Paranoia Strikes Deep . . . It Starts When You’re Always Afraid

I’ve written about TikTok before, but the current wave of proposals to ban it persuade me to write again. Plus, I confess my views have changed somewhat since the last time, and the title of this column should give you some idea where I’m heading.

The government has been trying to figure out what to do about TikTok for at least three years, and its inability to come to a conclusion illustrates how difficult the problem is. On the one hand, we have a popular app used and enjoyed by millions of Americans, at least some of whom are old enough to vote, and all of whom are old enough to complain bitterly to their parents if it goes away.

On the other hand, two basic security concerns have been raised about it: the massive amounts of personal data it obtains could end up in the hands of the Chinese, and China could use it for disinformation purposes, either by providing biased content or by censoring content that is not flattering to China.

Drilling down a bit on the first one, it is not clear, at least to me, for what nefarious purposes the Chinese could use the data, which is essentially the same as Facebook, LinkedIn and other apps gather; the only difference appears to be who might have access to it. So, if the issue is privacy, that ship sailed a long time ago. If a ban is to move forward, it is important for its proponents to be more specific about exactly what China might do with the data that would constitute a security threat at some scale.

The second concern is self-explanatory, although here again, ban proponents must explain why the media bias they are concerned about with TikTok is different from the media bias from U.S. apps and media outlets we read about every day. All involve the purveyance of lies over truth. Whether they Chinese lies, Russian lies, or American lies, is not critical. This problem is pervasive in our society, and I hope eventually Americans will become discerning enough to distinguish fact from fiction on their own.

This debate is encumbered by a parade of “coulds.” If we don’t ban it, the Chinese “could” use it for a variety of unwelcome purposes, including disinformation designed to influence American policy and/or American voters. The problem is that while the likelihood of that happening is very small, it is not zero, so it is impossible for opponents of a ban to say that the things people are worried about could not possibly happen.

My time at the Commerce Department running what is now the Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS), taught me that zero risk is unattainable. The sounder approach is risk management, which requires a close analysis of the risks and the degree of threat they pose to our security measured against the costs of trying to eliminate them.

In the case of TikTok, my conclusion is that it is fairly far down on the list of security risks the United States faces and that the cost of eliminating it would be very high, both in terms of actually implementing a ban and in terms of its impact on the First Amendment. Anyone raising teenagers can tell you the futility of trying to ban access to an app, and trying to do it on a national level would not be easier than trying to do it on a family level. Constitutionally, we believe in freedom of speech, a freedom that is only tested when someone is saying something unpopular or subversive. We should think carefully about banning a platform because we are afraid of what it says. That is precisely the time when we should not ban it. Former president Trump’s failure to succeed in the courts is instructive.

There is also a political angle here—isn’t there always? If Congress wants to ban TikTok, the courageous thing is to stand up and do it. Instead, some of the pending bills dump that duty on the president. That is a political trap that does him no favors. If he bans TikTok, he’ll have millions of unhappy teenagers yelling at him, and if he doesn’t, he gives his political opponents one more argument they can use to say he is soft on China. In addition, if he bans it, he will be reminded, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decisions on same sex marriage and abortion, that it is easier to affirm a right than it is to take one away. At this point, the better route would be to let the government continue to try to find a solution that would allow the app to operate in a way that minimizes the security threat.

Finally, I fear we are moving headlong into a period of mass hysteria, particularly in Congress, where new proposals for attacking China arrive virtually every day. The public’s view on China has become ever more negative, and there is good reason for that, largely due to actions China has taken. But we’ve seen this before in the Red Scare of the 1920s, the McCarthy (Joe, not Kevin) era in the 1950s, and on a lesser scale Japan bashing in the 1980s. Those did not dignify us as a society, and in practical terms they accomplished very little. We should be better than that. Buffalo Springfield got it right—paranoia does strike deep, and it does start when you’re always afraid. Instead of acting out of fear, we should be acting out of strength, which is exactly what President Biden’s “running faster” programs are designed to do—to make us stronger so we can compete more effectively.

William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.