Instagram fans kicked off last month when they saw their beloved feed had been supplanted by a new video feature called Reels.

Reels differ from the old Instagram videos in that Reels aren’t chosen by the user. Instead, they’re chosen for the user by Instagram’s algorithm.

Why did Meta take this risk with its most valuable property? It was pushed into it by the sudden and dramatic rise of TikTok, a new social media app. 

TikTok is the first social network to seriously threaten Meta’s dominance since the MySpace days, maybe 16 years ago. And Instagram’s Reels are suspiciously similar to TikTok’s core product. 

TikTok is the coming force. American teens spend an average of 99 minutes per day on it. In Ireland, 74 per cent of 8 to 12-year-olds use it.

After all the strokes Meta has pulled over the years, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for it. It’s got the social media industry sewn up. It copies and steals from competitors. And most of its products are clearly not good for us.

But despite all that, we should be very careful with TikTok. TikTok is not an ordinary social network. It’s different in one important respect: its owner, ByteDance, is based in China. 

Social networks, as controlled by private investors, are bad enough. One controlled by an authoritarian state is much worse.

Means and motive

Allow me to make the case that Chinese-based companies are fundamentally different from the ones we’re used to.

Business in China is not like business in the liberal bloc (basically North America, Europe, and east Asia), because the Chinese state is not like the US Federal Government, the Japanese government or the EU.

Western countries have multiple competing poles of power: political parties, chambers of commerce, civil service, the military, local governments, big companies, labour unions, universities, media, courts and professions. They push and pull at each other and try to maximise their own power. But the competition between them keeps them relatively honest. 

In China, power is controlled by one institution at the centre: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Like most institutions, the CCP wants to be as big and powerful as possible. But unlike institutions in other countries, the CCP has a monopoly on power. There is nothing to push back on it. The CCP controls the bureaucracy, the courts, the military, the universities, the local governments. It controls everything in China.

The technology companies looked like they might compete with the CCP for a while. They didn’t owe their success to it.

But the CCP smacked them down. Having passed a raft of draconian technology security laws in the mid-2010s — more on those later — in 2020, it stepped up the pressure. It imposed $1.2 billion in fines on DiDi, a ride-hailing app. And it cancelled the IPO of Ant Financial — a company owned by China’s most famous technologist Jack Ma. Ma keeps his head down these days. 

The security laws are unlike anything we have over here. For example, 2016’s National Intelligence Law compels Chinese companies to turn over whatever data the government asks for, without judicial oversight. Lawfare said of the National Intelligence Law: 

“Companies could face even more serious burdens if the law is applied in concert with the new Cybersecurity Law, which accords officials far more specific authority to access and regulate many features of corporate networks that might be useful for intelligence-gathering. These include key business and personal data (which must be stored in China), proprietary codes, and other intellectual property. And like the Intelligence Law, the Cybersecurity Law broadly requires network operators to cooperate with public security and state security officials.

“The law also permits authorities to detain or criminally punish those who ‘obstruct’ intelligence activities. But it does not define ‘obstruction’ or distinguish it from mere failure to ‘support,’ ‘assist,’ or ‘cooperate’.”

The CCP has the formal power to control Chinese technology companies and take their data. Would it choose to use it? 

The omens from China are not good. The CCP is building what can only be called a high-tech surveillance state. Algorithms monitor people’s communication, movements and behaviour. Citizens marked as antisocial are punished with big and small inconveniences — 17 million were banned from flying or taking high-speed trains in 2019 for their antisocial behaviour. And then there are the horrors of Xinjiang.

The reality of geopolitics these days is that the End of History era is over. Before Ukraine, the world had been separating into a liberal bloc and an authoritarian bloc. Ukraine has accelerated things. Now Western countries are figuring out how to re-shore Chinese factories and reduce dependence on Taiwan.

And make no mistake, the CCP is openly authoritarian. In February, shortly before the tanks rolled across the border in Ukraine, China and Russia declared a “no limits” partnership.

The long and the short of it is that, when it comes down to it, Chinese companies can be press-ganged into working for the CCP. And the CCP is increasingly at odds with the liberal world of which Ireland is a part.

A perfect tool

If we take it that the CCP does have de facto control over Chinese companies, and that we’re headed for something like a cold war with China… how might TikTok come into it?

The big talking point so far has been data. People are concerned TikTok might send users’ data back to the CCP. The data would include a pretty full picture of our personality and interests, along with God knows what else. 

But I’d be more worried about the TikTok algorithm. TikTok is a passive experience. Users stare blankly at the screen, which feeds them an infinite scroll of short, entertaining videos. It’s very addictive. 

Whoever controls the algorithm controls what people see (99 minutes per day, in the case of US teenagers). One thing the CCP might want to do is censor information. We know that this has already happened. TikTok blocked a teenage user for talking about China’s genocide in Xinjiang and censored content around Black Lives Matter and George Floyd. 

An even more dangerous use of the algorithm would be for propaganda. The algorithm could be used to sow division, whether between ethnic groups or political parties or whatever the case. Every society has its cleavages and divisions. You couldn’t design a better tool than TikTok for exploiting them. The last ten years have shown that we shouldn’t take political stability and solidarity for granted.

TikTok’s owner ByteDance claims TikTok is independent of the CCP. In a letter to the US congress last month, it said “TikTok is led by its own global CEO, Shou Zi Chew, a Singaporean based in Singapore”. 

But in recent days, reporting by the New York Times found “Mr Chew’s decision-making power over TikTok is limited, according to 12 former TikTok and ByteDance employees and executives”. The Times reported that power and reporting lines actually flow to Zhang Yeming, ByteDance’s Beijing-based founder.

Investors and adversaries

One might object that TikTok is no different from Meta, Alphabet or Twitter. All three harvest data on billions of us. None of the three is truly accountable to users.

To that I’d say, the interests of an investor are very different to the interests of a state. Meta’s problems have been well aired. It’s owned by shareholders who want the company to generate cash flows. The cash flows come from ads. The ads are a function of engagement. The companies are institutionally set up to feed us anything that keeps us swiping and tapping. 

This is a big problem, but it’s a different problem to that of TikTok. The worry isn’t just that TikTok will make zombies of us. It’s that the CCP will use it to divide the liberal world. It’s something CCP has the means and the motive to do.

I feel bad for ByteDance. It’s stuck in the middle of all this. It built a €360 billion company in just a few years. It smashed open the social media cartel. And TikTok, to be fair, is ridiculously entertaining.

But unfortunately, you can’t separate ByteDance from the CCP. That’s why TikTok, in its current form, needs to go. ByteDance should be told to either divest it, so that it’s no longer under CCP control. If they refuse, it should be banned in western countries like Ireland.

That leaves Dublin in a tight spot. Having set up shop in Dublin in 2020, it will soon employ 3,000, making it one of the state’s biggest private employers. Irish employees aren’t responsible for the behaviour of a government on the other side of the world. 

The problem might come to a head when the US gets around to confronting ByteDance. If ByteDance were to decide to back out of the US rather than divest TikTok, Ireland would find itself in an uncomfortable position.

It’s not long ago that all Western companies and countries tried to have their cake and eat it. They chased trade and investment with both China and the US. But it’s increasingly clear that those days are gone. The CCP’s and the west’s interests are increasingly opposed. Ireland will have to pick its prince.