In late March, Congress met to hold a hearing with Shou Chew, the CEO of TikTok, to testify concerning a proposed ban of the platform within the US. Their reason?
They believe that the China-based company poses a national security risk.
It was not the first time that a powerful tech CEO was forced to reckon with Congress about its stewarding of users’ data. Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook, Meta) and Sundar Pichai (Google), among others, have had to defend their products before legislators.
In this case, however, the context presents a distinct challenge for Chew, unshared by his predecessors.
As tensions continue to rise between the United States and China, TikTok’s presence as a property of Chinese company ByteDance runs a red flag for the US government. They fear its origin may pose a threat to its high number of American users who may have their sensitive data exposed to external influences.
To what degree are the government’s concerns credible?
No matter the scale, the situation offers Christians a chance to consider how the influences of the world are not always congruent with the Holy Spirit. The possible TikTok ban also reveals that interacting with today’s trends requires knowledge, discernment, and a heart that listens for God.
TikTok’s far-reaching influence
TikTok may not have the ubiquity of other social media platforms. Furthermore, the platform is more oriented toward younger demographics, with a majority of its users under thirty.
And yet, with a monthly total of 1 billion active users, TikTok’s reach is formidable. One out of three Americans use the app, according to the New York Times. Many influencers and celebrities, like Meagan Thee Stallion and Lil Nas X, can attribute their rise in popularity to the platform. The app has even played a role in elections and in the Russian–Ukrainian war.
Ever since its rise in popularity in a post-COVID world, TikTok has proven to share a level of influence comparable to that of giants like Facebook and Twitter.
However, a cloud of mistrust concerning ByteDance’s Chinese origins has surrounded this immense capacity for influence. During his presidential term, Donald Trump attempted to have the platform banned in the states, though the proposal was never actualized. President Biden has made similar moves. The app is banned on the phones of government workers, and, more recently, Biden has pressed ByteDance to sell TikTok to an American company or face a national ban.
Why could TikTok be dangerous for America?
The primary fear is that TikTok may be obligated to hand over sensitive data to the Chinese government should it be requested. Similarly, the company could use the platform to spread misinformation or pro-Chinese ideologies to its users.
During the hearing, Mr. Chew stated that TikTok does not divulge its users’ data to anybody and continues to develop new technologies to regulate potentially harmful content from reaching users below a certain age.
While it may not be in TikTok’s best interests to bypass these security issues, nevertheless there emerged reports in late 2022 of some ByteDance employees using TikTok data to track two American journalists. Additionally, former employees of TikTok have stated that ByteDance pressed its developers to promote “soft” pro-Chinese messages on its platform, such as the values of moving an American startup to China.
ByteDance has stated that the tracking of American journalists was done by employees operating out of line, who have subsequently been fired. They have also denied that they used their service to spread any sort of political ideology.
Regardless, these two instances inevitably added fuel to a mounting fire concerning the conflict of interests presented by a global company.
Wading through murky waters
It is hard to say right now whether the concerns surrounding TikTok are credible. Perhaps it is wise for the US to err on the side of caution in the midst of mounting tensions between the two countries.
On the other hand, the US government should be careful not to allow said tensions to boil into a twenty-first-century perpetuation of McCarthyism, should the evidence suggest that TikTok’s user data is safe.
It is also crucial to point out that TikTok’s potential risks, though unique in context, are not exclusive. Social media platforms remain free to users by brokering their data to advertisers, who in turn provide relevant media back to the users. In some cases, this can be harmless; in others, this can lead to reinforced misinformation.
This means that whenever we browse the internet, we are largely seeing what others want us to see—and this has the ability to shape our thoughts.
I have written in the past on why we need to be aware of which narratives we allow ourselves to listen to. I continue to reinforce this message because, if we’re not careful, we can begin to see and interact with the world in a way that is not aligned with God, simply by means of what we take in. “Keep your heart with all vigilance,” we are told, “for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23).
When we are bombarded by a host of differing thoughts and information, it’s easy for everything to lodge itself in our minds in a way that obfuscates other elements of reality, including those that God might want to reveal to us. The stimulating sheen of the internet can stand in sharp contrast with the voice of God. For though God may speak “out of the whirlwind,” he also speaks in “a low whisper” (Job 38:1; 1 Kings 19:12).
It is a beautiful and hopeful contrast, however, as the voice of God can offer us a different story than what the world might convey. Our culture may capitalize on our fears and anxieties, but Scripture invites you to cast ‘all your anxieties on [Jesus], because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). It is a blessing that, in God, we have a refuge for our fears.
If you use TikTok or any other social media platform, perhaps it is worth asking God for wisdom in how to spend your time with it. When we bring God into the conversation, he can open up space in our hearts to receive him in ways that we had not anticipated.
Like David, we want to be able to say, “My eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me” (Psalm 131:1–2).
Is your soul quieted today?