What are the consequences the possible banning of TikTok in the US?

In a scenario of hybrid, unconventional and low-intensity warfare, platform services play an important role, not only for their potential in psyops by Andrea Monti – Professor of Digital Law at the University of Chieti-Pescara – Initially published in Italian by Formiche.net

On 13 March 2024, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, a bill intended to —the bill reads— “protect the national security of the United States from the threat posed by foreign adversary controlled applications, such as TikTok and any successor application or service developed or provided by ByteDance Ltd. or an entity under the control of ByteDance Ltd.”

If finally passed in its current form, this bill could block the use of the social networking platform unless the protection of US national security is ensured.

The bill, which has been sent to the Senate for final approval, is part of the overall US strategy to counter the presence in the domestic market of technologies, software, and online services that are also indirectly controlled or controllable by a ‘foreign adversary’ —read ‘China’— a term that in the subtlety of political language does not (formally) indicate an enemy as a foe in a war, but certainly describes a ‘non-friend’.

Until now, US containment interventions had essentially focused on blocking the use of Chinese technologies and prohibiting the supply of software and machinery to China (such as those for the production of the latest generation of chips) that would allow it to compete on an equal footing, not only in the military sphere, with Western countries.

The strategic game is about the manipulation of consensus

The (relatively) new fact ‘consecrated’ by the anti-TikTok law is the recognition of the danger represented by platforms that interact directly and autonomously with the population and are therefore capable of manipulating both individual consciences and public debate as a whole.

The future law, in fact, is aimed at everything that is able to generate, share and display images, videos, real-time communications or similar content, as well as the ways —that is, the accumulation of data on users and their profiling— to select ‘what’ to show to ‘whom’.

From a national security point of view, it does not matter much whether TikTok is or might actually be involved in such operations on behalf of foreign actors (a study by the University of Toronto, for instance, found no evidence of such a thing), but as the Cambridge Analytica scandal taught us, there is no need to wait for foreign hostile entities to intervene in order to risk politically motivated misuse of user-generated data.

The combined manipulative effect of social profiling and AI

It is not difficult, in fact, to associate the concerns of Parliament and the US executive over the pervasiveness of the social platform with those aroused by the possibility of making deep-fakes of various kinds through artificial intelligence applications.

It is one thing, in fact, to produce fake or falsified content on an individual basis, and which, therefore, may have limited effects even if capable of generating a peak of virality. Another account, instead, is the systematic creation of individualised content (at cluster or even individual level) based on the profiling made possible by the accumulation of user data. In other words, individual content may be potentially dangerous, but it is the systematic accumulation of data of any kind on individuals to manipulate them indirectly or force their behaviour directly that is the bastion to be defended at all costs.

The strategic role of attacking social values

As part of a pre-belligerent offensive strategy, the means to weaken the spirit of a country are also of paramount importance. It is no coincidence that well before the US, China started a campaign to ban foreign cultural influences in order to prevent the corruption of socialist ethics and that, in the field of artificial intelligence, it has issued measures that are completely symmetrical to those of the US precisely to prevent the disinformation made possible by the use of this technology.

It would therefore come as little surprise that the social values that unite the West could be a target in a total guerrilla strategy theorised as far back as 1957 by the Swiss strategist Hans von Dach in Der totale Widerstand: Kleinkriegsanleitung für Jedermann, evolved in the analysis of two senior Chinese air force officers known in the West as Unrestricted Warfare and further developed in Russia in the approach that some Western scholars have called the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’.

Therefore, it comes as little surprise that (not only) the US wants to prevent even the slightest likelihood of this happening, even potentially, especially considering that the social fragmentation and isolation induced by the polarisation strategies of social networks have accustomed users, transformed into Pavlov’s dogs, to react irrationally to any stimulus, without the need to carry out complex reasoning or exercise critical thinking.

The role of users in the final decision

One factor that, however, could seriously affect a strategy aimed at blocking the availability of platform services and related software is the reaction of users.

As long as it is a matter of banning cutting-edge technologies or easily replaceable products on the market, it is highly unlikely that street protests or online aggregations would be generated to demand the continued use of a certain smartphone or drone. The case, on the other hand, of banning the use of a service that is part of the daily lives of tens of millions of people is different.

Some time ago, the mere suggestion that Meta could suspend the provision of its services in the EU due to data protection legislation, which was promptly denied, provoked alarmed reactions among those who used the service for personal or business purposes. These reactions are similar to those that are currently being registered in the USA where, as the Washington Post reports, content creators, activists, young people and small entrepreneurs have criticised the approval (though not yet final) of the TikTok Ban.

Therefore, if the protest against this legislation were to mount, the US institutions would risk being faced with the paradoxical situation of having to choose between alienating the consensus of a significant part of the electorate in order to pursue the political agenda that has been decided, or having to consider if not backtracking, at least relaxing the contents of the future law, with obvious prejudice to the public interests at stake.

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