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Trump’s endless war with TikTok and social media: What’s the point?

In the wee hours of Saturday night-Sunday morning, President Trump accepted the deal from tech company Oracle partnering with supermassive retailer Wal-Mart to purchase the U.S. portion of TikTok from Chinese company ByteDance. Much like an emotional abuser, he wants us to thank him for it. 

The deal comes from a months-long battle with additional social media giants like Facebook and Twitter in a lukewarm war at best. Twitter has gone more offensive than Facebook but TikTok has become Donald Trump’s worst enemy. Why? Why would a sitting U.S. president be so enflamed by a short-form video platform? Well, his hatred of the application may come from a coordinated effort by users of TikTok to reserve tickets at his rallies earlier in the year and then, just not show up, so as to make the President’s rallies look much less impressive. These attacks come in the middle of one of the worst economic crises in U.S. history, environmental catastrophes in the form of wildfires in California and hurricanes at the Gulf Coast, and a global pandemic that is objectively hitting the United States the hardest due to ineffective leadership and science denial propagated by that leadership. 

Of course, the question comes back to, “Why?” In all this turmoil, how can a U.S. President ignore all that to go to war with a social media platform? The answer is authoritarianism. Ever since his first announcement of an executive order that would crack down on TikTok, critics claimed it is quashing free speech (which just to be clear, it is). Trump’s reasoning for attempting to enforce a ban on TikTok is that the application supposedly collects data on American citizens and sells it to China (even though that has been proven false by documents released by TikTok’s U.S. portion). It should be noted that nearly every American company that takes any form of data from users (i.e all of them) sells its users’ data all around the digital world. Why is Trump not more concerned about those companies? Because this isn’t about user data. I will say again: this is about authoritarianism. 

On top of this blatant authoritarianism, Trump has also claimed multiple times that the U.S. government is entitled to a slice of the deal once it is finalized. This “slice” would primarily go into an educational fund to support the President’s newfound mission of “educating the American people on the real history of America.” However, this move, run by the as-yet formed 1776 Commission, is a response to the New York Times’ reframing of American history called the “1619 Project” which seeks to teach American history through the country’s use of slavery and racial division. While historical scholars have called the 1776 Commission’s plans historically inaccurate, the President has called the 1619 project “toxic propaganda.” He would be incorrect, of course. 

Why should we all be alarmed by Trump’s insistence on 1. Taking a slice of the pie on the TikTok deal, and 2. Using that money to fund a literal propaganda machine dedicated to painting the Founding Fathers as wholly infallible men? Because, and say this with me, that’s authoritarianism. Full disclosure: the United States has been an authoritarian nation for quite some time under both Democratic and Republican presidents but that authoritarianism has usually stayed within our relationship to other countries. Now, that level of control we exert on the world is coming home and we should all be concerned about that. If Trump can take money from this deal, what’s to say he can’t take more? What’s to say he can’t seize the buildings these companies are housed in? The banks they operate out of? Hell, the people who work for them? George Orwell wasn’t just telling a tall tale when he wrote “1984.” He was warning everyone to be vigilant and we frankly have gone blind. 

It may seem grim, but we have options to stop this kind of behavior. The first option is full-blown revolution. While that doesn’t seem entirely likely due to several factors (organization, over militarization of both law enforcement and armed forces, etc), the second option is vote. However, we can’t stop there. The second option continues with civic engagement. Politicians have become far too comfortable being removed from their constituents. We either need to make life a living hell for politicians who don’t appropriately represent us, or we need to run for their offices and make sure authoritarianism no longer has a place in the United States. This is the only way. Otherwise, this will keep happening over and over again as it has endless times.

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