Thursday’s congressional hearing on the supposedly unique dangers posed by TikTok confirmed one thing for me: Many lawmakers are in over their heads when it comes to tackling social media's nefarious influence overall.
Lawmakers seemed to largely rely on anti-Chinese bigotry to suggest TikTok, owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance, poses a unique danger to U.S. national security. In reality, virtually all social networks are susceptible to nefarious foreign manipulation.
This doesn’t mean TikTok should elude criticism. After all, the Chinese government has a long history of shady surveillance practices. And though TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew denied that Bytedance is "an agent of China," the Chinese government has broad access to data collected by private companies in its country.
But we should be deeply suspicious as to why U.S. lawmakers are laser-focused on TikTok when platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have been manipulated by countries, including China, to influence Americans.
Chew made a similar argument in his opening statement testifying before the House on Thursday.
“The potential security, privacy, content manipulation concerns raised about TikTok are really not unique to us," Chew said. "The same issues apply to other companies. We believe what’s needed are clear, transparent rules that apply broadly to all tech companies. Ownership is not at the core of addressing these concerns.”
But Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who heads the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was intent on keeping the attention on TikTok.
“I want you to say with 100% certainty that neither ByteDance nor TikTok employees can target other Americans with similar surveillance techniques as you did with journalists," Rodgers said, referring to reports that the Justice Department is investigating allegations that TikTok employees spied on U.S. journalists.
Perhaps unknowingly, Rodgers' line of questioning supported Chew’s fundamental argument that these alleged issues aren't confined to TikTok.
The DOJ has already found evidence of foreign spies embedded in a social media company, snooping on Americans on behalf of a foreign power. Last year, a former Twitter employee was convicted of acting as a foreign agent when he accessed private user data of Americans critical of the Saudi Arabian royal family. Another Twitter employee and a Saudi national were also charged in the scheme.
Somehow, I don't think Congress will call upon Twitter owner Elon Musk, a popular right-wing figure, to testify any time soon or propose a nationwide ban on Twitter though.
That said, the TikTok delusion isn’t limited to Republicans.
Rep. Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat, wasn't impressed by Chew's claim that TikTok would allow oversight of its algorithms and bring its data operations under Texas-based tech firm Oracle (a plan known as Project Texas).
“I still believe that the Beijing communist government will still control and have the ability to influence what you do,” Pallone told Chew.
Pallone said he’s concerned about TikTok “making all kinds of money by gathering private information about Americans that they don’t need for their business purposes and then they sell it.”
This is essentially a description of targeted advertising — a practice nearly all major social media platforms use. Pallone suggested TikTok ending this practice, even as other companies still use it, is necessary to prove it's serious about privacy concerns.
That was Thursday’s common theme: Lawmakers embracing a double standard for reasons yet to be fully explained.
The hearing was essentially a competition to see which lawmaker could dig in the most with their anti-TikTok stances. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., acknowledged other social platforms have eluded the level of scrutiny waged against TikTok. “I really don’t wanna go by that standard,” she said.
But therein lies the problem.
By declining to treat TikTok similarly to other platforms already used to target Americans, lawmakers are declining to set a standard at all. Instead, they’re trying to carve out a specific set of parameters for TikTok while letting other platforms run amok.