The Missoulian awards huckleberries for tasty things and chokecherries to the bitter and sour. But many things in this complicated world fall somewhere in between.
The controversy over TikTok access is a classic hucklecherry. This week, Gov. Greg Gianforte followed the example of the federal government and ordered the internet application removed from all state phones and computers. He referenced concerns raised by FBI Director Chris Wray, who said he was worried the Chinese government could manipulate content on the app, access user data for spying purposes and manipulate content to influence the app’s users.
The governor then took a next step of advising the Montana University System to enact a similar ban. That would affect not only state employees on the college campuses, but thousands of students and their families.
Lots of valid suspicions exist about the motives of TikTok maker Byte Dance Ltd. and its Chinese-based owners. The app has grown popular — a better word might be addictive — because its algorithm for tailoring video feeds to each user’s personal desire has been remarkably successful. It’s like putting the potato chips at the start of the buffet line — the plate’s full of junk food before you ever get to the salad bar. But more insidious is the potato chips’ ability to read your mind and pick your wallet by storing all your likes and dislikes for entertainment.
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How do we know to be leery of this? Because U.S.-based Facebook and Google have been doing the same thing to us for years. That’s not to say the U.S. government and institutions should ignore the risk of a foreign government getting access to our innermost dreams and fears. But it is a lot like telling an alcoholic to stay away from the imported booze.
This gets especially sticky when a generational divide intrudes. It’s one thing to tell the old fogies at the FBI and EPA and FDA to quit putting the nation’s internet servers at risk by reading the Washington Post’s TikTok newsfeed. It’s another to tell every student at UM and MSU they can’t use their most popular form of communication without hacking the network. Any school administrator will testify to the futility of that kind of information policing.
The Commissioner of Higher Education is working on a response to the governor’s request. One predictable knock-on effect of blocking TikTok from campus Wi-Fi networks will be a massive financial shift to parents’ bank accounts as users shift their communication to cellular data plans. That’s not likely to solve the problem, just make it stickier. And it’s likely to spawn more troublesome alternatives, the way trying to control underage drinking and smoking spawned pre-party binge drinking and vaping.
We don’t have an answer here; Social media has expanded our appetite for information, with both huge benefits and costs to society. Video has the potential to convey far more nuance and impact in smaller messages than text — just think of all you can say with a wink. But social media also super-charges every con job gimmick we’ve developed since Jacob punked his father Isaac for Esau’s inheritance.
However this resolves, the results will taste strange.