk about it whenever, and wherever, we please.


William Berry 03.26.23 at 4:44 am

Phil H @15:

Wait till it really does do horrible things before jumping down the throat of very successful companies.

This is as distilled a definition of Neoliberalism as one could imagine.

A single instance of human horror is a small price to pay for a smoothly functioning marketplace.


MisterMr 03.26.23 at 1:19 pm

@William Berry 18

I’m not envisioning it going in any particular direction: we have 15 days of “election silence” in Italy:

though currently it doesn’t apply to social media.
Asking a social media to not let political stuff be published for, say 15 days is less a violation of free speech than banning a platform outright imho.


engels 03.26.23 at 4:03 pm

you obviously know very little about the First Amendment Fetish…of the U.S. public. Whatever else obtains, we can, and will, fucking talk about it whenever, and wherever, we please.

Good luck doing that on the internet in 2023 (yes, including post-Musk Twitter).


Paul Segal 03.27.23 at 2:31 am

I’m with you that there’s a good case to ban all those social media platforms, first because of their mental health effects and second the risks to democracy you highlight.

But why pander to the US establishment’s framing of China as the US’s “geopolitical rival”? A few years ago we were enjoying the positive sum benefits of friendly trade and investment. Now that the Chinese economy has got big, the US has invented a new cold war against them because, as Adam Tooze has put it, it can’t conceive of a relationship with another country that is not one of domination, and we are all supposed to go along with the pretence that it is about defending democracy instead of US imperialism. It’s not.


TM 03.27.23 at 12:29 pm

If we are debating banning media networks, we should start with Fox News. The reality is of course that short of an actual pro-democracy revolution in the US, even the slightest action against the purveyors of Nazi propaganda is impossible. Just look at Alex Jones who actually lost a bunch of lawsuits and not only just continues peddling Nazi propaganda but also managed to use US bankruptcy law to hide his assets that the courts have said he must turn over to his victims, and is doing all of in borad daylight with his middle finger permanently stretched out.

The US seems legally and instituionally incapable of dealing with the threat of antidemocratic authoritarians working in broad daylight to dismantle the republic. Given that situation I do not understand what the point of the present discussion about Tiktok is supposed to be.


TM 03.27.23 at 12:35 pm

“Whatever else obtains, we can, and will, fucking talk about it whenever, and wherever, we please.”

This is indeed a kind of fetishism in action. Maybe Americans can talk whenever they want almost whatever they want, but most certainly not wherever they want – and never could.


William S. Berry 03.27.23 at 4:56 pm


That’s true enough as far as corporate social media platforms are concerned. But I think the idea held by many people (including you?) that these platforms shouldn’t be regulated (or held legally liable) for the harmful consequences of hate speech, or for inciting violence, is a very peculiar one.

These “social media platforms” are corporate entities and, by extension, whatever they publish is commercial speech. If you don’t like the rules and regulations, don’t use them.

I should have been more clear in my original comment, and in especially the part you quote. You can and should regulate commercial media platforms in whatever way seems appropriate. Anything posted on these sites, regardless of content, serves, first, the corporate interests of the owners. One’s own interest in posting is a secondary concern, if they care at all.

You don’t have a First Amendment right to say anything you want to say on a corporate platform whose very owners care little to nothing about your free speech rights.

But the Internet, thank Dog, is still wide open. You can start your own website* (if no provider is willing to host it, you can run your own modest server from your home). And you can say whatever you want, whenever you want (provided you understand that you can be held legally liable for harm caused by speech that is defamatory of another person, or that incites actual violence).

Ah, but what if no-one reads what you publish, whereas Twitter, or Facebook, really puts it out there for you?

Work hard. Use lots of links, etc. Become a CT, or a Josh Marshall, or an entirely new voice with an original and provocative message. You don’t have a legal right to have some abysmal black hole of a corporate entity do that for you.

You can even start your own social media platform. Make it an anarchist or Marxian collective, or whatever. Anyone can say whatever they want. Just remember that you can be sued for defamation, or arrested for causing someone to be injured or killed by violence that was incited by you or by another poster on your site.

So, yeah. that last sentence of mine that you quoted was an exaggeration. But I stand by the rhetorical emphasis.

Sure, the government can regulate speech on social media platforms because they are owned and operated by corporate (or billionaire) entities whose speech can be regulated.

What the government cannot do is ban Josh Marshall, or you, or myself, or anyone, from saying and publishing whatever we want to about politics or any other subject as long as we’re doing it on our own time and dime.

To repeat, apart from whatever regulation social media platforms might operate under, it would be completely illegal in the United States to ban political speech for fifteen days or for fifteen minutes. I understand that this is not the case in Engels’s UK or in your own Italy.

If you’re commenting on a private site (such as CT, obviously) you already know that what you say is regulated (moderated) by the operators of the site. (One of my favorite commenters here was the anarchist, and free speech absolutist, Rich Puchalsky, who left in a huff some years back due to the stricter moderation standards here at CT. So far as I am aware, he is free to return at any time.)

I realize that there are some leftier-than-thou types (whatever happened to Orange Watch, e.g.?!) who like to slag on LGM, but they (SL, Campos, Farley) are very good on this, especially WRT the issue of one’s imagined right to have their opinions promulgated to the entire world by a corrupt corporation that operates for its own, mostly nefarious, ends.

In re the subject of the OP:
I don’t really care about Tik-Tok, either way. If it spies for the Chinese government (which, yes, is vastly more repressive than the Western Democracies), then the U. S. is justified in shutting it down. (Hell, the nearly exact model could be used by a media entity in the U. S., just to keep the kids happy.

*I ran a left-liberal, pro-labor website back in the day (early 2000s). My work as a union president (USW Amalgamated Local 7686: about 1,400 members) made it impossible to keep up with. It’s buried in the “Wayback Machine” somewhere.


Colin Danby 03.27.23 at 5:39 pm

I clicked the title hoping for a clear argument, but this post confirms that the case is no more than a hazy combination of (a) commercial social media platforms are terrible (b) the Chinese government is terrible.


engels 03.27.23 at 11:47 pm

You can start your own website* (if no provider is willing to host it, you can run your own modest server from your home)… Ah, but what if no-one reads what you publish… Work hard. Use lots of links, etc… You can even start your own social media platform. Make it an anarchist or Marxian collective, or whatever. Anyone can say whatever they want. Just remember that you can be sued for defamation, or arrested…

Thanks. I think I’ll just find a different “fetish”.


William S. Berry 03.28.23 at 12:42 am

@TM: I think my more recent comment illustrates the fact that I am aware of the boundaries of what we call “free speech”.

I’m not an analytic philosopher, and I’m not above the occasional rhetorical flourish.

But, yeah, one can, in fact, say anything, anywhere, at any time that one chooses to do so. In a totalitarian political regime the cost might go all the way up to execution. Under the First Amendment regime in the U.S., saying something defamatory can get you sued. Inciting violence, or falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, can get you arrested.

It’s all relative (which means not absolute!), someone once said.


MisterMr 03.28.23 at 11:20 am

@William S. Berry

I should clarify that the 15 days ban in Italy is only for the publication of polls (there is a ban also for political communications but is way shorter, from the day before the election to the end of the election, so usually 2-3 days).

I’m not sure, from your explanation @25, if you consider a ban for Tik-Tok (or other social media) to publish user posts of political content as an infringment of free speech of the users or acceptable because said posts are still published by Tik-Tok and therefore commercial speech?


engels 03.28.23 at 11:19 pm

I’m not remotely suggesting this would be a good thing but it’s intriguing to speculate how politics/culture/academic priorities might be different today if Tumblr had been nixed in the 2000s.


LFC 03.29.23 at 4:47 pm

As engels’s remark @27 makes clear, engels prefers to comment here, where he knows that, because Crooked Timber has an audience and he is a long-time commenter, people will read what he has to say, rather than, for example, starting his own blog, where the number of people reading his remarks would likely be smaller, perhaps much smaller. Then, too, he seems to enjoy bantering back and forth, which would be less likely to occur, at least on the same scale, at his own blog. Unless his blog, if he started one, were to catch fire and develop an audience, which I guess is not inconceivable…


engels 03.30.23 at 9:05 pm

Very kind of you to say so, L.


William S. Berry 04.02.23 at 4:03 am

@LFC: I’ve read your comments here over the years. I appreciate your groundedness, and recognize the quality of your thinking WRT international relations (which seems to be your main interest). but I’ve always suspected that you might be just a bit literal-minded.

Please try to find it in yourself to consider that I might be attempting to make a point by means of old-fashioned (and kind of subjective) rhetorical emphasis, rather than by means of the clinical (and, dare I say, primitive?!) language of (what I think of as) half-committed (i.e., half-baked) empiricists.

You know: “The Two Cultures”, and all that.

Hey, I’m trying to reach across the divide here, brother! Help me out.

Here you go:

I’m really tired of the 1A discussion. If you don’t know the argument, and what is at stake, just read the Wiki article and follow some of the links. You’ll learn a hella’ lot more there than you ever could from me!

@Engels: Carry on, comrade. And enough with the cynicism. It serves no useful end.

We might not prevail, but we still have breath in our bodies!

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