TikTok: A Chinese Problem? Part 2 Podcast Transcript
The Bright Team
The Bright Team • Nov 09

TikTok: A Chinese Problem? Part 2 Podcast Transcript

Breaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headlines.

We continue to explore the TikTok controversy and explain why we think we're likely to see more regulation and changes over the next twelve months.

Taryn Ward.  Hi. I'm Taryn Ward,

Steven Jones.  I'm Steven Jones,

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TW.  and this is Breaking the Feed Social Media Beyond the Headlines.

SJ.  We're taking a closer look at the core issues around social media, including the existing social media landscape, to better understand the role social media plays in our everyday lives and society.

TW.  Last time, we started our look at TikTok and its powerful algorithm and discuss some of the concerns regulators have expressed about the platform more broadly. Today, we'll discuss why these concerns and other signals from regulators mean it's likely that we'll see some changes over the next 12 months. The groundwork has already largely been laid with bans on government devices and increasing conversations about the dangers of TikTok, and as we dive headfirst into another election cycle in the United States, missing disinformation is likely to play a central role, both in terms of how this election plays out, and what regulators are focused on. 

SJ.  Yeah, I mean, that's all true, and, you know, missing disinformation is continuing to play an increasing role in elections and election cycles, whether it's the US election or Brexit referendum, and one has to assume the next UK election, which is coming up too remember.  I think I read somewhere that there are something like 50 elections coming up in the next year, and social media is going to play a role in determining though the outcome of those and we know social media platforms have had negative effects, shall we say, in terms of the way that they've allowed mis- and disinformation to spread and allows society to be polarised? 

TikTok is definitely going to play a role, which it didn't in the last set of election cycles, and as we mentioned last time, people can't determine very well what is an advert on TikTok and what's just entertainment, and that makes it difficult for us to generate scepticism and think critically about what we're being told. So, I think it's unlikely that whether it's before or, you know, subsequent to the next election, that TikTok is going to escape some kind of action from regulators. You know, in the long term, I just, I just can't see that. We're using turn.

TW.  I agree, and I think in part this is because concerns about TikTok are one of the only things US regulators on both sides of the aisle agree on, and this isn't just true for the US either, although it's easy to focus on them, because they're sort of the most out there, and let's say that, you know, it's easy to talk about them and easy to point our fingers. But actually, I think the same thing is true as you well said, in a lot of other governments that have elections coming up relatively soon. But you know, thinking about the US, in particular, there are some easy potential wins here, and opportunities for one-upmanship, which we see in particular, not, not exclusively, but particularly in the US, you know, you have this sort of, we care more about America's youth. No, we do we love your children more. No, we do we want to protect your shoulder. No, we do, and this goes on and on, and we see this play out in a way in the US that does seem to be unique, and we're sort of really set up to have this argument about TikTok for the first time, and, you know, we have that going on. 

On the one hand, at the same time, relations have continued to deteriorate with China, and that's, that's never great for anyone who invests in one country and operates in the other, and you know, there are these expectations, I think, on both sides, both people in China and in the West, that things are going badly and are likely to continue to go badly for, you know, we tend to think of things in 5- to 10-year cycles. So, certainly that long, and that is the case, regardless of the next election in the United States. In you know, in the UK and other places, concerns about security, privacy and control are very likely to increase. What do you think? 

SJ.  Yeah, I think that's right. I think there are a number of flashpoints potentially existing between, you know, Western Governments and Southeast Asian Governments and the Chinese Government. Let's be honest, it's not just us, you know, there's the increasing militarization of the South China Sea. There's increasingly hostile rhetoric about Taiwan being part of, you know, Mainland China. There's increasing influence in the sub-Saharan African regimes and the explicit and implicit support for Russia in its war in Ukraine.  All of these things, I think, have combined to make China viewed as more of a problem than it has been probably for any time since Nixon visited a very long time ago. The fact that President Ji has sort of solidified his grip on the party, and, you know, it has extended his, you know, 10 years as leader, possibly until his demise makes the West even more nervous even though the leaders weren't elected by the populace, there was an expectation there would be a turnover and that expectation’s gone, and so I think it's reasonable for people in the governments in other countries to think that there's, there's not going to be a change of direction, and in fact, there's likely to be a doubling down, on all of those issues, which are absolutely counter to the best interests of countries in South East Asia and, and the West, and I think the fact that China seems to be having economic difficulties now related to their real estate market, and so on, probably exacerbates the concern of Western governments. Because when a government is under pressure at home, it often becomes more belligerent internationally, because it keeps the populace on board with their action. Right. So, there are very good reasons to be concerned, and there's a lot of reasons to believe that the Chinese Government would like to have influence in British, European, and American elections over the next election cycle.

TW.  Yes, I think that's all fair, and, you know, there's, there's always risk in business and international business, there's their unique risks. So, anytime you have, you know, a company based in one country and operating in another or, you know, investors from one country, and it's, it's all complicated, and everyone knows, every grown-up knows that there's a risk that relations between two countries deteriorate. There are some countries where relations have a longer, stronger groundwork, and so the risk is arguably lower. But there's always this risk and the financial consequences that follow, and I think that's something that, you know, a lot of people are set up to realise in a new way because we've had this extended period where everybody's really tried to get along and largely has, but there are signals now that some of that is changing, and when we talk about what's happening in Ukraine, that certainly is a good example of this. This is in spite of the fact that Thomas Friedman wrote in 2005 this book, "The World is Flat", Steve, did you ever read or come across that book,

SJ.  I'm afraid to say I didn't, Taryn.

TW.  Well, I wouldn't be afraid of that. I think, in some ways, you're probably better off. But for most of us, who were, you know, sort of in school or just out of school around the time, it was, it was an important book, and they used to teach it, actually, in economics classes in the US. But it also became a just a big part of popular culture, and the idea here was that there were all these various forces working to flatten the Earth. I'm not talking about like the flat earth, literally. But this idea that the playing field of global competitiveness was being levelled. That's a whole conversation for another day. But here, this idea was that we were becoming more and more connected, technology was increasing. We were headed towards this utopia of exchange, and it was really optimistic and hopeful, and it's been fairly criticised on a lot of different fronts. As a lot of things, exaggerated, overdone, over simplified. All these things, I think are fair. But the important bit is that this viewpoint became a very important part of the collective understanding about how things not only how things were working, but how the direction things were going in, and I think a lot of people really wanted to believe this, especially after 9/11 There is this sense that yes, in some places in the world, things are things are going badly, but you know, if we could just get a McDonald's if we could just get them sort of started, things would be better, and we could all get along. 

SJ.  Yeah, I like I like that idea that you know, McDonald's is a harbinger of peace, rather than have somewhat adequate burgers. I think, you know, one of the things that I found living and working in different countries, including China; briefly back in 2008, which now is an increasingly long time ago, I have to admit, and things have changed a lot since in that time, but then it also in the Middle East and Africa in in the more recent past. It's really fascinating how similar people are, you know what they care about their kids, their spouse having a... somewhere to live which is safe and secure, having the opportunity to eat nice things and hang out with their friends, these things, unite people, and very often laughing about the same things. That sense of humour is, is really interesting. But the reality is that in some countries, you have to be really careful about how you express that. Because we're going to despite the fact that in the West, we sometimes complain about limits on our free speech, there are countries where, you know, you can get into a great deal of trouble for laughing about some things or criticising those things, and that's, I think, is the fundamental difference between us and, you know, places like Saudi Arabia and China and Russia. If we were embroiled in a war, we would be free to protest it. We know that from Vietnam, and from the last series of wars in Afghanistan and the Gulf, there were massive protests going on, for the whole period. If you try and protest this in Russia, you're liable to go to jail or be fined or both, right? So, that that fundamental differences there, and I think that that that's not necessarily what the populace want it at the individual level, and we said this, in the beginning, there's a difference between the Chinese Government, the Chinese people, but the goals of the Chinese Government are, are not aligned with what the future that we would like to see, and there are massive limits on what the Chinese people can do about that. Whereas, you know, whether you criticise our elections or not, we do have them, and we have an opportunity to change governments, and I think, you know, Friedman's idea that this trade is the great leveller is just a little naive, and the experience of the last couple of years has sort of shown us that actually, it's a massive strategic problem. Because when COVID hit, and supply chains were disrupted, you know, that resulted in increases in prices, difficulty in getting hold of necessities or things that we think of as necessities, whether that includes chips for it Playstations or not, I'm not sure. But that resulted in inflationary pressure, which has resulted in increases in interest rates, recession or recession, like economic circumstances, cost of living crisis, which is undeniable. You know, since then, we've seen efforts by the US and the EU, to try and repatriate some of that production capacity to limit that strategic problem, right. Even energy, this efforts in the US to increase domestic energy production and to reduce reliance on the Middle East. So, whilst people are interested in the same things, governments are not and that's the, I think, the fly in that particular moment, what do you think? I mean, I never read the book, as I said, and I was certainly not forced to study it, thank God. But that's sort of my view on this.

TW.  I think what you said about people fundamentally wanting and caring about the same things is really important. I think that may have been the kernel of truth or one of the kernels of truth, if I'm feeling a little more generous in this book that allowed people to think, to take the next step and the leap, which wasn't necessarily justified, and, you know, this idea that we all want to laugh, we all want to be safe, we all want to, you know, we want some of the same, the same things is, is really powerful. But it doesn't mean that we're all rational actors, primarily motivated by economics, and I think that's the problem with Friedman's Golden Arches Theory, and later on his Dell Theory

So, the Golden Arches Theory, my McDonald's comment wasn't truly a throw away. So, originally, you know, asserted by him in 1999. He he claimed that in this was true at the time, by the way, no two countries that both had to McDonald's had fought a war against each other since each had its McDonald's. So, you know, if two countries both had an operational McDonald's, they weren't going to go to war. But it was sort of that next step that was implied right, as long as you have two countries that have reached a level of economic development, such that they could support a McDonald's, they wouldn't be interested in fighting wars. Friedman later said this was tongue in cheek, but that was only after, of course, NATO bombed Yugoslavia and protesters in Belgrade demolished a McDonald's I think by hand, the footage of that was really remarkable. So, Friedman later amended this theory to be the Dell Theory, and this was more about supply chains. So, the idea was that if two countries are both part of the same major global supply chain, like Dell's, they wouldn't go to war. They just wouldn't. They wouldn't want to risk it. They'd be focused on economic development, other things, slightly more complicated and nuanced argument, but not very much, and of course, this is also proven untrue. But really, because these books were so widely consumed, and people believed it, even though there was criticism that was credible, a lot of this just became sort of assumed this became a big part of people's understandings about how international economics worked. Of course, we know based on even a cursory glance at historical conflicts, or our present situation, that people are not purely rational actors, and they're certainly not purely rational actors that are solely or primarily motivated by economics.

SJ.  Yeah, I mean, I think that that is absolutely true. I saw an article, I think, was in the New York Times, which is, you know, not a reactionary paper, I think it's fair to say, by written by an economist who basically said, in one part of this, I'm not sure why anybody believes economists, because most of the time they're wrong, and for the rest of science, from the point of view of the ret of science, it's a little bit like the difference between astronomy and astrology, you know, the economists are trying to predict the future behaviour based on things which they just don't understand. You know, it by its very nature, its reductionist it's trying to take a very complex system and reduce it, and the fact that people don't appear to make rational decisions, I think, is really important that you know, I spent a lot of time making scientific presentations, as you know, and then trying to teach people to make better scientific presentations to try and persuade people, you know, to get them to change their behaviour, that behaviour that would make them healthier, and happier and take care of their families, you know, and what I always said to students was that people don't really care about the data, like they, they want the data to be there. They don't want you to be making stuff up. But the data isn't going to convince someone because they didn't make a logical decision to get into most positions that they've, they hold they, umm, these are emotional decisions, the all about higher function thought that we have in our frontal cortex happens just a little bit slower than the emotional reactions, which happen in the sort of, you know, more evolutionary, basic parts of the brain, and so it's always our emotions that we will follow, and then we can either retcon a logical reason for feeling that way. Or we'll just say that I just don't believe that that's not real. It's the curse of humankind, so, but you make decisions, you do make decisions based on what you feel is a reasonable basis, and maybe that's what economists do get wrong is they expect people to only act in a way that is entirely rational, and based on data and the beautiful equations that economists produced to sort of develop these, these models. But people aren't like that, and what's more, it's most often not people who are deciding this, right? The it is groups of people, which I often describe as despite being individually intelligent, a group of people is about as smart as the square root of the IQ of the stupidest member. I mean, crowds are not known for making good decisions, and government is the ultimate crowd, and predicting what they think is important is extraordinarily difficult. So, you know, I think it was overly optimistic to the point of ridiculous naivety to assume that this was going to be the case, and it certainly hasn't worked out that way, and the impact for TikTok is in a geopolitical situation, which seems to be deteriorating at the moment, they could well be a victim of this. But what do you think you you really studied this book and had students who were reading it for other people?

TW.  Yes, I did. So, when I was teaching, I had students who had come in who were assigned this reading, not by me, clearly is usually listening or paying attention at all. But, you know, they wanted to talk about this book and think about this book, and I think I think there are are some real problems. But even if we give it a really generous reading, and we're more generous to economists, and I think either of us are inclined to be looking at this, the average American really has little to gain economically by continuing to use TikTok dreams of becoming TikTok famous aside, which, you know, we can't discount there's a very real I think, you know, never when I was in school when people put their hands up and say I want to be TikTok famous or I want to be an influencer. That is the reality. Now that is a thing that you know children and teenagers aspire to be. But I think it's a little bit like becoming a famous athlete. Most people understand that the chances that that's going to happen for them are really slim. So, what is the economic benefit or advantage to this? I think it's very little for users who are the product, and I think as more platforms adapt some of these favourite features and make them their own or even make them better, there's little motivation, and there's no loyalty. You know, people feel like they've contributed enough they've given enough, and, you know, we know that people aren't rational actors in this way, especially not purely for economics, the conversation we had earlier about what people really care about, they care about some very basic fundamental things, including their children, and this is, in most cases, in many cases, going to outweigh the economic arguments one way or the other.

SJ.  I mean, I think that's absolutely right, and as you know, the US Surgeon General came out earlier this year with a Health Advisory about social media, which, despite I think social media's attempts to downplay and say this was a massive overreaction, that that branch of the US government is not reactionary, it takes a lot of time and effort to analyse data, and the fact that it says that there's a reason to be concerned and additional research is required, is well founded, in fact, all of the research that's available says that there are potential problems, and the only the only thing which is slowing this down is that parents also want their, want to make raising their children as pain-free as possible and that these platforms do occupy a certain amount of their time, and they certainly enjoy them, you know, yourself, kids will campaign to be allowed to have greater and greater access to screens and social media, as they get older, and it's very difficult to say no. 

But if there's a real clear reason to take that away, particularly if the government is willing to do it for you. So, that you can actually have you don't actually have to have that argument with your 13-year-old, then, you know, that actually might be quite a positive outcome for many people, as you said, we're also the none of these platforms is run for our benefit at the moment, the business model ensures you are the product, their actual customers, are the advertisers for whom they are distributing adverts and selling the potential to manipulate you, and it is a definite attempt to manipulation. Let's not mess around. So, why would we want to be manipulated by TikTok when we're already being manipulated by so many other apps? And I think, as we said earlier, that TikTok is just one of the eight apps that young people and adults have on their phones and are using on a regular basis, it just happens to be the most absorbing and interesting and entertaining right now. But it's not essential to life and is potentially harmful. So, for all sorts of reasons. So, yeah, I think it's, it's fair, that regulators might be able to find an exploit the willingness of parents to protect their children to enable them to ban this.

TW.  Yes, and it's not just parents worried about their specific children. I think it's parents worried about children that they know and non-parents who are worried about young people they know and older generations worried about younger generations and mental health experts worried about everyone, and sociologists worried about the fabric of society, and everyone's a little bit worried about democracy. But really, we're all afraid of the Chinese, and I don't just mean the Chinese Government, I think there are two parts to this, I think we are really afraid of some of the narratives around the Chinese people as a whole, that they're better at maths than we are mathematics, that they're smarter, that they're more driven, that they're going to outperform us that we're all going to be speaking Chinese in the next 10 years. I mean, these are all things that I've heard at, you know, the school gates at, you know, our school, which is fairly progressive in the last two weeks. These are these are things that are that are out there and floating around, and then you add in the Chinese Government, and it's a whole a whole extra level, and, you know, I think it's safe to say that there's a nonzero amount of this, that is racism. I don't know how much of it is, but it's definitely true that some of what's going on here is that and I think that really muddies the water here, and it makes it hard to have these conversations in a in a thoughtful way, really, and we shouldn't be afraid. Here we out we should be afraid, because we don't understand and we haven't made the effort to understand, and even over the last 30 years when we've had ample opportunity to understand Chinese people better to understand the Chinese Government better. We haven't really taken it, and so now we're in this position where sort of like with Russia, we really lack a fundamental understanding of what motivates their decisions, and what's going to happen next.

SJ.  Yeah, and I think all of that is absolutely true. You know, I enjoyed my time being in China, as brief as it was, in the grand scheme of my life. But it would be false to say that I genuinely understand China and the Chinese, I understand perhaps a little bit better the people that I worked and lived with, and I certainly had appreciation for them. As individuals and a group, we have things in common, you know, work or family. But, you know, we really haven't made any effort, and I'm not sure that that's all one-way street. You know, I don't think the, there's much appreciation for the West, and particularly individuals in the West in China either, and part of that, of course, is down to the Chinese Government not wanting his people to understand the West. But, you know, we just don't understand one another, and that makes us suspicious. Europe doesn't really understand North America, North America doesn't really understand Europe, but to a significantly greater degree, and because we often look more or less the same, it's, you know, somehow less troubling. So, it's, it's really difficult, but I think we shouldn't let our fear that this is racism, as founded as that some of that fear is make us less willing to take decisive action, particularly if we're worried about security, and the mental health and wellness of ourselves and our kids, I think, you know, we need a strong functioning group of individuals to make a strong functioning society, and we need a strong functional society right now, because threats, whether they're natural or, you know, deliberate, seem to be coming at an increasing pace, certainly, if you talk to my kids, that they believe that to be true, and we need a resilient society to be able to counter that, and there's a, as you said, non-zero risk that TikTok will not help us build resilient society will actually do the opposite.

TW.  Yes, and, and one of the risks here is that because we're focused on the Chinese element of this, rather than some of the things that make TikTok function, the algorithm, the social media components, is that we become so focused on TikToks relationship to China, and the Chinese Government, that we neglect the fundamental danger presented, and the the really extraordinary power any of the big social media networks have over our lives, and the worry in real concern that any bad actor, state or private, could use these platforms against the West against a specific country against a specific demographic, for whatever purposes, you can imagine, and, you know, this is the result of a real lack of accountability that these platforms have been have had up to this point, and that's really the core problem that whether TikToks relationship with the Chinese Government is as it appears or not, remains the same. So, I have the you know, I have a difficult question for you. Let's remove the China element for a minute. From the conversation about TikTok. I know it's hard to do that because it's you know, it's it's woven through the this conversation, but let's set that aside for a moment. If we do that is TikTok, the most dangerous social media platform in the West right now. We know it has stiff competition from Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and, most recently, Twitter. But is this the most dangerous social media platform? If we take China out of the equation?

SJ.  It is a difficult question, and I think that you're absolutely right that the other platforms are all dangerous. They all have documented cases where they've caused harm politically or to individuals, health and mental health. But this particular risk I think that TikTok presents is that it is most popular and seems to target the youngest social media users in our societies, that the algorithm is particularly effective and particularly addictive, that it commands a disproportionate amount of our young people's sort of attention and time, and as I mentioned before, people struggle to know whether content is an advert or, you know, just an entertaining video and that isn't true for the other platforms, it's usually pretty obvious. 

My concern is..  so yes, I think it is,  my concern is, of course, that the other platforms have a long history of being manipulative and sneaky, and they will get better at replicating TikTok features.   If the Royal Society report that I referred to in the last episode and the Surgeon General's report in the US have any impact, it should be that we take those health effects and the addictive quality of these platforms much more seriously. If I were to give your children a drug, you know, by injection or orally, that was going to manipulate their dopamine levels and their serotonin levels and change their behaviour and keep them up at night for hours past their bedtime, I would have had to: well, first of all, give, get informed consent, even try it; but also have that drug regulated and approved by the FDA or the European Medicines Agency or whichever national body regulates drugs, and your we know the social platforms affect those neurotransmitters and behaviour. Consequently, and there are absolutely no regulations or guidelines in place from any government anywhere in the world that would limit their ability to change that to make it more effective and more addictive. So, you know, that I think is the problem is just that TikTok is the most dangerous because right now it is absolutely the best at it, and the Chinese issue is just the cherry on the top and potentially dangerous, as you mentioned, because we focus on that rather than the actual potential problems of the other problems of the other network.

TW.  Yeah, I think that's all fair. It will be interesting, not in a happy way, to watch how these other platforms integrate the most troubling parts of TikTok into their platforms because we've already seen a lot of moves in that direction, and I would bet dollars to doughnuts, as we say sometimes in the US, that a lot of these platforms are well prepared to position themselves to step in and fill this gap if TikTok is banned in a more significant way or limited, and so we'll see how that plays out. But I would say particularly over the next 12 months, keep an eye out for regulations of various kinds and degrees across the West really. Next time, we'll continue to look at some of these new or newer social networking apps, but we'll focus specifically on Super apps and discuss whether they're likely coming to a smartphone near you.   

In the meantime, we'll post a transcript of this episode with references on our website. You can find this and more information about us at TheBrightApp.com, and if you'd like to take a deeper dive into how TikTok has changed social media as we know it, check out our previous episode on social media after TikTok.

SJ.  Until next time. I'm Steven Jones, 

TW.  and I'm Taryn Ward. 

SJ.  Thank you for joining us for Breaking the Feed, Social Media: Beyond the Headlines.

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