Media Surprised That the TikTok Moral Panic Isn’t Very Effective, but They Shouldn’t Be Surprised

With the heavy push by media and the government to start a moral panic over TikTok, it seems that the target audience is tuning out.

The ongoing effort to push a moral panic about TikTok has been going on for some time. With ongoing international friction between China and the US, part of the effort to target China on the US side is to try and push for an outright ban on TikTok. To be clear, in the ongoing tensions, China is hardly innocent given the surveillance balloon incident, the military push towards Taiwan, and contemplating supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to name three examples. Still, on the “western” side of things, the effort seems to be banning anything and everything related to China (yeah, good luck with that – re: “Made in China”.)

Part of that effort has to do with attempting to ban TikTok. The US has been pushing hard to get rid of TikTok in every corner of society. This includes other countries like Canada and nations within Europe. The problem with this push is the fact that a direct threat was never really specified. What make’s TikTok a particularly unique threat that it has to be singled out and banned? A case was never really made.

That story was ultimately repeated in Canada. It started with the announcement of an investigation, an effort that is, at best, going to result in a strongly worded letter and a message of ‘don’t do that again’ if TikTok was found to be committing the worst possible privacy infringements ever. This all thanks to Canada’s woefully bad state of current privacy laws. The Canadian government responded almost immediately by banning TikTok from government devices.

Indeed, the idea that TikTok even managed to make its way onto government devices in the first place is absolutely bizarre. After all, it was my own experience in working with government that nothing gets installed onto such a device without explicit permission from the IT department and the heads of that agency in question. Simply put, you aren’t going to take a government issued laptop and install anything you feel like on a given day. That just doesn’t happen. Yet, the government felt that loudly announcing the ban on devices vaguely citing security and privacy concerns was a move that was anything other than performative.

Of course, when you make moves for political reasons rather than actual security reasons, the security reasons often ends up being completely senseless. Multiple provinces shortly followed suit and announced bans of their own. Meanwhile, the messaging from the government included the nugget of urging the public to make informed choices when choosing whether or not to install the TikTok app or use the platform. The messaging was hilarious because the government, in the same breath, refused to explain why TikTok was such a unique threat in the first place.

In fact, the security and privacy concerns are so elusive, TikTok itself wound up being just in the dark about what all of this is all about as everyone else.

You could almost get a sense that the government, and the media for that matter, thought that all that needed to be said was “China”, “security”, and “privacy”. After that, the xenophobia and paranoia would do the rest and the public would be whipped up into hysterics and delete the app immediately. It might have been a move that would work on large portions of the boomer population, but the target audience for this wound up being much younger. That target audience seems to be anything but receptive to the messaging.

As we noted earlier, one Canadian media outlet, in a section devoted to younger audiences, asked their readers if they would deinstall the app and stop using TikTok. The poll ended up being a hilarious epic fail as, at the time of our report, almost 73% said “no”. The poll itself exposed a deep problem in the media and governments push for their moral panic: it isn’t working with the people it would hope it would work on.

While the poll was a hint, another report on the BBC is showcasing this lack of effect in a much more vivid manner:

When TikTok would not load on her university’s wi-fi network earlier this year student Liz Barr was stymied – but not for long.

She soon figured ways around the block using personal mobile data or a virtual private network (VPN). The block had been introduced after state officials in Maryland banned the video app on government networks, citing national security concerns.

“I was annoyed, because I live here and I get bored,” says the 18-year-old, who is studying computer science and creative writing at St Mary’s College of Maryland. “But now it works, so it’s not that big of a problem.”

The workaround shows the quandary facing the US and other countries as they threaten to crack down on TikTok, which has exploded in global popularity in recent years offering an endless feed of user-generated makeup tutorials, life hacks, silly dances, and other confessionals curated by algorithm.

This alone highlights a big portion of how at least one younger generating is viewing the whole situation. If there is a ban on TikTok, it represents a technical problem that needs worked around. The hope that people would view it as a reason to avoid the platform has largely fallen flat and the messaging is failing to work.

So, why hasn’t any of this worked in the first place? The answers should not surprise you. In North America, privacy was never really seen as a priority. In the US, there is, at best, a patchwork of laws in place to protect privacy. Sometimes, what is hobbled together does manage to produce some results. An example is the $5 billion fine by the FTC against Facebook back in 2019 for privacy violations. The thing is, such fines for privacy violations tends to be the exception, rather than the rule. Canada is even worse with no mechanism at all to fine companies for privacy violations. The best you can hope for is the filing of a lawsuit in court, meaning the public is basically left to their own devices on this front.

Of course, surveillance has long become, sadly, the norm on the internet. This was, indeed, touched on in the article in question:

A ban is also unworkable without far bigger changes to the way the internet is run in the US, says Bruce Schneier, a security technologist and author.

“It’s easy to say your employees can’t use it on government computers but those teenagers… we cannot stop them – it’s not going to work,” he says, noting that the internet as it stands was designed to be open. “We just don’t have that ability.”

He adds: “We’ve built an internet where spying is the business model and at this point, we can’t pick and choose who gets to spy.”

For now, the general shrug from Generation Z seems to be in part a bet that the threats will not result in action anytime soon.

How we got here is, about 25 years in the making. In the early days of the internet, the conventional wisdom at the time was to never use your real name on the internet. Don’t put anything personal online and definitely don’t divulge your specific location. Such a basic level of privacy protection was actually sufficient because analytical data was nowhere near the levels we see today. At best, you might have someone savvy enough to implement a click heat map on their own website to figure out what parts of the page is clicked. Even then, that doesn’t give you very specific details about your audience, just where they click.

With the original rise of Facebook, however, there was a push to change that. Facebook not only encouraged you to divulge your own real name online, but as many things as possible about you. Many old school internet users were shaking their heads in disgust at the thought, but the popularity of platforms like Facebook only kept growing. That data became increasingly valuable to advertisers and the platforms that collect that data, so the rise of surveillance capitalism grew.

The outcomes were all too obvious. Hackers began breaching such systems and stealing that information for themselves. Companies grew careless and simply left whole silos of data on the open internet. Data leaks and breaches grew more and more common and calls to action from government to intervene grew. Unfortunately, those calls to actions largely went ignored in North America because too many players were profiting handsomely off of it. We have data brokers, illegal networks, and so much more operating today with many of those players actively lobbying government to hold off on any kind of privacy reform law.

As the surveillance of people became increasingly prominent, the internet was seemingly split between two sets of users: those that use things like VPN’s and work hard to retain what little privacy they have and those that have basically given up because maintaining personal privacy online had become a full time job in and of itself.

Today, you have whole generations who grew up in the surveillance capitalism that the internet has become. They were conditioned from a very young age that nothing is private and the internet is going to figure you out more than you know yourself. What’s more, a number of people have grown accustomed to the idea that such surveillance is largely harmless to boot. This is not to say that this is, by any means, good or healthy, but that is the reality we deal with today. Reporting on massive data leaks and breaches will get nothing but shrugs because that’s just so common, it’s pointless to even fight something like that any more. It’s just going to happen.

So, when you have 25 years of that conditioning, it’s almost impossible to expect younger generations to really care by turning on a dime and suddenly grow outraged at TikTok for even collecting personal information. What’s the difference between Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, and others in the end anyway? While the racist undertones try to push the idea that TikTok is a particular threat because “China!”, there was no hope that such a push was ever even going to make a dent in the debate. Too many have grown accustomed to the idea that internet surveillance is the norm these days and the identities of those collecting that information really don’t matter because it has long been the case that it could be anyone.

Indeed, with governments that have long dragged their feet on any meaningful change to privacy laws across the board, there is no hope that things will turn around any time soon. Even if both the US and Canadian governments push through actual meaningful privacy reform that satisfies privacy experts and observers, it’s going to take meaningful enforcement to start changing people’s minds that privacy on the internet is actually a thing to think about. When we are talking about a cultural shift like that, it will take a lot of time to undo the damage 20 years of neglect has caused.

So, as governments look to try and ban the app across whole populations, there is going to be a constant threat of those who grew up with the internet finding ways of circumventing such blocks in the first place. This is their world and they know it pretty darned well – much more than most crusty old politicians who yell at clouds ever will.

If North American governments are scared at this reality, well, they really only have themselves to blame on that one. Maybe those crazy people who you thought “had something to hide” may have had a point all this time. The consequences of ignoring those online privacy experts may have finally bitten government on the rear.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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