The TikTok / Trump / Oracle / Walmart deal misses the real threat to America
I’m not glad for much the Trump administration does, but I was delighted to see it go after TikTok. Unfortunately, the deal between Tiktok and Oracle seems focused on Chinese access to consumer data. What worries me, though, is the algorithm.
TikTok is quite possibly the most powerful tool for changing public attitudes ever created. But this deal likely leaves the algorithm driving a black box under the control of a foreign adversary.
In the early 2000s, I helped invent the techniques used by online advertising companies to show ads to users most likely to click on them based on various factors. Then at Myspace, we built up detailed profiles of users to target ads.
Since then, Facebook has experimented with how it’s algorithm’s choices about what posts to show you affect how much time you will spend on the site and even your happiness level. The Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, delves into some of this.
It’s also well documented now how the Russians used and continue to use these algorithms to sow conflict and distrust of science and facts in American society. Their actions quite possibly changed the outcome of an American election and have led to the rise of forces like QAnon and disrupted America’s response to COVID19, leading to 10,000’s of needless additional deaths.
But they are doing all of this on an American controlled platform, using algorithms created and run by an American company. Which brings us to our first problem:
Seeing the damage Russians do to our elections, institutions, and society using Facebook and Twitter, what might the Chinese achieve with a platform they control used by tens of millions of Americans every day?
Many people think of TikTok as just a platform for sharing silly videos. But for many, TikTok is increasingly a stream of highly charged political clips of questionable accuracy, reinforcing the user’s left or right-leaning views and feeding them hyperbolic claims and conspiracy theories.
TikTok’s autoplaying short-form video format is incredibly powerful for driving emotions while bypassing critical thinking.