The Media Today

Another Trump campaign stunt crosses freedom of information

August 7, 2020

Yesterday, President Trump issued a pair of executive orders aimed at banning “transactions” related to TikTok and WeChat, a pair of popular social-media apps owned, respectively, by the Chinese companies ByteDance and Tencent. The orders are scheduled to take effect forty-four days from today, but it’s not yet clear what “effect” means. The orders are vaguely worded—they seem intended to block TikTok and WeChat from app stores maintained by US companies, and yet, as is so often the case with Trump’s whims, it’s not clear that he has authority to execute them. Whatever happens on our phones, Trump’s announcement of the bans has already had its desired effect: ratcheting up tensions between the United States and China. Early today, China’s foreign ministry accused Trump of “a nakedly hegemonic act.”

The executive orders capped a week in which Trump made a string of legally- and politically-dubious statements about TikTok. Last Friday, he told reporters of his intention to completely ban TikTok from the US. That pronouncement appeared to be a victory for the administration’s China hawks, including Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade adviser, and Matthew Pottinger, who once worked as a reporter in China and is now deputy national security adviser. Rival advisers, however, quickly persuaded Trump to soften his position—campaign aides, for example, told him that a TikTok ban would be unpopular among young voters—and the president has since said that he will permit TikTok to stay active if it can be transferred to acceptable new owners: namely Microsoft, which is very interested in the acquisition. Trump also said that he will attach conditions to any such deal. He expects the US Treasury to receive a “substantial” financial cut. Antitrust experts pointed out that a demand like that is unprecedented, and seemingly baseless; a startup investor told CNN that it looked like a “shakedown.” And the deal has to be wrapped up within forty-five days. Yesterday’s executive orders seemed designed to formalize that timeline.

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In the TikTok order, Trump characterized its presence in the US as a “national emergency,” citing, in part, its role in spreading “disinformation campaigns that benefit the Chinese Communist Party”—including around the origins of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. (This from a president who has repeatedly dismissed the notion of foreign powers meddling in America’s information ecosystem, and who was himself just censured by Facebook and Twitter for spreading COVID misinformation.) The order also claimed that China has the power to force TikTok to collect data on American citizens and relay it back to Beijing. The Trump administration has repeatedly voiced such fears. Others have, too: the Democratic National Committee and Joe Biden’s presidential campaign have advised staffers not to use TikTok, and parents of young users are suing the company, alleging that it has already sent their children’s data to China. TikTok denies doing so, and privacy experts in the US have thus far not found conclusive evidence to support the allegations. Geoffrey A. Fowler, a tech columnist at the Washington Post, wrote recently that “we should be wary of xenophobia dressed up as privacy concerns.” Still, he acknowledged that China could tell TikTok to farm US user data in the future, and it’s unlikely that the company would be able to say no.

While TikTok has grabbed more headlines, Trump’s threatened ban on WeChat could be even more consequential, especially for people in China. WeChat is an essential conduit linking the country’s residents to family, friends, and businesses overseas, and vice versa. (By contrast, TikTok is not available in China.) As Mia Shuang Li has reported for CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, WeChat is also a key source of news both for Chinese people domestically and in the diaspora. That has come with downsides—if worries about manipulation on TikTok are murky, on WeChat, they’re well-established. The app is heavily censored by the Chinese state, which uses WeChat to surveil both dissidents in China and accounts registered overseas. As Chi Zhang has reported for CJR and Tow, WeChat is a prolific vector of misinformation among Chinese communities—and first-generation immigrants, in particular—in the US. WeChat has also been a vector of Islamophobia and other forms of hateful rhetoric.

Trump’s executive orders are intended to exacerbate stark, simple geopolitical divisions, but the reality is more complicated. In many ways WeChat, in particular, is a genuine threat to free expression—but so is Trump’s move to ban it. Yuan Yang, a China tech correspondent for the Financial Times, argued yesterday that it would be a good thing if more members of the Chinese diaspora abandoned WeChat for encrypted apps such as Signal; she also pointed out that the Trump administration recently fired leaders of the Open Technology Fund, a nonprofit that has provided support to developers of encrypted apps. Grantees of the OTF recently told The Verge that they fear their funding is at risk.

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Until the bans show some concrete effect, it’s best to view them as yet another Trump campaign stunt. As Emily Bell, Tow’s director, observed last night, the executive orders look like an “economic dog whistle” to Trump’s blue-collar base. “Games developers and teenagers don’t vote for Trump,” Bell wrote, “and by the time the order unravels/is implemented/is struck down as unlawful, the economic threat of China will be properly established as an election talking point.” In the meantime, however, Trump’s campaign stunts have the real consequence of impeding free expression. A previous escalation with China, related to press freedom, led correspondents for major US newspapers to be expelled from the country; closer to home, Trump deployed federal agents to assault protesters and journalists in American cities. That’s not an accidental side effect, of course—it’s an end in itself.

Below, more on China and social media:

  • TikTok and journalism: In a recent column for CJR, Bell explored the “dilemma” newsrooms face in deciding whether or not to use TikTok. Some reporters—Taylor Lorenz, of the Times, and Dave Jorgensen, of the Post—are active on TikTok, but many outlets don’t use it at all. There are editorial reasons for that, but TikTok’s Chinese ownership is a consideration, too, Bell writes. “Can my kids be on the platform and make goofy videos without worrying about China’s access to their data? Sure,” David Kaye, the outgoing UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, told Bell. “Can a journalist covering China or things of interest to Beijing? That’s harder to say.”
  • For Reels?: According to BuzzFeed’s Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, told staff yesterday that he believes Trump banning TikTok would set a “really bad long-term precedent.” In the short term, however, Zuckerberg could stand to benefit from any ban, given that TikTok competes with Facebook products. This week, Instagram, which Facebook owns, launched Reels, a TikTok-like feature. Alex Connor, an audience editor at USA Today, predicted that Reels will be of use to newsrooms that don’t have a presence on TikTok.
  • Taking action: Yesterday, Twitter outlined plans to put labels on accounts linked to state-run media outlets—including Xinhua News, which is tied to China, and RT and Sputnik, which are tied to Russia. Also yesterday, YouTube removed more than 2,500 channels that it said were connected to China’s government. YouTube said the channels were responsible for spreading disinformation alongside “spammy, non-political content.”
  • Hypocrisy: Beyond banning TikTok and WeChat, the US State Department recently outlined a broader plan to “clean” the internet of Chinese surveillance and data-mining. For The Intercept, Sam Biddle points out the hypocrisy of the plan. “China won’t be able to do a litany of subversive and violative things with technology that the US and its allies have engaged in for years,” he writes. The message is “crystal clear: If there’s going to be a world-spanning surveillance state, it better be made in the USA.”

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Priya Krishna, Sohla El-Waylly, and Rick Martinez, journalists of color working at Bon Appétit, pulled out of the magazine’s “Test Kitchen” video series, citing pay discrimination. (Krishna and El-Waylly plan to stay on as writers.) The move kept a spotlight on the Bon Appétit office; Adam Rapoport, the editor in chief, resigned in June amid allegations of racism. Rapoport has yet to be replaced, though the magazine has appointed Sonia Chopra, formerly the director of editorial strategy at Eater, as its new executive editor. Variety’s Todd Spangler has more.
  • Yesterday marked fifty-five years since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, the landmark civil-rights law that was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013. To mark the anniversary, The Guardian partnered with newsrooms across the country—including the Texas Observer, Wisconsin Watch, and the Navajo Times—to cover continuing voter suppression. Ankita Rao, the voting-rights editor at The Guardian, writes, “In a year of deep civil unrest, a raging pandemic, and an unprecedented election, commemorating the Voting Rights Act is bittersweet.”
  • For Insider, Rahsaan Thomas, an inmate at San Quentin State Prison who cohosts the podcast Ear Hustle, writes about the rampant spread of COVID-19 inside the facility. Thomas tested positive for the disease in early July. “As horrible as I was years ago, I killed one person,” he writes. “Now 22 people have died in my prison alone from this COVID-19 fiasco. And you call me violent?”
  • Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton spoke with Ken Doctor, a media-industry analyst and Nieman Lab contributor who will soon launch Lookout, a local-news startup. Lookout hopes to build newsrooms nationwide; it will start in Doctor’s hometown of Santa Cruz, California, where a hedge fund has cut the existing local paper to the bone. “I think people will notice a very strong focus on community betterment on the site,” Doctor says.
  • Gannett announced its earnings yesterday: it reported a net loss of more than $435 million in the second quarter of 2020, with print advertising revenue down 45 percent, and digital advertising and marketing revenue down 27 percent. Also this week, Tribune Publishing reported a 48-percent ad-revenue decline, and the Times reported similarly steep ad losses—though it also had its best-ever quarter for digital-subscriber growth.
  • John Ismay, a Times reporter and military veteran, explains how he used his experience working in a Navy bomb-disposal unit to calculate the size of the explosion that shook Beirut on Tuesday. Lebanese officials said that the blast was caused by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate—the equivalent, Ismay worked out, of about 2.3 million pounds of TNT, “far more than the most powerful conventional US air-dropped bomb.”
  • Last Sunday, unidentified gunmen killed Pablo Morrugares, the director of P.M Noticias Guerrero, a news site in Iguala, Mexico. A police officer guarding Morrugares was also killed. Two days later, gunmen opened fire on the offices of Diario de Iguala, a newspaper in the same city. The offices were empty at the time and no one was hurt. Local drug gangs are thought to be responsible for the shootings. The AP has more.
  • Daily Maverick, a digital-native news organization in South Africa, is launching a weekly print newspaper. Though it may seem counterintuitive, editors believe that there is strong demand for a print product among Maverick readers. The paper will be free for customers at certain grocery stores. In 2019, Anya Schiffrin profiled Maverick for CJR.
  • And The 19th*, a new nonprofit newsroom focused on gender and politics, announced that Meghan Markle will take part in a virtual summit to mark the centennial, next Friday, of the 19th Amendment. Markle, who has mostly stayed out of the public eye since she “Megxited” Britain’s royal family, will interview Emily Ramshaw, CEO of The 19th*.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.