Fear of TikTok is idiotic. Will they ban chopsticks next?
Published: Mar 17, 2023 09:00 PM
Photo: VCG

Photo: VCG

In my working life as a journalist I have been routinely searched many times before entering a criminal courtroom to report on a hearing. Once, an over-zealous security guard examined the backpack in which I carried my laptop, camera, digital recorder and sundry other work-related items. After peering into the bag, he reached inside and removed a charger and cable for a mobile phone, telling me that I would get it back only when I left the building. When I asked him why he was confiscating an ordinary electrical plug, he replied: "Because people come here to steal our electricity."

I had no intention to charge up my mobile phone in any power socket, not least because this was a time when the use of mobile electrical devices - phones especially - was not permitted in courtrooms. However, even though there was no evidence I could, or would, charge my phone, the guard's mere misguided suspicion was enough for him to act pre-emptively.

Is this, I wonder, how the British government was thinking of TikTok when it took the decision to ban the app from government-owned smartphones and other devices? Not because there was clear evidence of any security threat, but because they have a vague notion that there might be.

TikTok is a massively successful business. It has been downloaded more than 2 billion times globally, yet it is being portrayed as malicious by increasingly hysterical news reports. The truth is that it has a large target on its back simply because it is Chinese-owned. Politicians are muttering increasingly agitated criticisms, even though they probably don't know their apps from their elbows. In the current tensions existing between China and the West, they can find capital in attacking Beijing. And now both the British and the US governments are limiting the use of the app on the grounds that it might constitute a security risk. The evidence for this seems to be - rather like that of the courtroom security guard - mere suspicion.

What drives this suspicion? Is there real evidence? Will anyone please show me the proof? Or is it - like, unfortunately, so many things these days - enough for it to be Chinese for it to be traduced by politicians in my part of the world, and for this casual, racially-charged slander to be faithfully repeated, often without challenge, in the media. Perhaps there is something to worry about, something that only security services know and which they say they cannot share with ordinary people. However, after the lies told by our governments for example, to justify illegal war in Iraq we can be forgiven for refusing to accept their assertions at face value. Their "word" has been degraded, and xenophobia is not evidence. 

Barely a year ago, the British government was launching its own TikTok channel. Now, it is slavishly following America's ill-informed lead, along with Canada and the European Union, and declaring it a threat. Confusingly, some politicians are suggesting its citizens might want to stop using the app on their phones, while at least one UK government minister says he will continue to create video for the platform on his private devices.

There are contradictory messages from the US too. Some senators are calling for the app to be banned from their country, and dozens of states have introduced TikTok bans on their official devices. Yet when one cautious state, Connecticut, was considering a similar move and asked the FBI for advice the Bureau admitted to having no further evidence to support the claims of security risk.

Despite TikTok's denials, and the paucity of evidence, and a plethora of international experts highlighting the massive hypocrisy that non-Chinese apps such as Facebook and Google harvest much more data than their Beijing-based rival, and despite there being nothing to prove it is a greater risk than any other social media, this Sinophobic witch-hunt gathers pace. What is driving this suspicion? Evidence? Fear? Or simply the knowledge that TikTok is Chinese?

In this kind of deranged atmosphere, fear will always trump facts, and we should be concerned at where this will lead.

Where will we end up? Perhaps chopsticks will be banned by NATO for fear of being used to tap out encrypted messages by clicking in a secret rhythm on dining tables. Or they will be outlawed as potential weapons, disguised as eating utensils. Perhaps the traditional dancing dragons of Chinese New Year will be exposed as not representations of mythical creatures but rather as a military device inside which the People's Liberation Army can smuggle its battalions into cities all over the UK and America.

It's idiotic, yes, and idiocy is not evidence. And neither is xenophobia.

The author is a journalist and lecturer living in Britain. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn