If you’d heard of former Google designer Sarah Cooper at the start of 2020, it was probably because you were familiar with an old mega-viral post she wrote, titled 10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings.
Cooper had quit her job to pursue a full-time career in online comedy, and was ticking along with YouTube subscriber numbers in the low six figures. Then, this year, she discovered two things. The first was TikTok, and the second was a style of parodying Donald Trump by miming his words.
The videos have made her a household name in the US and brought her fame around the world – but they may also have put her near the centre of an escalating trade and data conflict between superpowers, a US-China dispute that could change how the internet itself operates.
As she mimes Trump’s words in her latest video: “We may be banning TikTok, we may be doing some other things, there are a couple of options.”
For most people over the age of 30, if they have heard of it at all, TikTok is vaguely known as a social network full of dancing teens, and that it’s owned by a Chinese company. Yet this apparently innocuous app has become the centre of new executive actions by Trump’s administration, giving it just 45 days to secure a buyer for its US business before a ban comes into place.
The legality of Trump’s order is questionable, but among the US political elite it has become a given that TikTok must be part of some kind of Chinese soft power or intelligence operation. Rumours swirl about its capabilities to harvest data, with Amazon briefly banning employees from using TikTok before hastily U-turning less than 24 hours later. Even retired MI6 bosses have been warning against the app.
Unlike most of Trump’s attempts to exert his executive authority, his crackdown on TikTok has received a muted response, with many politicians on both sides of the Atlantic agreeing that, because of its Chinese connections, the app may indeed pose a security risk – and perhaps should be banned.
The historian Prof Niall Ferguson certainly seemed to take this view, writing last week that TikTok was not just a national security threat but “China’s revenge for the century of humiliation between the opium wars and Mao’s revolution”, before branding the app “digital fentanyl”.
Qualified cybersecurity experts, however, are less alarmed. TikTok operates through the Google and Apple app stores, meaning that both of those US tech giants can set limits on what the app can and cannot access through users’ phones. The app has also been independently security audited, and while some faults were found, they were not out of line with those in other apps. And like all free-to-use apps, it harvests some user data, comparable to what might be taken by Facebook, Twitter, or others.
“I’m not sure TikTok is a good intelligence tool for [China],” the senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, James Lewis, told CNN.
There is also a world of difference between a company that happens to be Chinese and a Chinese strategic asset. The telecoms giant Huawei, which has also been at the centre of a global row over China’s soft power, is in the latter camp – its global infrastructure projects are key to China’s “belt and road” soft power strategy. But those trying to portray TikTok as a similarly calculated project in the cultural sphere have a messier reality to contend with.
TikTok is the product of two merged apps. One, Musical.ly, was founded in Shanghai – initially as an educational app – but failed to secure any real user base in China, launching instead on the west coast of the US. It was then bought by Bytedance and merged with TikTok, an everywhere-except-China social network already operated by the company.
While China might keep tighter reins on its businesses than the US does, not every Chinese company is synonymous with the state. Sometimes a funny video is just a funny video.
Thanks to its numerous breaches of US government agencies, credit reference agencies, and other much richer data stores, China has little need to exploit the phones of the world’s teens for intelligence purposes. But even if the TikTok crackdown is more about theatre than genuine security concerns, it’s not one without consequences.
First, consider the users of TikTok. It’s easy for those who don’t use the app to shrug it off as fun or silly, but it is the cultural lodestone of teens and young adults, a source of news, entertainment and connection. Dismissing it is little different from previous generations demonising punk music, mobile phones, Facebook or any other technological platform. An outright ban would be generational vandalism.
The wider ramifications are bigger still. Taking action againsts a company simply because of the nationality of its owner could be an existential threat to the internet as we know it.
We have no evidence of TikTok handing data to the Chinese state or being used as a spying tool. And while its moderation policies have faced criticism – for apparently restricting international posts on sensitive matters such as Tiananmen Square – these concerns are unlikely to be high on Trump’s agenda.
That means action would be taken on the basis of not trusting citizens’ data to an overseas company. This is an interesting position for the US – which is home to most of the world’s global tech giants – to take. If the US shouldn’t trust overseas tech companies, why should other countries trust US companies?
“I’ve been in the debates in Europe and in Canada where they want to try to keep American companies from having data after the Snowden revelations,” says Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at the University of New York and co-host of This Week in Google. “This potentially lets those countries say: ‘OK, we’re going to treat you as if you’re China. Well, as you treat China, we’re going to treat you.’”
In other words, if the US begins to establish the principle that each country should have its own online companies and restrict interaction internationally, it is undoubtedly the US that has the most to lose. It would lose huge global revenue (and in turn tax revenue), vastly diminish its online soft power, and diminish its still huge online surveillance advantage.
The internet, for all its flaws, is the first global network through which we can instantaneously connect with half the people on the planet for the same cost as calling someone in the next town. Losing that connectivity would harm all of us immensely, even if it harmed US government and corporate interests more.
The results of a so-called Balkanised internet – one where the global network disintegrates into national or regional networks – are in almost no one’s interest, and yet that is the fight that Trump appears willing to start. Given his notoriously short attention span, what has inspired him to do so at this particular moment?
Security concerns alone just don’t seem to cover the explanation: there have been Chinese-owned apps with much more obvious blackmail or intelligence potential that have not come to the president’s notice.
The hookup app Grindr was for several years owned by a Chinese parent company, which was encouraged to sell the app by US regulators because of its potential to blackmail or endanger men using it for covert liaisons. The president did not actively involve himself in that debate, nor did it make headline news.
Some commentators point to Trump wanting to pick election-year fights, and remind the world of his trade war with China – since he regards trade wars as “good and easy to win”, and thus perhaps good at the ballot box. But Jarvis has a simpler explanation still: it’s all Sarah Cooper’s fault.
Trump and his supporters can win, or at least make themselves extremely visible, on most existing social networks. He has a Twitter following of millions, has numerous large pro-Trump Facebook groups, has pro-Trump QAnon followings across Reddit, 4chan and other networks.
While Trump does have supporters using TikTok, the way the network prioritises content (you don’t follow users as you do on Instagram or Twitter) doesn’t highlight that so visibly. Pro-Trump TikTok content never breaks through in the way that videos from Cooper and other satirists do.
For a technologically illiterate president who will never have used the app, TikTok will be associated only with two things: China, and people who mock him. That’s both terrible and an opportunity.
“Is this really actually the Sarah Cooper banning? Has it gotten under our skin?” Jarvis muses, before noting TikTok users were also blamed for the disastrous turnout at Trump’s Tulsa rally, which shifted a million free tickets and then played to a mostly empty stadium.
“In Trump’s brain, what is TikTok? He’s convinced that it fucked up his last rally and he’s convinced that Sarah Cooper is making fun of him. The thing he hates most is to be made fun of.”
Ever keen to deflect attention from Russia’s desire to help his campaign, Trump may simply have seized upon the Chinese connection of a social network full of his detractors and taken action. Amid a justified “techlash”, in which we try to reckon with the way the internet is reshaping our world, the president has been allowed to get away with that.
On the surface, the TikTok battle is Trump’s ego versus a social network best known for weird memes and dancing teens. But what starts out as something petty doesn’t end there. The shape of the internet for the rest of the digital century will be decided in clashes like this one.
James Ball is the author of The System: Who Owns the Internet and How It Owns Us, published by Bloomsbury (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply