The TikTok Ban Is a Blueprint for More Social Media Censorship

China's free speech record is bad, but the federal government's isn't so great either.


TikTok is in trouble: In April, President Joe Biden signed bipartisan legislation that forces ByteDance, the popular social media app's Chinese parent company, to sell its majority stake to a U.S.-based firm. If it fails to do this, the app will be banned in the United States.

Various dubious arguments have been deployed against TikTok, but Congress' stated prime motive to force its divestiture is that the app's Chinese owners are beholden to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and thus having their tech on so many Americans' phones is a dire national security risk. The CCP is an authoritarian menace, and there is some evidence the Chinese government pressures TikTok to censor content about Tiananmen Square and the religious sect Falun Gong, and criticism of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Of course, the U.S. government has also pressured American tech companies to censor content on social media. Thanks to the Twitter Filesthe Facebook Files, and other independent investigations, we know that multiple federal agencies instructed social media platforms to take down content relating to Hunter Biden, COVID-19, and other subjects. When 
President Biden decided the companies had been insufficiently deferential to his pandemic-related diktats, he accused them of killing people and threatened to take action against them.

If Congress really wanted to do something about government censorship of content on social media, legislators could rein in the feds. Instead, they are singularly focused on TikTok, which has responded with a lawsuit.

The legislation approved by Biden would apply to any social media company that is designated as a "foreign adversary controlled application." U.S. law currently defines China, North Korea, Russia, and Iran as foreign adversaries. The law further stipulates that an app is deemed to be controlled by a foreign adversary if it satisfies at least one of three different criteria: It is headquartered in one of those countries, the government of one of those countries owns a 20 percent stake in it, or the app is subject to "direction or control" by one of the foreign adversaries.

This law creates a blueprint for taking future action against social media companies beyond just TikTok. In the wake of the 2016 election, Democratic lawmakers, mainstream media pundits, and national security advisers accused Facebook and Twitter of being complicit in Russia's various schemes to sow election-related discord online. The thrust of this argument was that the CEOs of those companies had allowed their platforms to be compromised by Russian misinformation—even though subsequent studies have shown foreign social media influence campaigns had very little impact on the outcome of the election.

Despite the bill's passage, the federal government is not likely to take direct action against Facebook or X tomorrow. But Biden has rubber-stamped language—"direction and control"—that is exceedingly slippery. It is not difficult to imagine a future where vengeful bureaucrats accuse a disfavored app of promoting contrarian views, gin up a connection to a "foreign adversary," and punish it accordingly.