One of my favorite rappers ever is Nas. There are countless songs by him that I can recite from memory on a moment’s notice. One of these is “Hate Me Now”, an infamous song due to its music video in which there was a portrayal of Nas as Jesus which was deemed very controversial at the time. In that song, he has a lyric which states “Fear what they don’t understand, hate what they can’t conquer, guess it’s just a theory of man”. As I survey the happenings in the world in 2020, I can’t help but feel its relevance.
In the context of a global pandemic, there has been a rush of nationalism and the closing of borders. Much of this has been due to governments prioritizing the health of their citizens, avoiding any inbound travelers to stem the spread of Covid-19. Mixed with this has been a sense of nationalistic actions aimed at keeping economies within a country, moving away from reliance on Chinese manufacturing. Namely, India has seen its border conflict with China escalate and has taken to banning products and services from China as a result. This spirit of banning products and services from China is also very present in the United States. The bans from the US government have been centered around potential data and intellectual property breaches by going after companies like ZTE, Huawei, Tik Tok, and WeChat. And while on the surface these bans sound reasonable or ridiculous depending on your politics, there seems to be a constant: that big government has a deep misunderstanding of big tech and this disconnect is more dangerous than many of us realize.
While the pandemic has increased it, there has always been a level of distrust between the US and China. On both civilian and government levels, there is an inherent sense of trepidation and suspicion between the two countries. In the realm of technology and supply chains, this has led to an interesting dilemma for Americans. Most of the manufacturing and infrastructure in place around consumer technology resides in China. Factories for American, European, and Asian companies have typically been in China. So when there are calls to step back from China, it is easier said than done.
The current climate finds both of these countries in a sort of technological arms race with one another. The next wave of technological innovation seems to be tied with the proliferation of 5G network infrastructure. It is in this push to a new network standard that China and the US find themselves in a sort of cat and mouse game. Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei are leading the nation’s charge for 5G dominance while the US under the Donald Trump presidency has opted for American and European companies like Nokia and Ericsson to build out its towers.
The core of this decision is more than likely two-sided. The US government wants to encourage a self-sustained economy and by utilizing American and ally European companies this is accomplished. There is also a fear of the idea that Chinese telecom companies like Huawei are in the back pocket of the Chinese government. The US has accused Huawei of this, a claim that the company vehemently denies.
What has resulted in a complete ban of Huawei and ZTE products from being used in the US. On top of that, the two companies have been added into what the US government calls its “Entity List”. This means that the companies cannot use any American licensed software. For Huawei in particular, a company with aspirations of global relevance, this meant not being able to use Google services on its phones or Microsoft Windows 10 on its laptops. This has extended to its ability to make processors as well. In many ways, the US government is trying to cripple Huawei’s phone business in addition to its networking infrastructure business. An observer can also look at this from the other side of the coin and see how China has blocked US apps and services like the Play Store for years and think that this might be fair game.
What has happened as a result is the division of tech companies? Chinese companies very rarely are seen in a positive light here in the US and US companies are equally vilified in China. The only Chinese tech companies that seem to have gained traction here in the US are OnePlus and Lenovo. Lenovo has been embraced because it acquired two well known American tech companies: IBM and Motorola. And OnePlus has always positioned itself to the West where sister company Oppo has stayed in its home region for better or worse.
10% of the Chinese mobile phone market is occupied by Samsung and Apple, two companies that occupy nearly 75% of the US mobile market. The rest of the Chinese phone market is occupied by companies that many Americans have never heard of before. Companies like Vivo, Xiaomi, Oppo, and Huawei. These companies that are based in China have no interest in expanding to the US now due to hostilities. And in the end, the consumer loses because there is the innovation that is being missed due to political tensions. Yet it seems that Americans are okay with this as the seed has been planted that anything that a Chinese company does is inherently evil. A black and white argument that does not do the complex situation that the two countries are embroiled in justice.
Social networks are a phenomenon that has dominated the narrative of my adult life. When I was 18 and moved back to the United States from the Middle East, MySpace was a cultural phenomenon. Everyone in my age group was obsessed with customizing their profile for the look and sound to fit their aesthetic. MySpace’s top friend’s feature was also a point of contention with many people as a sort of digital high school popularity system.
As my generation entered our 20’s and into college, the proliferation of Facebook began to happen. The social network was cleaner than MySpace and allowed for a connection with friends and family in a way of making the world smaller. In some ways, Facebook felt more real and more intimate than MySpace did.
Fast forward to today, and the social media landscape is dominated by apps such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and Tik Tok. These platforms have become more than just ways to communicate with family and friends. They have become talking points for the way that products are advertised to us, a vessel for news outlets to push out narratives about current events, and a way for people to monetize their digital brand. We are far removed from simply sharing the happenings of our day or snapping a picture of our food from our favorite restaurant. Social media is a tool in which advertisers are using to reach their customers in ways that traditional marketing has not been able to accomplish.
Consider what Instagram has become over the years. What started as a simple photo-centric social media sharing website has turned into a full-blown digital marketplace. Instagram has implemented tools for high profile content creators to make money through sponsored posts and Instagram Stories has created an in-app shopping experience to help users purchase a sponsored ad, and has cultivated an ecosystem of influencers that promote a variety of products on their pages.
Social media apps like Instagram and TikTok utilize algorithms to cater to their users, serving up content that is relevant to the interests of its users. Companies need data to do this. This data is achieved through permissions that most of us enable without thinking twice. Access to cameras, microphones, and storage on a device gives these apps all the information that they need to cater content to us, the end-users. This is their business model, as they are free services they need to serve up relevant advertising to keep that revenue coming in. It is this plain fact that many people in positions of power seem to misunderstand.
In recent months and years, there has been a blanket statement that vilifies the media. A notion that the media and the press are out to make sure that certain groups remain disenfranchised. This isn’t towards one certain segment of the population, but rather across the board. Conservatives have felt that Twitter silences their voices on their platform while liberals feel that misinformation from fringe far-right news outlets gain momentum on Facebook. More conservatives feel that Instagram is overly sexualized while people in the sex working field feel that it is not inclusive enough. Long story short, everyone is mad.
As Facebook has evolved, it has become clear that it is the platform for an older generation. While an app like TikTok aims at a much younger demographic. As such, political commentary on Facebook seems to be higher than most other social media outlets. This phenomenon has become more and more evident in recent US presidential elections as social media electoral campaigns have flooded Facebook and Twitter. Yet there seems to be a disconnect when our political officials are asked about this.
The subject of content moderation has come up recently in a US House of Representatives panel that asked companies like Facebook and Twitter about how they regulate posts on their respective platforms. The debate boils down simply to this: government views social media platforms as a sort of open news source where information needs to be verified. Meanwhile, social media companies insist that their platforms are their own and thus have no obligation to have such regulations.
So who is right? As always there is no clear black or white answer. On one hand, the government brings up a point that most people get their news from social media and not from traditional sources like TV news or print-based media. And the argument can be made that there is a lack of diversity in opinions if this is the case, under the assumption that like-minded individuals will be following one another. The argument of social media companies is one that this dynamic was already in place. For instance, people that watch Fox News are not very likely to see how MSNBC or CNN is reporting the same issue. There has always been a self-imposed information bubble, it has just taken a new form in social media formats.
Where government officials seem to be having an issue is remembering that big tech companies are for-profit businesses. They are in the business of making money and acquiring users to keep that revenue coming in. They do not feel a sense of a moral compass in the way that it is suggested that they should. Facebook will always operate in the interests of its shareholders, not of your friend from high school who posts clickbait. Facebook will promote a post that gets the most engagement regardless of the politics and will ban accounts and users based on a violation of its standards not because they are conservative or liberal. This is the reality of a company that lawmakers seem to not understand, that Facebook and Twitter do not feel like they have any sort of real obligation to create an environment of unbiased media.
The question then becomes should they be held to this standard? It seems that most people feel that they should and as a result, the platforms have taken to implementing fact-checking. The reality is that most people do get their news information from social networks, even Twitter for a moment years ago reclassified its app as a news app. There is a new responsibility with social media, but it is not all that unlike standards of previous media companies. The only difference here is that anyone can post anything, which is both a gift and a curse.
The Great Debate
The convergence of issues related to China and social media app issues by government officials here in the United States has resulted in the US government banning social media app TikTok. The Trump administration in recent weeks has said that the app is not safe for US users as it will leak user data to the Chinese government. And that unless a US-based company buys the platform, that it will effectively be banned in the United States.
There was a running theory that the reason for this was because some TikTok users sabotaged the president’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma by reserving tickets and not showing up making the estimated attendance numbers look laughable. Knowing Trump’s reputation of taking things personally, it is easy to say that he was mad about his rally being compromised and then he simply retaliated. While there may be some truth to this statement, there is no denying that TikTok collects a lot of user data.
This is the point where the tech industry and the United States’ war of bans with China collide. As ByteDance (owner of TikTok) is a Chinese-based company, the fact that they are collecting so much data on its users raises red flags to what will become of this data. The US fears that China will become a great superpower that it does not want it to become that leads to a move like this. After all, Facebook cultivates an obscene amount of data on its users as well. It is the fear of the unknown, what will ByteDance do with this data, and if it is given to the Chinese government what will said government does with this data?
The war on TikTok and the war on Huawei are two versions of the same story. The United States senses the power that China is accumulating and it is looking to stop it. These dealings have been incredibly politicized to create a sense of national pride behind stopping China. And the US is not alone in this fight. India has done similar moves and has also banned TikTok, as the country looks to further free itself from a reliance on Chinese goods and services.
Are they wrong? Are they overreacting? What might seem to be something frivolous centered around ego, phones, and videos is much deeper than that. China has a very checkered past of egregious human rights violations, religious discrimination, and censorship of the internet (as listed here by Amnesty International). These are all alarming and should make everyone think twice about supporting China.
Yet because of its closed-off nature, we do not know how Chinese companies are forced to comply with government requests for user data. We do not know if Huawei and ByteDance are willingly offering up user data to the Communist party in China. We can assume that they do, but there is no guarantee of how this data is even used. What we can deduct from all of this, however, is that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of tech companies from the perception of government.
In the end, the government operates with the lens of the greater good (or at least it is supposed to). Companies like Facebook and ByteDance are operating in the interest of what makes shareholders the most money. The more aggressive actions by the Chinese and US governments towards tech companies show this illiteracy combined with the thirst for political power. In this middle of this blind rage is where we are as consumers, the pawns in the middle of this chess game between two goliaths. Years ago at the beginning of the internet age, there was a common theme that the internet was making the world smaller by helping us communicate with everyone in the world. It would seem that the current state of things is sabotaging that entire idea, all for the fact that power had blinded our top decision-makers.