TikTok: Trump Can’t Dance
TikTok is just as important to visual art and artists as Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and other specific art related communities on the Web. Trump wants to dump it or force a fire sale to Microsoft. And then, he wants Microsoft to pay the U.S. Treasury more on the theory that his threat got them a bargain price — which is actually insane.
TikTok is special because of the age of its users, which skews under 20, and the community they have built there.
TikTok and its immediacy makes it incredibly responsive to trends and what’s happening. It’s free, accessible from any phone and simple to use. The type and age of the creators, the artists on TikTok, raise a special responsibility to preserve their space if possible.
Trump is pissed off at TikTok for the ham-fisted unsophisticated proto-mob boss pay back reason that it was used by hundreds of thousands of teenagers to mess up his 2020 campaign launch rally in Tulsa. By stealth but still in very large numbers they quickly passed the word through TikTok for people to order up tickets to the rally – – which they would never use. Trump thought a million wanted tickets and in the end only 6,000 showed for a venue designed to hold 20,000. Whatever Trump says, no one from ByteDance in China (the company that created TikTok) was pulling strings. No Chinese government operatives were involved. Given the scale of traffic on TikTok, I’d be willing to bet that the whole thing happened without even TikTok’s American managers noticing until after it all came down.
Trump says he will shut down TikTok if necessary.
As a lawyer I can say with some confidence given his motivations, that’s unconstitutional. But if he finds a way to do it technically (a big if) it will take years going through the courts. Meanwhile, he will effectively suppress political speech for a group that has proven itself wanting to speak out negatively on his campaign. Political speech happens to be the most protected kind under the Constitution.
Artists should care because TikTok is a vibrant art form; not because they oppose or support Trump or are susceptible to his xenophobic fear mongering. Artists should care because TikTok is a communication tool with broad worldwide reach. For the music business it’s the most exciting marketing tool they’ve had in decades. For every single high school kid with an interest in visual media it’s an opportunity to be creative, try things out and see what your peers and maybe even others think of your work. If you like dance, well it’s the new home of a thousand and one dances.
So as the Trump administration and European bureaucrats try to demonize TikTok and threaten to block it, artists should pay attention.
The more legitimate issue around TikTok seems to be the collection of user data. TikTok pulls information on what a user looks at, the frequency and times of use, characteristics of favored content, the proportion of content submission versus browsing, the devices the user has, their location plus more and it then creates correlations between users, profiles and content. ByteDance, a Chinese company with many American based investors, built TikTok. ByteDance, is reported to have the largest and most advanced artificial intelligence laboratories in the world. It may be using TikTok in social experiments attempting to create mass mood changes. It reportedly designed algorithms that can push content to users likely to create happiness and joy just to see if, in fact, users would then self-select similar content disproportionately.
Sounds a bit creepy. But stop for a second. First, how cool is it that the experiment went to the light? By contrast, the Russians flooded and targeted susceptible Facebook users with hateful mis-information designed to cause division.
Second, manipulation of emotions through media, aside from being the cornerstone of many forms of entertainment and visual art, became a science and a data game more than half a century ago at the direction of the advertising business. The ByteDance AI might be used to convince the people of Hong Kong to love the police state they are about to become (and if the algorithm can, I expect ByteDance will be well paid) but how much different is that than Murdoch’s Fox News empire changing the definition of news into right wing propaganda; much of it completely false, divisive and recently quite deadly?
Third, not a single technologist has described TikTok doing anything other than a much lighter version of what Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google apps will do to pull information from your device even when you think its sleeping. Their data on you, and there are piles of it, are sold or made available to others in various ways and forms a user profile frightening in its detail. So far, there are no reports of TikTok selling data, by the way.
There is a real debate about controlling use of so-called private and personal data.
But for now, this is how these machines function. Do you really think Adobe isn’t pulling all kinds of data off your Creative Suite while you’re attached to the Adobe Cloud?
The argument is made that American-trained legal departments and a variety of privacy laws protect user data in the hands of U.S. companies. Sorry, not really. Privacy laws in the rest of the “western” world are much stronger than those in the U.S. Google, Facebook, Microsoft and particularly smaller less robust tech companies cooperate with law enforcement when they think its responsible to do so; frequently without alerting the user and without subpoenas. They might deny it, if that makes you comfortable. But they all use the data to sell you stuff; to convince you to do things you would not otherwise care about; and, more importantly, to follow you around on the Web and IRL.
We know for a fact that in the 2016 election cycle Facebook sold access to user data to Cambridge Analytica to target political advertising and we’re not just talking here about a list of usernames.
Big tech companies American style absorb everything they can about a user. They pull software usage data, read messages, emails, catalog your purchases, pull your contact lists and listen in and record from devices like phones, Echo, Alexa and Ring security systems, breaking down transcripts and applying image recognition. Microsoft didn’t just buy LinkedIn to find employees. They bought the data. They have my resume. If they get TikTok, they’ll have even more data on more users.
Why all the “spying” and aren’t you being totally paranoid?
To these companies it’s not spying at all. It’s a scientific and technological challenge to generate and pull the data and an even greater challenge to learn how to sort it, interpret it and ultimately apply it. The motivation is to show off engineering virtuosity and as such this seemingly sanitizes the whole exercise as science and not theft. More importantly, the data is just there. The devices produce it as part of their “natural” function. Why trash it when it can be put to good use? You need GPS to find that restaurant. GPS to function on demand pings satellites multiple times even when your device is resting. Why shouldn’t the GPS data (where you go and when) be used as another random data point in your profile? Why should it go to waste?
The general attack on TikTok (not Trump’s) isn’t about preserving your privacy or stopping apps from pulling your data. They fear the TikTok data is going to China! OMFG.
TikTok’s American company denies that the data currently goes there, and maybe their response is semantics about where the data is stored, which is different from where it might flow. TikTok also denies using invasive tactics to pull content from its users’ devices and no other source, including the U.S. government, has presented contrary facts. It is certainly likely that the app has poor security features but that’s the case for so many other apps that scale quickly, like TikTok. Assume the truth is more nuanced. China already plays intimately in our daily lives. 90% of the stuff in your house comes from there (or Ikea). The devices you are using are built there. China is a major trading partner. Is data somehow different than your order information on toasters, phones, couches, clothing, lamps and that irresistible gadget on Instagram? China’s got all that and more.
Biden has banned people working on his campaign from using TikTok, the British secret service and US intelligence say it’s a bad thing, many companies are wiping it from their devices and American and many European governments recommend the same. Why: the convergence of opportunity, xenophobia and competitive spite.
They are deleting TikTok because they can — it performs no critical functions — and they want to mess with a world-scale Chinese social tech play. What they can’t do and don’t even want to do is delete Microsoft apps, Google, Facebook, iTunes, YouTube, Twitter, Amazon and so forth. Those build crazy personal data farms far more “dangerous” than information on who watches the latest dance moves by a 14yr old. Getting TikTok banned or forcing a sale to an American company is also just deserts for U.S.tech. China blocks many social networks and those it doesn’t are required to store all Chinese generated data in China.
To be clear, security concerns and data storage wars are much too nuanced for Trump. He just sees a community of folks who are out to get him on the election and he wants them shut up or shut down.
What’s the difference between someone in San Jose or Shanghai building a user profile on you? When you sort through that question, try not to resolve to either a racist or nativist conclusion.
TikTok is on the street because it is the quickest most stripped down tech to get your stuff out there to a massive audience. You only need your phone. That’s only sinister to the entrenched media, tech competitors and government operatives. To artists, its gold standard cultural immediacy!
Written by Joshua Wattles