Trump calls for a 'ban' on TikTok.

Plus, I write a mea culpa.
Isaac Saul Aug 3, 2020
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that’s dedicated to helping you understand the best arguments from across the political spectrum. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to subscribe. You can try it for free, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email.

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Today’s read: 13 minutes.

Trump says he’s going to “ban” TikTok. Instead of a reader question, I write a mea culpa. I also ask for help beating my best friend and some big quick hits.

Photo: Solen Feyissa / Flickr

Reader feedback.

Jon from Burbank, California wrote in to take issue with me saying the COVID-19 situation continued to deteriorate in California and Florida. "Though not particularly rosy, the virus/public health situation in California bears little resemblance to that in Florida, neither in scope nor trend," Jon wrote. "Mentioning them as parallel examples feels like a contortion made as an attempt at ‘fairness,’ and I don't think the accuracy you so obviously strive for should be compromised in that kind of pursuit."

This is a good point. While California's handling of COVID-19 has certainly unraveled recently, it's still doing far better than Florida when the two states are adjusted for population and measured by infection rate, positive test rate and hospital capacity. My intention was more to illustrate that both states have struggled to contain the virus, even after varying degrees of success and vastly different measures taken early on.


Quick hits.

  1. On Friday, the Supreme Court voted by a 5-4 margin to deny a request to halt the construction of Trump’s border wall over environmental concerns. The ruling is one of the most significant victories of Trump’s administration yet, and comes after the White House began moving military funds into the border wall construction. The lawsuit alleged the Trump administration did not conduct sufficient environmental impact studies for construction, citing a 1996 law. But the Supreme Court broke along ideological lines. The ruling buys the president some more time to keep construction going before the election.
  2. Republicans and Democrats continue to spar over what to do about the $600-a-week enhanced unemployment benefits. Democrats want to extend the benefit through January, citing the worsening economic situation. Republicans want to trim the benefit so fewer people are being paid more to stay home than they are to work, even offering to extend the benefit for a month while negotiations continue. But nothing has been agreed to yet and the benefits expired last week. One potential solution is a program where the benefit is attached to unemployment rates and winds down as unemployment numbers improve. Around 17 million Americans are receiving regular unemployment benefits and another 12.4 million are receiving unemployment benefits under the pandemic unemployment program that covers workers who didn’t traditionally receive the benefits, according to The Wall Street Journal.
  3. Portland protests calmed down after the Trump administration began to withdraw federal agents who were deployed to protect a federal courthouse. “The protest’s epicenter downtown near a federal courthouse was quiet Saturday for the third night in a row as state police opted for a hands-off approach, a drastic contrast from last week, when federal law enforcement officers deployed tear gas and pepper balls to dispel aggressive overnight crowds,” The Washington Post reported. Critics of Trump said the calm was evidence his move to deploy federal agents was counterproductive, while the White House took credit for the situation on the ground being resolved. Peaceful protests continued throughout the weekend, though it’s unclear what direction they’ll go in next.
  4. Homicides continue to rise in major U.S. cities, up by as much as 24%, according to an analysis done by The Wall Street Journal. But the alleged “rise in crime” is actually a mirage, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight. While homicides are up, basically every other kind of crime is down. “The murder rate is still low compared with previous decades, and other types of serious crime have dropped in the past few months,” The Wall Street Journal notes. FiveThirtyEight reported that there’s a disconnect between fear of crime and the reality of crime. “And in a summer when the president is sending federal agents to crack down on crime in major cities and local politicians are arguing over the risks of defunding the police, that disconnect matters. In an age of anxiety, crime may be one of our most misleading fears.”
  5. President Trump’s attack on mail-in voting is alarming Republicans who worry it might suppress turnout amongst their own voters. Multiple polls are showing a growing divide amongst Republicans and Democrats on mail-in voting, which has Republican operatives worried they will suffer from lower turnout come November. “State and local Republicans across the country fear they are falling dramatically behind in a practice that is expected to be key to voter turnout this year,” The Washington Post reports. “Through mailers and Facebook ads, they are racing to promote absentee balloting among their own.”
  6. BONUS: In Berlin, 17,000 people hit the streets to protest German measures to stem the coronavirus pandemic, saying the regulations violated people’s rights and freedoms. The demonstration, dubbed an “anti-mask” protest by some observers, comes as cases rise again in Germany despite early success against coronavirus. The gathering included “libertarians, constitutional loyalists and anti-vaccination activists,” Reuters reporters. “There was also a small far-right presence with some marchers carrying Germany’s black, white and red imperial flag.” One local German politician called the protesters “covidiots” and police filed a report against the organizer of the event for endangering public health.

What D.C. is talking about.

TikTok. For the uninitiated, TikTok is an insanely popular video app. Users have a 60-second limit on the videos and can film, edit and upload all of the videos from their smartphones. More than 500 million users are on TikTok, and the app has been used for everything from goofy comedy bits and dance routines to organized protests against China’s treatment of Muslims. 100 million of those users are in the U.S., and the overwhelming majority of them are teenagers. TikTok is the biggest and truest challenger to social media giants like Facebook or Instagram that we’ve ever seen.

It’s also bobbed in and out of the political world. A few weeks ago, teenagers say they used TikTok to organize a massive registration scam for Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The teens on the app got organized, reserved thousands of tickets to come to the rally, then didn’t show up. Comedian Sarah Cooper has also exploded on TikTok for her lip-syncing impressions of Trump, which consistently go viral on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram after the fact. Let’s just say they are not flattering portrayals.

But for months, U.S. reporters and politicians have been sending increasingly dire warnings that TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, is a security risk. Tech experts say the Chinese government could easily access information about Americans through TikTok. TikTok has repeatedly denied Beijing has any control or access to its data, but the best tech reporters in the game say this is laughable: China’s National Intelligence Law allows the government to access TikTok’s systems whenever it wants.

On Friday, President Trump threatened to “ban” the popular video app TikTok from the United States, which got a lot of people asking: can he do that? The short answer is yes. Because TikTok is foreign-owned, Trump can pull levers of the national security apparatus to ban it from the app store or bar American businesses from selling goods and services to it without a license. Both would result in TikTok shutting down its U.S. app.

Now, Microsoft and other tech companies are jockeying to buy TikTok and build out a U.S. version that is divorced from any Chinese companies or government monitoring. This would solve the problem of removing TikTok from China’s control and keeping U.S. users who love the app happy. It wouldn’t be a first, either: a Chinese company that bought the gay dating app Grindr sold it away last year after pressure from the Trump administration over user privacy and security risks.


What the left is saying.

Trump can make a great deal — if he doesn’t blow it. The New York Times’ Kara Swisher, one of the top tech columnists in the game, said “the outcome of this face-off with the Chinese government seems destined to blow up in Mr. Trump’s face, if he doesn’t move carefully going forward.” Swisher advocates for an open and democratic internet (i.e. don’t “ban” TikTok) but would love to see the company moved out of China’s reach.

Swisher says Trump is “directionally correct” in his effort to thwart China’s ambitions to establish internet hegemony. China and the country’s tech companies “threaten American users when it comes to security, data and, more important, influence and propaganda,” but how to solve that problem is more complicated than the problem itself. And so far Trump has sent mixed messages and has complicated things by not advocating a clear path forward. Swisher, for what it’s worth, says the Microsoft acquisition is a good solution.

“With its strong tech security chops, Microsoft is one of the handful of U.S. companies with experience in managing big and complex platforms (besides the massive Windows and Office franchises, the company also owns LinkedIn, Skype and Minecraft),” she wrote.

Alex Stamos, who is the director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, also supported the Microsoft acquisition of TikTok. A Microsoft purchase would create a healthy rivalry and competition with Facebook in the social media space, and Microsoft would be more adept at handling the security issues of such an acquisition.

“They should take the Microsoft deal,” Stamos said to The Times. “It’s the best outcome for the United States, as Microsoft has one of the best security teams in tech, as it prevents a fight over the basic freedom of Americans to use the open Web.”

Not everyone was so convinced, though. Kevin Roose said he didn’t buy the argument that TikTok is an urgent threat to America’s national security — or at least feels that it is no more threatening than WeChat, Alibaba, or the popular video game League of Legends. He also said there are “reasons to be skeptical of the motives of TikTok’s biggest critics.”

“Many conservative politicians, including Mr. Trump, appear to care more about appearing tough on China than preventing potential harm to TikTok users,” he wrote. ”And Silicon Valley tech companies like Facebook, whose executives have warned of the dangers of a Chinese tech takeover, would surely like to see regulators kneecap one of their major competitors.”

Instead of banning or buying out TikTok, Roose said we should “make an example of it by turning it into the most transparent, privacy-protecting, ethically governed tech platform in existence.” As a foreign-based company, the U.S. could force TikTok to open source its software, submit to audits and open its internal content moderation guidelines for public comment.


What the right is saying.

Most on the right seem supportive of a deal, too. After all, it’s conservatives who have taken the lead warning about the threat of China to U.S. security, in Hong Kong and across the internet. But there would be a particular delight in seeing Microsoft buy TikTok because it would perfectly encapsulate the pro-capitalism, pro-competition mantle the right has been standing on — especially recently as it relates to the Big Tech companies being under increased scrutiny.

In mid-July, when a TikTok ban was first being floated publicly by the administration, Carine Hajjar wrote enthusiastically about the idea, noting that the app has already been banned in India and amongst U.S. government officials. Australia is also exploring a ban.

“It might seem strange that an app known for making harmless, entertaining videos go viral would be the center of so much controversy,” she wrote in National Review. “But the problem isn’t the content TikTok allows users to share with the world; it’s the company’s meticulous collection of user data and its close, troubling relationship with the CCP.”

Censorship on the app is also visible. Feroza Aziz had her account suspended after posting a “makeup tutorial” where she began talking about China’s mass detention of Uighur Muslims. Even users outside China don’t see content concerning Tiananmen Square or the Hong Kong protests. George Floyd protests have also been limited on the app. Meanwhile, China’s power over internet companies is only growing.

“In the face of China’s threats to the freedom of the world’s Internet, the Trump administration should be applauded for considering a ban on TikTok,” Hajjar said. “As Chinese censorship, surveillance, and propaganda spread worldwide, the U.S. has a chance to fight back and change the trajectory of the Information Age for the better.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board hailed the potential Microsoft purchase, calling it “an example of the market increasing business competition and solving a political problem at the same time.”

“For some reason, Microsoft was spared the hazing that Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google received this week on Capitol Hill,” the board wrote. “Yet its market capitalization is $1.55 trillion after Friday’s market close, more than Google’s and Facebook’s and barely behind Amazon’s $1.58 trillion… Microsoft has the resources to invest in TikTok and offer competition to Facebook, Snap and perhaps Google’s YouTube. One reality missed by the calls for breaking up the tech giants is how much competition they face from one another. This could be another example.”


My take.

The right deserves a lot of credit here — both for making the issue of China’s censorship mainstream and for keeping the pressure up on the Chinese Communist Party in their rhetoric. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find me praising Trump’s handling of this situation, despite him being at the center of all the headlines (including the headline of this newsletter) around banning TikTok.

In reality, this is another example of a situation where I’d feel a lot better if we had a functioning, consistent White House and foreign policy apparatus. To be precise: I’m not talking about a Democratic or progressive White House, though there’d be some benefits (and downsides) to that, too. I’m talking about a functioning administration with a clear plan.

First Trump threatened to ban TikTok (repeatedly). Then he signaled a U.S. acquisition might suffice. Then he said Microsoft wouldn’t buy TikTok. Then administration officials went out and sent mixed messages on TV over the weekend. Then, Sunday night, Microsoft released a letter saying it was re-engaging with talks to buy TikTok (after previously pulling back). In the letter, it praised Trump effusively, an obvious tip-off that they were working under pressure from the White House. All of this has created more chaos when less chaos is needed.

Some on the left, too, have made comments that only mucked things up. Many speculate that Trump wants to ban TikTok because comedians like Sarah Cooper use the platform to mock him and teen users allegedly used the platform to sow chaos at his first post-COVID-19 rally in Tulsa. I wouldn’t put petty vengeance past our president, but I don’t think that’s what is really going on here. The truth is, Trump is looking for punitive measures to take against a genuine global threat — and the Chinese government’s inroads in the internet and tech world are a good place to start.

To me, the Microsoft purchase seems like a no-brainer best-case-scenario. It solves the tech issues, the security issues and the political issues all at once. The Chinese app developers and folks behind TikTok who genuinely created a great product get their payday. Americans get a Facebook rival and teens get to keep creating incredible content.

What’s clear, though, is that something needs to give. Ben Thompson, who writes the tech newsletter Stratechery, advocated a sale to non-Chinese investors but said short of that, the U.S. government should take action. He struggles to come to this conclusion and acknowledges this “prescription” is, in fact, something the Chinese government would do. But he sums up a defense of his position this way:

In short, I believe it is time to take China seriously and literally: the Communist Party is not only ideologically opposed to liberalism, it believes that only one of liberalism or Marxism can prevail. To that end it has been taking action for over 20 years to control information within its borders and, over the last several years, to control information outside of its borders. It is time for the U.S. to respond, both on the government level and corporate level, and it should do so in a multi-faceted fashion.

Help me.

My best friend Evan and I are in a bit of a competition. He recently moved to Bali to go “all-in” on his own companies. One is essentially an electronic music Wikipedia website called 1001Tracklists, and the newest is Songstats — a music data analytics subscription service for artists and record labels.

By sheer coincidence, after being friends for nearly 30 years, we both launched paid subscriptions on our platforms around the same time. We made a wager about who could get to 1,000 subscribers first, and last night we caught up for the first time in a few weeks. All I’ll say is that the race is so close it’s uncanny, and I’m asking you to help me crush him as we approach the finish line. (If you’re an artist go use Songstats and if you’re a fan go use 1001Tracklists, just do it after you subscribe to Tangle!)

Help me break 1,000 subscribers, beat Evan, win the wager and hit a major milestone. If you’re already subscribed, you can also buy a gift subscription for a friend. Think of it as the perfect, passive-aggressive election season present. If you subscribe, you can read my personal essay from Friday where I explored the question of whether I love America or not.

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Reader poll.

My college roommate’s dad Joe is an avid Tangle reader. He lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where I grew up — a county famous for being an election bellwether. He wrote in this weekend to let me know about a fun poll he conducted on 50 friends who all live in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He chose 25 “Trump supporters” and 25 “Trump haters.” He asked them:

Do you know of anyone (including yourself) who:

1.  Voted for Hillary, but is now voting for Trump?

2.  Voted for Trump, but is now voting for Biden?

44 people said no. Four people said they know someone who voted for Trump, but was now voting for Biden. Two people said they knew someone who voted for Hillary, but was now voting for Trump. “Small sample,” Joe said. “And although some of these guys cheat in golf, I trust them in this poll.”


Flip-flop.

Instead of a reader question today, I want to address my change in opinion on an issue that I wrote about last week.

For anyone who has read this newsletter for a while, you know I am an advocate of open-mindedness and evolution of thought. I believe people who change their minds about issues should be celebrated, not condemned, so long as those opinions change because of new data or new life experiences and not due to political expediency or performative politics.

To that end, I want to update my opinion on Thursday’s Big Tech hearing. I wrote in Tangle on Thursday that “the idea that they’re violating antitrust laws is tough for me to buy,” noting that American antitrust law focuses more on protecting consumers than on protecting the competition. I also wrote that, despite the tech world helping destroy newspapers, I think the advancement of tech also helped push journalism forward into a new era (like this newsletter) that may be successful. And I largely wrote off the hearing as a missed opportunity from Congress because both sides wasted their time in questioning.

But two specific interactions made me rethink my position.

First, I got an email from my good friend Stephanie Layser, who is the Vice President of Ad Tech at News Corp. News Corp owns the Dow Jones & Company (which publishes The Wall Street Journal), News UK (which publishes The Sun and The Times), News Corp Australia, Realtor.com and the publisher HarperCollins. In other words: it's a big freaking deal.

If there was someone who I was hoping to hear from on this issue, Steph was the person. I trust her immensely and I know she has an intimate knowledge of the space. Here is what she said:

In my experience, in advertising technology, Google acts as a monopolist on both the advertiser side and the publisher's side. Rep Jayapal explained it in a question to Sundar Pichai very well — Google runs an auction and buys on that auction which would be akin to insider trading if our financial markets did that. One way publishers manage their ad inventory is through exchanges, and based on supply and demand principles, when they add more demand into their supply they see higher yield. This includes partners that are not Google, including independent companies whose incentives are more aligned with publishers vs Google who make their own money from advertising on their properties.

By engaging in anticompetitive behavior, Google puts those partners out of business, meaning that less demand comes through publishers pipes and they make less money. By manipulating marketplaces in advertising, publishers make less money. This leads to the layoffs at media companies — including journalists whose work underpins our (semi-functioning) democracy — it leads to advertising based content, free content, being less readily available to users. The dream of the internet being the great equalizer, allowing more people to access information, is hindered. So on the surface, it may look like there is no consumer harm. But if you look deeper, you have serious consumer harm that is just around the corner should monopoly power go unchecked.

Then, on Saturday, Matt Stoller’s newsletter hit my inbox. Matt writes the newsletter BIG, which focuses specifically on monopoly power in politics. He also wrote the book Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy. In other words, this is his specialty. I had been waiting to hear from him all week, as he is one of the voices on this issue I trust the most. He had a radically different view than I did about the hearings, so much so that I wrote to him to let him know his newsletter had moved my position on it. Now, we’re discussing him coming on for a subscribers-only Q&A for a Friday edition of Tangle.

He called it a “truly an extraordinary five and a half hours, where these powerful CEOs had to answer for their misdeeds.” He agreed with folks who called it “democracy reasserting itself” and noted how extraordinary the news coverage of the hearings was despite the fact we’re in a global pandemic and an election year. Every major newspaper had the hearings on the front page, and they were covered internationally, two facts I didn’t note in Tangle.

Stoller, who is a former policy advisor to the Senate Budget Committee, seems to believe the hearing and investigation into the companies will lead to new antitrust laws that address their behavior. Few people would have a better background to predict what these hearings might lead to, so that prediction from him really perked my ears up. It also surprised me.

“But the hearing wasn’t just important because it may lead to new laws,” he wrote. “It is likely to lead to enforcement of existing law. On the right, there’s increasing chatter about the importance of the Department of Justice’s potential antitrust suit against Google… Going forward, in other words, enforcers are far less likely to be given the benefit of the doubt when they approve mergers or fail to bring cases.”

It sounds like Stoller is convinced a crackdown is coming, and his tone about the hearings was celebratory. If that’s true, then tech companies are going to have a much harder time buying up competition or continuing some of the shady practices that came up during the hearing without any repercussions.

If I could pick two people I was interested in hearing from about this topic, these two sources would have been in my top five. To hear them both push back so much on “My take” gave me pause, and I think my cynicism about the hearing may have led me to miss the larger impact it could have. I only wish I had heard from them before writing Thursday’s newsletter. You can read an op-ed from Stoller about the hearing here, and you can consider this me moving my position on the hearings and the importance they may have going forward.


A story that matters.

Is the subway safe? A new study says it might be a lot safer than you think — and the same goes for public transit across the U.S. The New York Times conducted a survey of transportation from across the world in cities where people are once again using public transit, and it found “no notable superspreader events linked to mass transit.” The implications are huge. If public transit is safe from COVID-19, that will be crucial to coaxing riders back into using public transit to commute to work. In many U.S. cities, mass transit is the backbone of the economy — and without it, it will be tough to take the necessary steps to get back to normal. “What we are seeing in other cities makes me optimistic,” Toph Allen, an epidemiologist who co-wrote a report on coronavirus transmission and public transportation, said. “If you know that you have a transit system that is functioning in an area where there are no major outbreaks, you know transit can be safe.”


Numbers.

  • 9. The number of states that set single-day records for new coronavirus cases last week.
  • 43%. The percentage of likely voters who say that a second $1,200 stimulus check for individuals would not be enough.
  • 39%. The percentage of likely voters who say that a second $1,200 stimulus check for individuals would be sufficient.
  • 18%. The percentage of likely voters who say that a second $1,200 stimulus check for individuals would be too much.
  • 69%. The percentage of U.S. adults who are concerned about the safety of a coronavirus vaccine, given that it’s being fast-tracked through the approval process.
  • 43%. The percentage of U.S. adults who think that Congress should continue paying supplemental unemployment benefits of $600 per week.
  • 41%. The percentage of U.S. adults who think that Congress should cut supplemental unemployment benefits to $200 per week.

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Have a nice day.

Two NASA astronauts safely returned to earth this weekend after a historic SpaceX mission to and from the International Space Station. “The landing marks the end of SpaceX's first crewed trip to the space station for NASA and the beginning of the space agency's next phase in exploration, one marked by partnerships with private companies,” Axios reports. It was the first time astronauts have launched from the U.S. into space since 2011, and the mission’s success opens the door for a continued partnership that could lead to Elon Musk’s ultimate goal: sending humans to Mars.

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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