A German legend dating to the Middle Ages is an instructive foil for understanding today’s TikTok predicament.
In ye olden day tale, the Medieval town of Hamelin reneges on paying a man after employing his pest control services. The man returns to the village festooned in brightly colored clothing, and he marches along playing an irresistible tune on his flute. The town’s children follow the fellow—dancing, jiving, and shimmying their way—merrymaking all the while.
The legend, as adapted by the macabre Brothers Grimm, is that of the Pied Piper. The vengeful musician marches the younglings to their demise. It’s a cautionary tale.
Now consider TikTok. Since its launch in 2017, TikTok has lured hundreds of millions of people to its den of song and dance. Skeptics view the app, owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based concern that is the world’s highest privately valued startup, as a front to further Chinese government censorship and surveillance. India recently banned TikTok, deeming it a threat to national security after a lethal border clash with China. Officials in the U.S. and Australia are considering taking similar action.
TikTok is trying desperately to shake its perception, whether justified or not, as a tool for Communist Party ends. The unit highlights that it is headed by an American CEO, a former Disney executive, and that it has significant U.S.-based leadership. Earlier this month, a TikTok spokesperson said the company’s highest priority is “promoting a safe and secure app experience for our users,” and that it has “never provided user data to the Chinese government.”
Yet controversy follows wherever TikTok steps. The app has come under fire for allegedly muting the #BlackLivesMatter movement, for muzzling human rights activists decrying the unconscionable mistreatment of Uighur Muslims, and for all manner of censorship.
Many of TikTok’s biggest fans are apparently unconcerned. As Fortune video producer Devin Hance’s sister, a Gen Z rep, recently put it to her: “I’m definitely not going to stop using TikTok. At this point, like, it’s just a normal thing for me to do and I love it.” Shrug, in other words.
While a U.S. ban of TikTok may be of questionable legality, it could happen. There’s no question as to whom would benefit: Lord Zuckerberg of the Menlo Park barony, excommunicate of the eastern realm, subduer of Instagramistan and WhatsAppia. One less rival standing in the way of world domination.
All this leads one to wonder: Is TikTok merely a mirthful, exhibitionist stage, or is it a beachhead for foreign government influence? Answer most honestly, dear reader: What’s your view of TikTok? Should the app be banned in the U.S.? Why, or why not? Please write in and we will consider excerpting your comments in a future newsletter.
Till then, the children may dance.