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Emperor Palpatine holds a cell phone.

TikTok Terrorism

Misdirection from a fully operational Death Star

Beneath the thin slice of rectangle crystal, photons dance. In empty hospital halls, scrubs and masks shuffle clumsily to hip, vapid beats in a choreographed display of mediocre middle-class conformity. Vegan-skinned, dysfunctional costumes bob bright plumage, pointing beseechingly to narcissistic neopronouns as they pop on screen in colorful sequence. The metal bits and oozing spittle of classroom comprachicos revel mockingly in sadistic parental usurpation. If you’ve never scrolled through TikTok, imagine being Ray Liotta’s character in Hannibal–drugged and duped into eating pieces of his own brain sliced out and fried by Lecter. It feels like that; each upward swipe obliterating another point of your IQ as you watch, helpless to stop it.

And then there’s the data collection. In the app, it’s everything: every foolish tap, every prefrontal cortex-induced hesitation, every indulgent moment watching Rome bow to the barbarians, the trajectory of every whimsical swipe. Outside the app, it’s anything available and (often unwittingly) authorized: location, contacts, calendars. In the World Cup of digital stalking, TikTok is Kylian Mbappe.

There’s plenty to hate about this digital dopamine dispenser, and because the company behind it (ByteDance) is essentially Chinese, both conservative and “common sense” media have been thoughtlessly leveraging all of it to push a narrative that casts China as a preternatural boogeyman that must be stopped at all costs. “For decades,” reads a 2020 White House press release, “Donald J. Trump was one of the few prominent Americans to recognize the true nature of the Chinese Communist Party and its threat to America’s economic and political way of life.” Although Biden reversed Trump’s proposed bans on TikTok, WeChat, and other Chinese apps, the sentiment that China is near the top of our existential threat list remains. In June, a Pew Research poll revealed that 67% of Americans viewed “China’s power and influence” as a major threat. Last week, Common Sense published an article titled, “How China Got Our Kids Hooked on ‘Digital Fentanyl.’”

It’s a clever metaphor, but an ultimately misleading title, considering that the term “hooked” in reference to technology is the brainchild of Silicon Valley, not Beijing. Recently, I even made a video about Nir Eyal’s seminal book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, which for years has been a de-facto textbook in app design 101. TikTok certainly didn’t invent intrusive data collection and spying on its users, either. Ever heard of Alexa? Google? Facebook? Instagram? But the author of the Common Sense article makes psychological manipulation and data collection sound uniquely Chinese, and responds to a suggestion that the U.S. government ban the offending app with: “It’s about time.” His panic over China isn’t rare; plenty of self-described defenders of liberty find themselves similarly whipped into a frenzied red China scare in between waving yellow Gadsden flags, posting “taxation is theft” memes, and uploading videos that compare Joe Biden to Emperor Palpatine.

Make no mistake; the Chinese government is rotten. It’s a dystopian surveillance state with an administrative apparatus that makes progressive busybodies wet themselves with excitement. It’s the Left’s blueprint for the future. Companies like ByteDance, TenCent (WeChat), and Alibaba are absolutely under the thumb of the CCP, regardless of how many Politburo members inhabit the C-suite. Chinese business leaders have no choice, no matter how rich and successful they become. Just ask Jack Ma–if you can find him and coax him into talking. While the primary purpose of data collection by Chinese companies is likely the same as that of Western companies (to make money off of you), if the Chinese government wants to know your location or whom you’re texting, or which particular dancing nurse videos you favor, it will. And perhaps someday it will want to know. Or maybe China’s agenda will be adequately served by subtly boosting the cultural and political content it wants Americans consuming.

Then again, the same things can be said about the United States government. Since we’re using drug analogies, liberty-loving Americans would do well to disconnect from the deep state drip of Cold War: Part II, and instead objectively consider the situation in which they find themselves. Only in sobriety can threats to liberty be rationally assessed and ranked in order of most existential to least pressing.

The United States government has expanded in size, scope, and power almost continuously since its inception, with a marked acceleration in the 20th century thanks to the cultural victory of progressivism that gave rise to the likes of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt and paved the way for a massive administrative state. Individual sovereignty, opposition to federal authority, and general skepticism of government have gone from foundational elements of American culture to evidence of “domestic terrorism.” Developments that would have been considered abominations 200 years ago–Federal Reserve fiat currency, social security, armies of regulatory agencies, national healthcare, pervasive meddling and instigation of deadly overseas skirmishes, a militarized police state, asset forfeiture, the largest prison population in the world, gun bans, citizen surveillance–have all been normalized to the point that every major political argument is about how much more the federal government should be doing and never what it should stop doing.

When Edward Snowden risked his life to expose the grossly unconstitutional excesses of the NSA, the tiny portion of the populace that paid attention was outraged for about a week or two. Then came a collective, “meh,” sprinkled with calls for his traitorous head from people who have their own stuck so far up the other end that they’ve confused American values with the American government. No one seriously believes the NSA has reformed, and worse: few people seem to care. When blowback from their Middle Eastern machinations escalated into the terrorist massacre of 9/11, federal swamp rats were quick to exploit it by convincing irate Americans to sacrifice liberty in the name of security. “They hate us because of our freedom,” was the mantra. The paradoxical conclusion was left unspoken: “so to defeat them, we must abandon it.” Today, submitting to body scans, no-fly lists, fingerprinting, and chatroom entrapment glowies is perversely perceived as “the price we pay for freedom.” Tomorrow, the federal government will roll out Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) in the name of “safety.” The day after that, forms of money that can’t be controlled and monitored will be phased out. Welcome to serfdom.

As for social media apps, American companies invented spying on their users, and it’s woefully naïve to think that the FBI can’t access whatever data it wants by simply swinging by Zuckerberg’s office and casually mentioning “national security” without so much as pretending to get a warrant. Or suppress election-altering stories about a certain presidential candidate’s coke-addled son and his disinterred laptop. The Netflix dystopian series Black mirror was popular largely because it was viewed as prescient. Popular in America. People know where they are, and what’s coming. Americans are living on an authoritarian tax farm run by an unaccountable cabal of administrators, cloaked in the red-white-and-blue clothing of “democracy,” and carefully deploying measures of economic freedom as psychological tools to motivate the public into filling the government’s coffers.

 “But what about the Chinese commies?” scream the most useful of the tax farmer’s sheep, hoping to repurpose Cold War paranoia. Certainly, Beijing is worse than D.C. thus far, at least for the Chinese. But China’s not actually Communist, except in name. After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping was smart enough to recognize that Communism is a doltish and deadly way to run a country. To combat its productivity problem (old Soviet joke: “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us”), Xiaoping implemented the idea of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” It worked. China’s economy exploded, with a sustained average GDP growth of 9% from 1978 to 2010. Hundreds of millions of Chinese were lifted out of poverty, giving birth to a thriving and increasingly sophisticated middle class. Today, major cities like Beijing, Shenzhen, and Shanghai rival or exceed Western standards. The Chinese are living on an authoritarian tax farm run by an unaccountable cabal of aristocrats, cloaked in the red-and-yellow clothing of “communism,” and carefully deploying measures of economic freedom as psychological tools to motivate the public into filling the government’s coffers. Sound familiar?

China’s Orwellian surveillance state isn’t uniquely authoritarian or evil; it’s just several seasons ahead of Washington, D.C. on the Black Mirror scale. The tardiness of America’s power-lusting tax farmers is understandable, since both the U.S. Constitution as well as remnants of a once-ingrained culture of freedom are meaningful hurdles that CCP farmers don’t have to contend with. They’re not insurmountable hurdles–American politicians have proven that much–but they do slow down the “progress” of progressivism. The question isn’t whether Chinese or Americans have it worse off. The answer to that is easy. The question is, as an American, which government is the bigger existential threat to your liberty?

A G-man monitors a computer screen.

China might continue to expand, gaining power and influence both in the United States and abroad. Maybe someday there will even be room for another Red Dawn remake. Or it might not. China’s current president, Xi Jinping, seems increasingly intent on reversing Deng Xiaoping’s move toward economic freedom in order to self-medicate his diseased ego. In the long run, that will weaken China. Regardless, the existential threat to American liberty is decidedly not coming from Beijing. TikTok and all other forms of Chinese money and influence could vanish from U.S. soil tomorrow, and we’d still be left with a population of psychologically disordered, gender-confused, vegan progressives intent on annihilating individual sovereignty and turning American society into a game of dominance and submission in a rainbow oppression Olympics of mental dysfunction. An American TikTok would emerge faster that you can say, “Big Brother.” From the Federal Reserve to Tumblr, China can’t be blamed for America’s suicidal tendencies.

The “China problem” is one big psy-op. The looming threat to American liberty is obvious: it’s D.C., not Beijing. China’s not about to roll out CBDC to all Americans. China’s not telling the SEC to start pushing ESG scores, or Facebook to carry water for Leftists, or YouTube to delete “misinformation” that conflicts with the Uniparty narrative. China’s not jailing millions of Americans. China’s not faking FISA warrants. China didn’t give us AOC, central banking, the New Deal, the social security Ponzi scheme, personal or corporate welfare, Obamacare, the TSA, the ATF, or any of the other 137 executive agencies. It didn’t militarize your local police, sanction civil asset forfeiture, manage the failed War on Drugs, destroy the U.S. economy, promote the burning of American cities, implement drone strike Tuesdays, ship Americans to get their legs blown off in endless illegitimate wars, or fund modern art. Yes, China is the biggest threat to the liberty of the Chinese. But guess what institution is the biggest threat to the liberty of Americans?

Because of my stint with a TS security clearance and career as a cryptographer, libertarians and conservatives sometimes ask me what secure messaging app I prefer to use. They assume I’m going to say something like Signal, or Telegram, or WhatsApp (which is owned by Facebook, incidentally). Most practically spit at me in anger when I answer them: WeChat. They stomp around, incredulous about how stupid I must be to trust a Chinese app–and how unpatriotic! But here’s the rub: I don’t trust a Chinese app. I don’t trust any app, and neither should you. What’s important to understand is that large governments have incomprehensibly big budgets and huge incentives to break or usurp the security of encrypted messaging apps. There is no privacy from a government that has jurisdiction over the company that produces an app.

Any app made by a company in the United States (or another Five Eye) almost surely has either a built-in backdoor (I know from direct experience–it happens all the time), or the NSA or a sister organization has already figured out how to break it. To government agencies, every citizen is a potential insurrectionist, and they’re not about to let you run around texting your insurrectionist friends without a way to intercept those messages. However, the U.S. might actually help American companies protect against foreign eavesdropping (there’s also a history of this). The Chinese government is the NSA’s enemy, and the NSA would really rather prevent its adversaries from reading your messages, since that’s the NSA’s self-appointed job. It’s why Washington is so upset about TikTok, but not Google, Amazon, or Facebook.

The reverse is also true. The Chinese government definitely has access to information exchanged on Chinese apps like WeChat. But they don’t grant the enemy–U.S. government agencies–that access. In fact, they almost certainly help Tencent protect against eavesdropping by foreign intelligence agencies. Whether China is successful or not is unknown. What is known is that, realistically, there is no such thing as privacy when you’re using commercially available software. Or if there is, you can’t rely on it. What you can do is choose from whom you’re trying to keep your data private. If you’re worried about China throwing you in jail for encouraging someone over text to trespass into the Capitol building in D.C., then go ahead and avoid WeChat. But if you’re a typical American, then China has neither interest in nor power over you; Xi Jinping couldn’t so much as write you a parking ticket, even if he cared to. And he doesn’t. If you seek privacy from the institutions that actually do have power over you, then your best bet is to leverage the vast resources of their enemies; resources already dedicated to avoiding the prying eyes of the Washington deep state. What do you suppose Thomas Jefferson would do?

Of course, I don’t want to live under CCP rule, but it’s not because they speak Mandarin and eat chicken feet (although the latter is definitely a minus). As someone dedicated to individual rights and political liberty, I don’t want to live under any authoritarian regime, and I don’t want other humans to, either. The essential values of America that are worth preserving–the ones worth fighting and dying for–aren’t captured in empty platitudes from politicians about American “exceptionalism” or our “work ethic” or “love” or “equality” or “democracy.” They’re not found in hot dogs or baseball or apple pie or Norman Rockwell paintings or Sunday barbeques or Disneyland. They’re not reflected by the particular land mass or political boundaries or laws or religion or even people. They’re the ideas behind the Constitution; the principles of individual rights and political liberty. And the biggest threats to those principles–at least for Americans–aren’t halfway around the globe eating chicken feet and reading TikTok data, they’re right here. The moment Americans lose sight of that, our liberty is lost.

The next time you hear emergency screeches about the “China threat” and emphatic insistence that Imperial forces from Washington’s Death Star “do something” to save us all, remember the timeless words of that cephalopodic Admiral from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away: “It’s a trap!”

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