A U.S. Senate bill to address the threat TikTok allegedly poses to American security is not really about TikTok at all. It’s about the federal government gaining more control over election-related speech.
As written, the bill by Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.) would authorize the secretary of commerce to “identify, deter, disrupt, prevent, prohibit . . . or otherwise mitigate . . . [and] address any risk arising from . . . any property . . . that the Secretary determines . . . poses an undue or unacceptable risk of . . . interfering in . . . the result or reported result of a Federal election, as determined in coordination with the Attorney General, the Director of National Intelligence . . . ” or, “activities by a foreign adversary that are designed to undermine democratic processes and institutions or steer policy and regulatory decisions in favor of the strategic objectives of a foreign adversary.”
The bill’s language doesn’t specify whether the material in question is authentic. If passed and signed into law, the government could suppress actual and authentic video of election fraud if the information has “all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation.
It’s difficult not to assume such a law would be used to throttle speech that challenges official Washington narratives. How often have elements in the media and the government accused political opponents of repeating “Putin’s talking points”?
This highly aggressive legislation includes a provision making it a crime to violate Department of Commerce regulations to implement the law. The bill includes civil and criminal forfeiture penalties that would allow the U.S. government to seize property “used or intended to be used, in any manner, to commit or facilitate a violation or attempted violation described in paragraph shall be subject to forfeiture to the United States.” Thus, if TikTok permitted content that explained Russia or China’s position on an international dispute with the United States, the U.S. government could potentially use the act to seize the entire platform.
Furthermore, the legislation contains anti-transparency language exempting federal officials from the Freedom of Information Act.
I cannot speak to the national security threat TikTok supposedly poses. But I would note that many members of Congress depend on political action committees that take money from TikTok’s main competitors: Meta (Facebook) and Google. As of 2018, the latest year Open Secrets reported data, 32 members of Congress own stock in Google.
For politicians invested in Facebook and Google, crushing TikTok is in their financial interest.
As reported by MarketWatch:
TikTok, a favorite among those under 30, is gobbling up market share to the detriment of Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook parent company Meta Platforms Inc. . . . TikTok’s digital ad revenue [is expected] to explode to $36 billion by 2027 from $10 billion in 2022, lifting its share of the global market to 5.4% in 2027 from 2.3% last year.” Worse yet, for Meta and Google, a survey of 50 U.S. ad buyers showed, “Some 46% of respondents chose TikTok as the platform where their top client would most prefer to advertise, Cowen analyst John Blackledge wrote, well ahead of Instagram’s Reels (24%) and Google’s YouTube Shorts (22%).
Clearly, China and Russia are geopolitical rivals to the United States. But using the federal government to block speech from those countries is nevertheless unconstitutional. Americans have a right to access the viewpoints of international sources which offer a critique or conflict with conventional wisdom within the United States. The U.S. government has repeatedly shown it will use its surveillance and law enforcement powers to manipulate domestic elections. We have the right to access foreign speech even if we can’t trust anything Vladamir Putin or Xi Jinping says. We still have a right to know what they’re saying about America. This is particularly important in times of war or near war in which our government is actively hyping escalation of military conflict with the Russians.
Additionally, as a writer who specializes in raising awareness of lapses of the U.S. government, I have found numerous story ideas and research leads through TikTok. For example, I would likely have not reported on the government’s response to the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment without the extremely valuable analysis of TikTok-based expert Nick Drom, who periodically posted up-to-date criticisms of the government’s response to the disaster. Drom also read the TikTok bill, which led to investigate the text for myself. Again, this is critically underreported information that might not have received attention but for TikTok.
We need freer speech in this country. The Twitter Files should alarm all Americans as they show the federal government has scaled up its censorship and manipulation of public speech. TikTok has participated in much of that censorship. But it has nevertheless served an important role in allowing U.S. citizens to access information the federal government would prefer to censor.
The first and most important national security consideration is the protection and preservation of our cherished rights under the constitution. That’s the oath each of these federal bureaucrats takes at the commencement of employment. Speech, especially political speech, includes both the freedom to broadcast and the freedom to access others’ speech. It is critical to preserving our constitutional democracy. The TikTok bill gives Washington legal cover to accelerate its censorship and manipulation of political speech in America. If you liked what you saw in the Twitter Files, you will love what comes after this bill passes.