Axios (10/31/23) reported that in a two-week period, TikTok saw “nearly four times the number of views to TikTok posts using the hashtag #StandwithPalestine globally compared to posts using the hashtag #StandwithIsrael.” As a result, the conservative outrage machine kicked into high gear.
Rep. Mike Gallagher (R—Wisc.), who serves on the House select committee investigating China’s Communist Party, took to the web publication Free Press(11/1/23) to sound the alarm: TikTok’s Chinese ownership meant that a dangerous foreign power was using social media to sway public opinion against Israel. His solution was clear: It’s “time for Congress to take action. Time to ban TikTok.”
This is interesting for a few reasons, but chief among them is that the Free Press was started by former New York Times writer Bari Weiss, one of a handful of conservative journalists who banded together to assert the federal government exerted too much control on Twitter before it was acquired by Elon Musk (NPR, 12/14/22). The company’s liberal corporate governance, they asserted, had suppressed conservative ideas (Washington Post, 12/13/22).
Weiss even signed the Westminster Declaration, a vow to protect “free speech”: “Across the globe, government actors, social media companies, universities and NGOs are increasingly working to monitor citizens and rob them of their voices,” it said. These “large-scale coordinated efforts are sometimes referred to as the ‘Censorship-Industrial Complex.” Now the Free Press fears the internet is too free, and should be cleansed of ideas deemed hurtful to the Israeli government.
Censorship by the wrong people
Gallagher said that “TikTok is the top search engine for more than half of Gen Z, and about six in ten Americans are hooked on the app before their 17th birthday.” This is worrisome, he said, because TikTok “is controlled by America’s foremost adversary, one that does not share our interests or our values: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).”
This brings Gallagher, and other GOP lawmakers, to the conclusion that the U.S. must ban TikTok. “We are ceding the ability to censor Americans’ speech to a foreign adversary,” he said—suggesting that censorship isn’t altogether wrong, it’s just wrong when committed by an undesirable entity. He pointed out that “for a century, the Federal Communications Commission has blocked concentrated foreign ownership of radio and television assets on national security grounds.”
This indicates that Gallagher, in the name of anti-Communism, doesn’t think the market should decide which media consumers can access. Instead, this must be highly regulated by a powerful federal agency. So much for his commitment to “get big government out of the way.”
He’s hardly alone. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R—Tenn.), who once blasted (10/20/20) what she saw as censorship against conservative voices at Facebook and Twitter, called for a ban (NBC, 11/1/23), saying “It would not be surprising that the Chinese-owned TikTok is pushing pro-Hamas content.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R—Fla.) concurred, saying in a statement, “For quite some time, I have been warning that Communist China is capable of using TikTok’s algorithm to manipulate and influence Americans.” Sen. Josh Hawley (R—Mo.) wants a ban (UPI, 11/7/23), and the New York Post editorial board (11/6/23) approvingly cited Gallagher’s Free Press piece.
Hedge-fund billionaire Bill Ackman, who has called for punitive action against Harvard University students who made pro-Palestine statements (Wall Street Journal, 10/11/23; Business Insider, 11/5/23), “said TikTok should ‘probably be banned’ for ‘massively manipulating public opinion’ in favor of Hamas and stoking anti-Israel animus,” the New York Post (11/1/23) reported.
CNN (11/5/23) also insinuated that TikTok is skewing public opinion and reported that the Biden administration is monitoring the situation, saying the president’s aides “are also warily monitoring developments like how the Chinese government-controlled TikTok algorithm just happens to be prioritizing anti-Israel content.”
If this freakout about TikTok seems selective, that’s because it is. Since Musk took over Twitter, hate speech and antisemitism have run amok on the platform (Washington Post, 3/20/23; LA Times, 4/27/23), but congressional Republicans and their journalistic allies on the social media beat aren’t clamoring for an intervention into the mogul’s extremist influence on U.S. discourse.
Republicans have been looking to ban TikTok, howling about its Chinese ownership, since the Trump administration, but the call became all the more real when the state of Montana banned the app completely (FAIR.org, 5/25/23). TikTok is banned on U.S. government devices (CBS, 3/1/23); in liberal New York City, the same is true for city government devices (NPR, 8/17/23). Given all that, the concept that the Republican-held House could push to ban TikTok completely, on the grounds that it allows too much criticism of Israel, is no laughing matter.
Media moral panics
Some of this vitriol toward TikTok is purely cynical. The Washington Post (3/30/22) reported that “Facebook parent company Meta,” a major competitor to TikTok, worked with “one of the biggest Republican consulting firms in the country to orchestrate a nationwide campaign seeking to turn the public against TikTok.”
But the history of U.S. politics has been defined by periodic moral panics about the subversion of American values through media. The Grant administration took tight control of the U.S. Postal Service out of fear that sexual content circulated through the mail was degrading the nation’s moral core.
The advent of film spawned local and state censorship boards throughout the country, starting with Chicago in 1907. The Supreme Court held in 1915 that film was “a business pure and simple,” and thus not protected by the First Amendment—a decision not reversed until 1952. In the mid—20th century, anti-Communist zealots in the House of Representatives persecuted numerous Hollywood writers and actors, based on the suspicion that they were indoctrinating the American public with socialist ideas through the movies.
In the 1980s, Tipper Gore, wife of then-Sen. Al Gore (D—Tenn.), started a campaign that forced record labels to put warning stickers on albums with “explicit lyrics” (New York Times, 1/4/88).
They must be brainwashed
The current rhetoric against TikTok is not only a hypocritical attack on free speech, it’s an insinuation that the only reason people could be critical of Israel is manipulation by a foreign government. There’s no way people from all walks of life could simply be horrified by what’s happening in Gaza; those devilish Chinese Communists must be warping their minds.
In fact, the Washington Post (11/13/23) found that TikTok was not even unique among social networks for the gap between pro-Palestine and pro-Israel support in public posts. It said:
But Facebook and Instagram, TikTok’s U.S.-based rivals, show a remarkably similar gap, their data show. On Facebook, the #freepalestine hashtag is found on more than 11 million posts—39 times more than those with #standwithisrael. On Instagram, the pro-Palestinian hashtag is found on 6 million posts, 26 times more than the pro-Israel hashtag.
Any move by elected officials to ban TikTok should be taken seriously; it’s not just about the app’s videos about terrible first dates and secret menu items. Free speech is a principle. When so-called defenders of free speech advocate censorship because they find certain political ideas too dangerous, be very worried.