On Friday, Donald Trump said he would ban TikTok in the United States. There’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye — including a flex to show power to other social networks.
Would a shutdown order be legal?
There are obvious First Amendment reasons to object to the shutdown of a social network. So what’s the rationale here?
The legal justification appears to be through a mechanism called CFIUS (the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States). Last Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin confirmed that TikTok was under a CFIUS review.
CFIUS allows the US Government to stop or block transactions with foreign companies that may be detrimental to national security. For example, the Trump administration used this mechanism to block Singapore-based Broadcom from acquiring Qualcomm, which controls a lot of mobile technology. And it is the reason that the Defense Department cannot buy equipment from Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE.
CFIUS has been invoked for social networks — sort of. It was used to force a Chinese company to sell Grindr, a gay hookup app.
What’s the national security justification for blocking TikTok? Since it’s owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance, the reasoning is that, despite assurances to the contrary, the app could be sending data on Americans back to China. (I’m not sure what sort of national security secrets could be hidden in an app full of people doing silly dances and lip-syncs. I’m waiting to hear how someone pantomimes the location of our nuclear weapons with a soundtrack of Randy Newman’s “Drop the Big One.”)
Ignore the obvious
Sarah Cooper releases her devastatingly funny Trump lip-syncs on TikTok. And TikTok is also where millions of young people orchestrated fake signups for Trump’s Tulsa rally, generating a million reservations when only 6,000 people showed up.
Nuking TikTok might be momentarily satisfying to Trump after these incidents, but would make no real difference. Teens can use any other social network to trash Trump, and Sarah Cooper’s videos already get millions of views on YouTube.
I can certainly imagine Trump saying “Can we shut down this fucking thing?” to his advisors about TikTok, but I’m sure he says lots of stuff like that without anything actually happening.
This may be the reason that Trump himself announced the ban, rather than some sort of official communication from the Treasury department. But it’s not the real reason behind the CFIUS action.
Consider the other effects.
This is a shot across the bow of social networks
Microsoft was already in negotiations to buy TikTok from ByteDance. (Ignore for a moment Microsoft’s historical incompetence at anything social, and how LinkedIn certainly hasn’t benefited from being part of Microsoft.)
Trump’s statement caused Microsoft to announce over the weekend that it was suspending its talks about buying TikTok. By Sunday, it appeared that Trump was planning to give Microsoft 45 days to complete its acquisition plan. And Reuters reported there was a discussion this weekend between Trump and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.
Consider what this means. I’m sure Trump wasn’t talking about technical aspects of CFIUS. He was flexing his power over US tech companies and social networks. He was basically saying, “If you’re a social network, I can shut you down if I feel like it.”
What do you think the management of Twitter is doing right now? The last thing they want is Trump — I would say “the government,” but we all know what matters here is Trump — threatening to shut down, shut off, or regulate Twitter.
The same applies to Facebook and its property Instagram.
Trump wants these platforms to allow him to continue to spread his perspective unfettered, including questioning the legitimacy of mail-in ballots, for example.
Trump’s action towards TikTok may get Twitter and Facebook to think twice before blocking Trump posts — especially if they think Trump will attempt to take them down or interfere with their financial transactions if he doesn’t get his way.
Yes, TikTok is foreign-owned and Twitter and Facebook are based in the US. But the point is always not what Trump can do, but what he can threaten to do.
So don’t be surprised if the next set of threats is against a social network based in America, with some pretext other than CFIUS behind it. And don’t be surprised if Twitter and Facebook fail to block some questionable content. If they feel their corporate existence or freedom to make deals is threatened, that will change their behavior.
And that’s what’s really behind Trump’s TikTok bluster.