Beijing, according to Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI), has a "magic weapon." This magic weapon seeks "to influence the American people and interfere in democratic societies."
Well, let me cut to the chase. I can tell you right now without reading the report put together by the Select House Committee on China that Beijing's "magic weapon" is probably TikTok.
At the risk of sounding precious, I have to say that TikTok is TikToxic. I have been watching over the past few years, mouth agape, how rapidly TikTok makes people stupid and unkind. The way that TikTok erodes our empathy by elevating people who talk about the joys of "setting boundaries" and "cutting ties with families" while insisting that the world conform to their own extremely tailored sense of identity is alarming.
Any quick scroll on TikTok shows masses of videos decrying Israelis settling on Palestinian land and how Thanksgiving whitewashed indigenous genocide.... and yet not one TikTok influencer described volunteering at a local reservation or North American indigenous organization. TikTok virtue is not real-life virtue. The loud morality of the average TikTok user is confined to the heavily-filtered camera lens.
I do understand that the majority of TikTok users are adolescents and adolescents are generally jerks. Their brains have not really developed enough to cultivate empathy on a large scale and of course teens have not lived life long enough to understand the day-to-day sacrifices we must make to have society function. THAT being said, I have written about seeing adult friends with advanced degrees fall down TikTok rabbit holes involving anti-Semitism, "self-diagnosed autism" and anti-vaccine conspiracies.
That rant over, let's go back to why TikTok is Beijing's "magic weapon."
In 2016, the Kremlin revealed the awesome power that social media holds as a psychological weapon. Russia, by using social media, managed to pull off the impossible: electing Donald Trump as president. This was done, according many exhaustive post-mortems later, as a result of Russian intelligence using Facebook and Twitter to influence public opinion against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
China saw what Russia was able to pull off seven years ago and immediately leapt into action. China, through a private Beijing-based company Bytedance, put together a more addictive punchier social media platform to help influence Americans. This new platform, TikTok, involved an attractive video app that showcased dancing, eye-catching captions, filters that made anyone look like a supermodel, and fun "trends" that could maybe make you famous. More importantly, TikTok videos were short-form media content. TikTok videos were not allowed to be longer than a minute or so. TikTok videos addressing complex political issues couldn't afford to be nuanced and had to be condensed down to punchier, more polarizing one-minute segments.
By limiting time on videos, TikTok became a breeding ground for conspiracies. Unlike Facebook or Youtube or Medium, platforms that had no limit when it came to how much content a user could post at one time, TikTok was more the video form of Twitter: a toxic stew of character-limited synthetic indignation.
TikTok was Twitter on steroids.
In 2022, Beijing decided to give their new election-interference machine a spin and see how well TikTok could interfere in American elections. China has had its eye on Taiwan for a long time, but China is aware that any invasion of Taiwan will trigger an American response, which would be devastating. China's best bet at this point is to hope for a Trump victory in the 2024 US election. Trump has already hinted that he would not interfere in any Chinese-led action against Taiwan, while Biden has pledged American support for Taiwan.
China followed the Russia 2016 playbook to influence the US 2022 midterm elections and boost Trump-approved Congressional candidates. Using TikTok, Beijing targeted core Democratic voter groups for Democrats and tried to drive down voter turnout by attaching Democrats to highly misogynistic trans activist groups. TikTok boosted trans influencers, especially trans influencers that deliberately posted polarizing content. Fringe trans activists and their allies who demanded that women erase their own gender, allow biological males into their sports, and accept the most appalling drag queen-like acts as "real women" were often rewarded by TikTok with high views. In this way Beijing hoped that middle-aged feminists, usually reliable voters for Democrats, would stay away from the polls in disgust. When Biden met with misogynistic TikTok clown Dylan Mulvaney Beijing must have been ecstatic.
The strategy backfired. Middle-aged feminists, already appalled by the overturning of Roe v. Wade, did not let their disgust over Dylan Mulvaney deter them from voting for Democrats in droves in the 2022 midterms. More dismaying for Beijing was that their pro-trans TikTok trends actually charged up younger voters, a demographic that very rarely votes in American midterm elections, to go to the polls in 2022 and vote overwhelmingly Democrat. Democrats, with the unexpected help of younger voters, defied historical midterm trends and helped retain (and flip) several valuable governors seats in strategic states while also keeping the Senate.
It would be fair to say that Beijing was dismayed. They have clearly gone back to the drawing board.
Now, with the 2022 midterms one year in the past and the 2024 general election looming large in everyone's mind, Beijing is revving up its TikTok engines again. Instead of boosting misogynistic trans ideology again (Dylan Mulvaney's star has distinctly faded over the past few months) Beijing has fallen on a more traditional tactic: Hate the Jews.
After Hamas militants from the Gaza strip killed 1200 Israelis in the largest mass murder of Jews since the Holocaust, the far right Israeli government led by Netanyahu has led a bombing campaign of extraordinary brutality against Gaza. Isreal Defense Forces have used widespread bombing tactics in a tightly compacted area the size of New Jersey. Israel has been broadly criticized internationally for allowing too many civilian casualties to occur. Biden, who is staunchly pro-Israel, has stood by Netanyahu. TikTok pounced, elevating pro-Palestinian and even pro-Hamas talking points on their platforms. The anti-Semitic catchphrase "From the river to the sea" celebrating the complete eradication of the country of Israel has been boosted across the TikTok platform. Within the space of a month, Biden's approval among young voters has plummeted 15 points. People have been demanding a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza, while Israel has made it clear that there will be no ceasefire until Hamas is completely destroyed.
So far TikTok's elevation of pro-Hamas videos on their platform (as well as generally badly-sourced "woke" talking points about colonization, blood-libel, Jews, Islam and Osama Bin Laden) appears to have done better than Dylan Mulvaney in putting a bite in Biden's approval ratings. Will it hold though? What happens if there is an eventual ceasefire? What happens when Israel and Gaza go back to the general slow simmer of hatred without outright hostilities? Young voters may move on and remember that they're still angry at Roe v. Wade being repealed. Older voters, placated by lower gas prices (and weary of more Trumpism), may return to Biden by next November. Eleven months is an eternity in politics, after all and you don't grow old in Washington DC without knowing how to play the game. And Biden is very old indeed.