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Devil's Advocate: Should TikTok be Banned?

YES - Georges Toulouse

Ah, TikTok! How great you are! How people love you and the endless scroll of nothingness! You bring so much to so many — over one-and-a-half billion people, by your most recent numbers — you fill the emptiness of their days with your infinity of fifteen-second reprieve from the reality of the world. Clearly, we love you, but it’s time we part ways. It’s not us, it’s you.

In our postmodern world, we have redefined the way we live, perhaps nowhere more than in the way we use our time. Say, for example, you sleep eight hours a night, work eight hours during the day, and — heaven forbid — spend one or two hours doing things that require undivided attention (driving and the likes). That leaves a whole six hours to yourself, to unwind and relax, perhaps, but also to expand your mind, to spend time with family and friends, to practice hobbies—the list goes on. Those six hours a day are what the Romans called ‘otium’, which translates to idleness in a living language such as ours. We need to have this otium to be happy and fulfilled, just as much as we need to work and be productive.

And now, what if I said there was an evil being that wanted to take it away from you? You’d probably be quite upset, and then, perhaps catching onto the very elegantly created comparison I am building, would say: “But TikTok isn’t like that, I choose to use it, I want the entertainment it provides because it makes me happy and distracts me, and there is nothing wrong with that!”... Sure, you choose to use it, and no one is forcing you to continue using it, but don’t think that you’re in control here. TikTok doesn’t care about you, it cares about your attention. It does everything to keep it, to better target ads to you, to gather more data about you to sell on the very lucrative market. Its commerce revolves around your attention and your time. So, it goes without saying that it’ll do everything to keep your attention, to mooch as much of your hours of idleness as possible. What could you be doing for all those hours? Bluntly, you could be living and learning, instead of engaging in mindless activities.

Because that is what scrolling TikTok is, fundamentally: a mindless activity. It essentially makes you a zombie while engaging in it, you scroll on and on, and on, maybe exhaling from your nose every once in a while to express amusement, perhaps even saying to yourself “oh I should definitely cook that” and then forgetting about it almost immediately, but you don’t actually get anything from it. TikTok is a way to turn your brain off, it’s like a temporary lobotomy.

To those that don’t believe such a statement, then what about this: can you remember any of the TikToks that you have watched earlier than today? If you say yes, then you’ll probably have in your head, a handful, a literal drop in the Ocean of the TikToks you can consume mindlessly. Plus, the sad truth is that it isn’t only TikTok either—Instagram ‘Reels’ are just as bad. I myself, as a great number of snobs, refused to get TikTok (and took pride in such a stance), but then the reels sucked me into the exact same cycle of stupid, time-wasting scrolling. It’s not necessarily an issue with TikTok, it’s with the greedy, profoundly un-human commerce of attention, the monetisation of time, which results in companies wishing to occupy as much of your attention as they can, for as long as they can: they want you addicted, and they do everything they can to get you hooked.

Our governments have acted decisively in the past against other addictive substances, with remarkable results for smoking and alcohol. It is time that they adapt to a new age, where the addictions that ruin peoples’ lives aren’t only substances, they can also be virtual. Just compare the various effects of TikTok and addictive psychoactive drugs: they bring you joy, pass the time, but rapidly get you hooked, make you spend more and more of your life centred around them, until you cannot live without them. See where I’m going? TikTok has replaced otium with opium: our governments need to act.

What solution can we find? Fundamentally, if the companies in question—TikTok being the worst offender—aren’t aware of the responsibility they have towards people, and children in particular, and the detrimental effects they have on their lives, they should be banned. Governments should see it as a public health matter. This isn’t just about TikTok, it’s about the commerce of attention which drives companies to want you addicted: governments need to ban those that steal peoples’ lives from them in order to make profits off of their backs. Ban TikTok, and give them back their right to live fully.

NO - Natalie Olofsson

To remove an app which consumes the time of millions of Brits is both an attack on freedom of information, and an inconsistent attempt at improving nationwide security. The short-form media which glues our eyes to the screen is here to stay, and it is identical to the byproducts of Facebook and Google. If TikTok is to be banned, we should consider how other forms of social media infringe on our security as well.

In mid March 2023, TikTok CEO Shou Ci Chew testified in front of the US House Energy and Commerce Committee, claiming that criticisms of TikTok’s security practices should not be a cause for concern. Simultaneously, Joe Biden and other members of Congress are considering a new bill which heavily strengths regulations on international media companies. In the EU, the European Parliament imposed bans on TikTok on staff devices, as the same has been done in the UK. But such actions are irrelevant to the security of citizens; governments often ban the use of personal phone numbers, social media, and email accounts, in fear of security breaches. I would hope that a TikTok animal video, or pasta recipe, is not crucial to the work of a government employee. But citizens do not have the security needs of the state.

Banning TikTok is a dangerous route to also disbanding Instagram, Snapchat, or YouTube. Nevermind a political portrayal of TikTok which borders Sinophobia — the immorality of platforms such as Google and Facebook have never been addressed to such a fervour as TikTok. Hatred of China is older in the United Kingdom than football, the invention of the toaster, or the country itself. When half a billion of Facebook’s accounts were leaked in 2021, an American company founded in the 2000s, no change was made by a Western government. Without necessary information that TikTok is objectively worse than the monopolistic companies who regulate our other forms of social media, well, banning TikTok is at best hypocritical and, at worst, an exclusively political move.

Let us then examine a world where the app vanishes: ultimately, little will change when the likes of YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram have learnt from the narcotic qualities of the app, and integrated them into their own algorithms. The governments of the UK, US, and mainland Europe may rest easy, a hypothetical security threat averted; the lives of their citizens will see no change. A morning wasted away on TikTok is now a morning on Instagram Reels, the fear-mongering video one sees on TikTok will find its way to Facebook. The pessimists who blacklist TikTok are forgetting the origins of social media — we all know a poor soul who believes the earth is flat, their favourite celebrity is very much not dead, or that manifesting one’s way into immortality is plausible, because a Facebook post has them convinced. Advertisements target Instagram just as much as they do TikTok; in fact, Instagram advertises more heavily and relies on one’s own Google searches to advertise most effectively. For the avid consumer of social media, banning TikTok would do little to protect their internet security, privacy, or return time in the day, because other social media have learned from the expertise of TikTok.

Don’t ban TikTok — regulate it. If we are to be concerned about the presence of TikTok, it should not be because the luddites amongst us worry about a decreased attention span — it should be from concern about the security of our own data. This same perspective should be applied to all forms of social media: it is not the case that TikTok is without risk but that its risks do not stand out in comparison to the monetisation of consumer data, and frequent breach of privacy which can be applied to Facebook or Google. The damage to consumer attention spans has already been done: the ban would do little but transfer attentiveness back to Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Any regulation of TikTok is better done with a focus on our digital footprints, and security, as a whole.

Photo: Unsplash

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1 Comment

Dennis Besko
Dennis Besko
Jul 30, 2023

where do I go to buy stuff when I need it?

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