Social Media Bans & Soft Power

Before I get into the meat of this blog post, I have to start with a few quick thoughts/disclaimers. First, what happened at the Capitol on January 6th was one of the most unpatriotic, abhorrent, depressing domestic political events that I’ve witnessed in my 31 years on this planet. It was an absolute disgrace and all of those rioters who assaulted the seat of our federal government should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I will be writing more in depth about this failed insurrection later this week, as I want to wait for as much information as possible before committing my (many) thoughts to paper (or whatever the Internet equivalent is).

The main purpose of this post is to discuss one of the reactions to the events of the 6th, namely the concurrent banning of President Donald Trump from all social media platforms, as well as the deplatforming of Parler, a Twitter competitor favored by some Trump supporters and right-wing activists. Many have written about this already, but here’s my two cents as someone who is genuinely struggling with how to address this in a way that is consistent with my personal political and ideological framework. I support the right of private companies like Amazon, Twitter, Google, Apple, and Facebook to freely associate with whomever they please. As a free marketeer and a laissez-faire capitalist, I do not wish to see government regulation in most aspects of private commerce; I believe that the free association rights of individuals and businesses are sacrosanct, whether it involves a small-time religious baker in Colorado or a massive Silicon Valley conglomerate. Still, that doesn’t mean that I’m not disturbed by the seemingly coordinated deplatforming based on political speech that we’re seeing now. I’m most concerned by the appearance of coordination among supposedly neutral platforms who compete with one another, whether that coordination was actual cartel-like behavior or if it reflects a high level of ideological groupthink. Both of those options are very disturbing to me when it comes to my support for an absolutist position regarding free speech. Given the dissonance between my two preferred classical liberal positions on free association and speech in this instance, I am not sure what the right approach is. All I can say for certain is that it is a nuanced issue that merits deep consideration and a society-wide debate over our cultural values. Most of these positions and issues have been raised elsewhere, so I do not intend to dive too deeply into that heavily populated pool. However, there is one specific aspect of this issue that I have not seen addressed yet, so I wanted to write a bit more about it: the unforeseen impact of these corporate actions on the soft power of the American government.

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Why a TikTok Ban is Necessary

A sale to an American company would only serve to create perverse incentives.

The Chinese-owned video-sharing social media app TikTok has been all over the news recently, as the federal government has been considering banning the app from the US. I am a big proponent of this strategy and laid out the case against TikTok a few weeks back on this blog. This past weekend saw a flurry of activity on the TikTok front, as President Trump first stated that he was planning to ban the app outright before backing off of that position. The current plan du jour is to allow the American technology giant Microsoft to pursue a full acquisition of TikTok’s US operations. A sale to Microsoft would include the app’s American business, as well as the user data which the app collects. This would solve the problem that I delineated, would it not?

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The Case Against TikTok

The video-sharing social network is a danger to personal privacy and national security.

If you know anyone under the age of 30 (or are in that group yourself), you may have heard of the most popular app in America’s youth culture – TikTok. The short-video creation and sharing app has rapidly become one of the most downloaded apps in the world, surpassing 2 billion downloads as of April 2020. Its growth has accelerated since the beginning of the year, especially taking off among teens stuck at home during the lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic. The app’s users are predominately young, with over 63% of users falling between the ages of 10 and 29 and 37% of the app’s US user base being categorized as ‘adolescent’. If you’ve heard about TikTok recently, it is likely either because you have seen some of the viral challenges or dances that have been going around the internet or you have read the breathless coverage surrounding the possibility that the Trump administration may ban the app in the US. I am no fan of the Trump administration, but in this case, I believe that they are fully justified in banning TikTok outright.

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