Fletcher Reads the Newspaper—on Social Media

IBGC hosts a debate on the potential for a U.S. ban on TikTok
Dean Chakravorti speaks at the podium, and Zoom panelists can be seen on a screen in the background.

Discussion on campus was animated recently as Fletcher community members convened to debate a timely topic: whether the United States should ban the Chinese social media company TikTok.

The Institute for Business in the Global Context (IGBC) hosted this debate on April 3 as part of its ongoing series, “Fletcher Reads the Newspaper,” which brings together faculty, students, and alumni to pull apart a “ripped from the headlines” news topic. What made this debate unique was that panelists and audience members alike participated in examining the problem—and the solutions—through multiple disciplinary lenses.

The event unfolded into animated arguments on both sides, covering a range of views on the necessity of such a step, the alternative legislative solutions, and the larger social and political implications of the issue.

Dean of Global Business Bhaskar Chakravorti kicked off the event by dividing the audiences into two camps: those in favor of or opposed to a ban of the video-sharing platform. He introduced Professor Tara Sonenshine and Professor Carolyn Gideon, who spoke on the opposite sides of the debate as “integrated thinkers and disciplinary experts.” Along with the two faculty members were alumni Katy Mayerson F22 and Arpitha Desai F22, who provided opposing views on the issue.

Sonenshine, who has served in the U.S. government as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, opened with a fierce argument on why TikTok should be banned and must be treated differently from other social media platforms. She said that the possibility of private data falling into the hands of the Communist Party in China is a threat to national security and warrants a complete ban of the app on government devices. While lamenting her stand to ban as a journalist who regularly writes for The Hill and supports free speech, she said that it is a necessary step. According to her, the Chinese social media app is “highly manipulative” while its outsized market share and deep connection to Beijing through its parent company Byte Dance are big concerns. She added that TikTok’s exponential growth in the last few years is worrisome. Citing research by Integrity Institute, she said TikTok and Twitter are found to have the “highest misinformation amplification factors.”  

Mayerson argued that stronger regulations should be made against TikTok on the basis of three pillars—cybersecurity, privacy and intellectual property. According to her, China is “a cyber adversary” to the U.S. and the world’s “foremost intellectual thief.” As a strong advocate of digital privacy, she said that unlike other social media platforms like Instagram, which follows a similar model of collecting user data, TikTok should be banned primarily because it belongs to China, a country that has weak data protection for its citizens. From a cybersecurity perspective, she said, the use of backdoors to harvest information is a big concern both in the U.S. and abroad, hence stringent regulations against TikTok is required.

Seated event panelists listen to somebody talking out of the frame.

Desai recognized that there are problems with TikTok but argued that most of them are larger issues related to data privacy and disinformation often prevalent in other platforms as well. According to her, in the absence of privacy legislation in the U.S., targeting TikTok would mean curtailing the First Amendment rights of over 50 million users of the platform. Highlighting past scandals like Pegasus and Cambridge Analytica related to data privacy and surveillance, she stressed that banning TikTok would not resolve any of the issues. She said that the problems surrounding TikTok are mostly “tech policy issues” and should be addressed with proper legislation.

Gideon added that most of the issues related to the Chinese app are currently seen on other platforms like Facebook and Instagram as well; problems related to targeted advertising, the selling of data to China through data brokers, and disinformation and hate campaigns against often-targeted communities are not limited to TikTok. She added that one should also be wary of the “big interest” of other platforms like Facebook in the ongoing TikTok issue. She emphasized the importance of conducting a cost-benefit analysis of banning TikTok and understanding if such a step would really lead to making users safer online.

Chakravorti pointed out some of the crucial factors that one needs to consider. With social media being “one of the powerful entities of dissemination” during election campaigns, banning TikTok could potentially alienate younger voters. The superior features and functionality attached with TikTok in reaching out to its audiences, the AI behind the app, and its strong ability to access data are some of the areas of concern related to TikTok, he said.

After some spirited responses from audience members, Chakravorti closed by saying that the kind of regulations that may come forward, how new legislation could be implemented, and the risks involved would be an ongoing discussion in the immediate future. 

“As trite as this sounds, there simply are no easy answers here,” said Chakravorti, noting that student arguments for and against the ban challenged the debaters sufficiently to re-examine their positions in a nuanced way. In Fletcher fashion, the group “read” the newspaper, metabolizing the debate using its highly contextual, interdisciplinary tools.  

Read more about the IBGC and The Hitachi Center for Technology & International Affairs.