The Trump administration’s bid to seize Chinese platform TikTok and hand it over to already-monopolistic Microsoft is part of a huge power grab, as the deteriorating quality of US propaganda puts its narrative dominance at risk.
The US government has made clear the fact it won’t rest until the user-facing portion of the internet is under its control. It is no longer enough for Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube/Google to merely eject hundreds of anti-establishment accounts on command, accompanied by stated rationales that would be laughable if they didn’t trample on the fundamental freedoms of the account owners.
TikTok – hardly a bastion of subversive political thought – must nevertheless be wrested from its Chinese owners ByteDance and handed to Microsoft, a convicted antitrust violator, lest Beijing be permitted to challenge Washington for control over the hearts and minds of online youth.
It’s ironic that, with western culture in the grip of a reckoning with its colonial past, the US is so intent on subjugating the world’s peoples with a lighter-touch, tech-enabled version of colonialism that doesn’t require the deployment of ships to foreign shores (though those 800+ military bases around the world don’t hurt). A direct line to the eyes and ears of targeted peoples is sufficient to maintain Hegemony 2.0.
But the quality of US propaganda has deteriorated noticeably over the years, to the point where four out of five Americans believe their media is biased. Rather than step up their propaganda game, Washington’s response has always been to stifle competition, either using censorship enacted through its private-sector partners, or by buying competitors’ silence. Interlopers like TikTok are crushed – or bought out by the likes of Microsoft, massive companies intertwined with state intelligence agencies.
Like Amazon, whose servers host the secrets of the US security state. Or Facebook, which skyrocketed past the billion-user mark with the alleged backing of CIA venture capital fund In-Q-Tel. Microsoft, meanwhile, is for all intents and purposes a private-sector extension of the US empire. It was the first to sign on to the NSA’s wildly unconstitutional PRISM surveillance program back in 2007. It left exploitable backdoors in its operating systems open for two decades until another government-collaborating tech company complained. Even in the privacy-averse 21st century, its intrusive practices – from keystroke logging to chiding users for politically incorrect language – have raised red flags for years. It’s also the only tech monopoly ever to be prosecuted for its monopolistic behavior.
The Big Tech apparatus serves as an ideal conduit for the US government to circumvent the Bill of Rights. Private corporations are not legally prohibited from imposing restrictions on users’ free speech or (digital) assembly, no matter how arbitrary. Section 230 protections have fallen by the wayside as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter became increasingly emboldened to knock troublesome dissenters off their platforms. Slurping up user information is child’s play too, with the kind of backdoors Microsoft and Apple have lovingly constructed for their government partners – never mind the protections against unreasonable search and seizure that would hamstring government agencies attempting to do the same thing. Big Tech and Big Brother are two arms on the same octopus.
TikTok, however, spoils US narrative dominance and doesn’t share its data with the bosses. Sure, right now it’s only insipid dance videos and teenagers lip-synching, but what about when those teens grow up? American propaganda is so sloppy that the State Department feels threatened by a handful of “Russian proxy” websites getting a few thousand hits per month, and it appears to have spammed thousands of Russians and Iranians with offers of $10 million for tall tales about election hacking.
Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are constantly being urged to censor an ever-larger range of opinions as the mainstream media struggles not to trip over its own falsehoods and hemorrhages cash to the victims of its lies.
At the heart of the TikTok seizure – which expanded on Friday to an assault on Chinese platform WeChat – is a hatred of competition. As Facebook, Twitter, Google, and YouTube become little more than mainstream media mouthpieces, users will naturally flock to other platforms, especially those with massive user bases like their Chinese competitors. Washington’s pet platforms can hardly roll back their censorship regimes – not with an election just a few months away. So, in the grand tradition of organized crime, they’ve made ByteDance an offer they can’t refuse. Climb in bed with Microsoft – the most corrupt of the bunch – or get banned.
Freedom isn’t free, as the saying goes. Neither are America’s celebrated “free markets.”
By Helen Buyniski