The social media app TikTok is embroiled in a geo-political debate. President Trump has announced plans to attempt to ban the platform from the US due to growing fears that the Chinese-based company could be used to collect Americans’ personal information and data.
Power & Manipulation
In September 2019, the Guardian reported that the Chinese authorities instructed TikTok’s moderators to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square or the idea of Tibetan independence. The Intercept also found that lawmakers attempted to suppress posts created by users that were deemed ‘too ugly, poor, or disabled’ for the platform.
Whether or not TikTok should or should not be banned is certainly a legitimate and reasonable debate to be having, but for me personally the events of recent days highlight the increasing influence media organisations and private companies have on society, and the potentially dangerous effect that their power can have on the political process more generally.
The potential worry of social media companies misusing individuals’ personal data is not limited to TikTok, and many organisations have already been exposed for not being responsible with users’ personal information. In 2016, it was revealed that millions of Facebook profiles of US voters were harvested in a data breach, and used to ‘build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box’ in an event known as the ‘Cambridge Analytica scandal’.
This incident showed that nefarious groups were already manipulating social media sites and using ultra-targeted advertisements for the purpose of garnering an electoral advantage. It also highlighted a major problem with these technology companies; namely, that a lot of the time they collect user data without the individual’s knowledge because people are often unsure exactly what they are agreeing to when the accept the terms of conditions.
I am not suggesting that social media is inherently bad. Its power was first openly harnessed as a major campaign strategy by Barack Obama in the 2008 election. His plan encompassed a range of elements from Facebook advertising to online fundraising, paired with more traditional forms of outreach. It worked effectively. There is nothing wrong with utilising social media as long as it is done legally.
Another problem that arises on social media platforms is the increasing level of inaccurate content and conspiracy theories which act to undermine our democratic institutions and dilute our democracy. A report from Data & Society found that YouTube has been shown to ‘provide a breeding ground for far-right radicalisation’, due to the hypnotic and accurate power of the platform’s algorithm which has been turned into a mechanism for political indoctrination. These political influencers, united in their disdain for the mainstream media, radicalise often young and impressionable viewers with their content, pushing them further to the extremes of the political spectrum.
Conspiracy theories and misinformation are much more common online today than during the pre-Internet age. The accessibility of the Internet means that anyone with an online connection can malign and spread rumours if they wish. Back in the day, individuals or groups wanting to disrupt or mislead may have been effective locally but were limited in their wider scope. Now, social media has become the new town square, giving individuals the opportunity to have a larger presence and reach than ever before.
It is therefore not surprising that a recent study found that nearly half of social media users who share articles have passed on fake news, according to researchers at Loughborough University. Last month too, Twitter announced it was suspending thousands of accounts that were associated with QAnon, a conspiracy theory which started on 4Chan that alleges that prominent US politicians are involved in a high profile child sex ring, among other outlandish claims. Not only do these incorrect theories increase the level of party polarisation by pitting Democrats against Republicans, but they also increase the level of distrust in politicians by trying to tarnish them all as elitist and corrupt.
A second major problem with the growth of social media organisations is the fact that they inevitably lead to the creation of echo chambers. An echo chambers is ‘an environment where a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own’, and they are increasingly common on sites like Reddit and Facebook.
According to a Pew Research Center study, 62 per cent of Americans get their news via social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, yet what many members of the public might not realize is that the news they see is heavily filtered.
The content which is presented to us on social media sites is dictated by algorithms that decide what you see based on what you like and dislike, and what you comment on and click on. These algorithms are intended to drive engagement, and companies have found that users are more likely to read and consume content that they agree with politically. In the same way that many of us read particular newspapers because of their political affiliation, social media algorithms act in the same way, giving the individual content that reinforces their world view.
A study by researchers at the University of Helsinki supports this idea. They found that ‘Twitter users are, to a large degree, exposed to political opinions that agree with their own’, showing that your social media feed is misleading as it is not representative of wider society. Echo chambers should be worrying because they limit the scope of politics and stifle the ability to have an honest and intellectually stimulating debate with those that you disagree with. It may feel good to have a pompous, self-congratulatory discussion with like-minded peers online, but it is also healthy to break out of your self-enclosed bubble from time to time and consume content from outlets that you disagree with to challenge your thinking.
Ultimately, the recent controversy around TikTok has shown that technology companies have incredible influence in a society that is increasingly digital. In a world in which the US President is legally restricted from blocking someone on Twitter as it violates the First Amendment, it is clear that these organisations hold incredible power and have the ability to shape the political discourse. According to a poll, 72 per cent of American adults say social media companies have too much power and influence in politics today. Perhaps the debate around the accountability of TikTok in ensuring individuals’ data is not misused will make people more aware of the type of content they consume online, and encourage them to get their news from a wide array of sources.