TikTok’s Time of Tribulation

In the nineteen fifties, disaffected, sociopathic, hormonally precocious teenagers in the United States often expressed their rebellion against the adult world by engaging in games involving various kinds of reckless driving. One such practice, favored by particularly suicidal types of what were called, at the time, “juvenile delinquents,” was known as “Chicken,” so named because of the Anglo-Saxon cultural conceit that the birds are particularly cowardly. The game took two principal forms, the first of which, more popular in the flat lands of the midwest, involved finding a long, straight stretch of deserted highway, from the ends of which two automobiles driven by such misguided male youths would race at top speed toward one another. The first one to veer off the road, steering away from a headlong, fatal collision, was the loser, and would be known thereafter as “Chicken.” And being Chicken, they would enjoy none of the available disturbed teenage female juvenile delinquents’ company in the back seats of those automobiles, as would the winners of such competitions.
Another version, more popular on the coasts of the continent, as well as in the more mountainous states, involved racing neck-and-neck down a road that terminated at the face of a cliff. In that version, the first one to stop was Chicken. It often proved to be the more ironic variety of the game when the less fearless of the two drivers went over the cliff. Whether the young fellow who did that, or the one who remained alive was considered the winner, or, alternatively was dubbed a “Double Chicken,”or even if such matches were considered to count at all varied as much as do the rules of eightball from one roadside billiard parlor to another. And if both cars went over the cliff, well, while it was obvious that neither of the deceased was Chicken, whether it could be said that one or the other had triumphed in the contest, or whether neither had, or whether, perhaps, that the particular instance of Chicken played out that time also just didn’t count, likewise presented a conundrum to be hotly debated for years to come in the locker rooms, detention halls and stadium bleacher seats of high schools scattered across the face of Eisenhower’s America.
Today, were an extraterrestrial visitor to observe the behavior of the United States government’s Congressional and Executive branches, they could well be forgiven for concluding that the latter version of Chicken just described has been resurrected, reconfigured and made infinitely more dangerous, for purposes of use as a political instrument. In this version, they would conclude, the Democrats and Republicans play the roles of the headstrong, impetuous and abysmally stupid young bucks, each pushing the US (and by default, the world’s) economy closer and closer to a financial cliff, each daring the other to be the first to stop. As in classic Chicken, judging the winner of the contest will in all likelihood be highly problematic. If the squabbling parties fail to raise the federal government’s debt ceiling before it runs out of money, and consequently push everyone on the planet over the cliff of credit default, will either one, or neither, be proclaimed Chicken by the gods of history? If you scratch while sinking the eightball, do you lose? Or is that only if the cue ball goes in the pocket before the eightball does?
Doubtless many folks in countries other than the USA wonder why we subject ourselves to this. Does passing a national law that limits the amount of debt the federal government can incur, after also passing a constitutional amendment declaring the debt of that government to be sacrosanct, inviolate and unquestionable, make the least scintilla of sense? Well, does it make any more sense to play Chicken with automobiles racing at one hundred kilometers per hour? Of course not – if everything Americans did made sense, that would take all the fun out of it. Pointless, moronic, reckless, self-destructive and completely nonsensical behavior is a key part of the American character. And that is something which all of those people piled up at our borders, clamoring to get in, ought to seriously consider. Is it really so bad where you came from, that you would prefer to live in an open-air insane asylum where there are more guns than people and the inhabitants periodically flirt with destroying their economy over issues such as whether the federal government should fund gender-neutral restrooms in public buildings?
And speaking of pointless, moronic, reckless, self-destructive and completely nonsensical behavior – TikTok. Today, I received a visit from Chu-Mai Long Wang, a senior partner at Hoar, Pander and Lye, a prominent Washington lobbying firm, that represents ByteDance, the Chinese company which distributes and administers that ubiquitous mobile app which has won the hearts, brains and wallets of Gen Z.
“This is a clear case of discrimination,” he huffed as he entered my office, placed his Gucci briefcase on the coffee table, and sunk into the lamb skin upholstered couch in front of the picture window overlooking the White House. “TikTok behaves no differently than Instagram, Facebook or Twitter,” he complained, “and I don’t see anyone banning them! Just because TikTok is Chinese, it’s automatically a target. That’s nothing but xenophobia and racism!”
“How does that shtick work on Capitol Hill?” I wondered.
“Better with with Democrats,” he confided with a sigh. “Republicans generally just make slant eyes at me and laugh.”
“The Congressional hearings,” I noted, “don’t seem to have produced much in the way of favorable results.”
“It was completely futile,” he muttered, shaking his head in disgust. “I warned them not to try to explain stuff to those guys – they have their minds made up already. Deliver responses that sound like they mean something but actually don’t instead, I said. But they wouldn’t listen. TikTok went in there and explained the Texas project, the partnership with Oracle, the new safety features, the new data deletion policies, the new filtering programs, TikTok’s extensive new security and quality commitments, its efforts at good-faith moderation, the swift and strong investigatory measures taken against employees who violate TikTok’s user-protection policies, its responsible use of artificial intelligence, its improved community guidelines, the third-party monitoring program, the new watch limit features, default limits on going viral, age limits on direct messaging, age limits on going to live video, age group content separation, parental notification, bypass prevention initiatives, enhanced searching for dangerous keywords, improved flagged content management algorithms, experience improvement paradigms, safety and resource-page redirection, and management’s profound sympathy for TikTok users who employ it in an inappropriate manner detrimental to themselves. But it was a complete, unmitigated disaster!”
“Could that be,” I inquired, “because TikTok’s replies to the committee members’ questions were complete unmitigated ackenpukey?”
My guest shot me a puzzled look. “What’s… acken… puckey?”
“It is a venerable rural Pennsylvanian term for that which issues from the south end of a north-bound horse,” I replied. “I’ve watched the entire five hours and forty-two minutes of the hearing video, and every single second of TikTok’s testimony is complete, unmitigated ackenpukey. Honestly, if your advice was to stonewall with meaningless responses to the committee’s questions instead of providing actual answers to them, I would say TikTok followed it splendidly.”
His eyebrows raised as he cocked his head to the side. “You would?”
“Absolutely,” I confirmed. “TikTok’s performance was pure road apples.”
“Road… apples?”
“Yep. In fact,” I told him, “the only less informative strategy that I could imagine would have been if you, yourself, had attended that hearing and reacted to every question by reciting your name.”
He looked at me blankly. “Huh?”
“Never mind,” I continued. “Obviously, we both watched the same stream of images synchronized with a sound track and saw completely different videos. That has never been unusual in Washington, and lately, things are getting so it’s not unusual anywhere, actually. In the House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing you saw, TikTok wasn’t evasive enough. In the one I saw, the committee members said things like, “TikTok surveils us all and the Chinese Communist Party is able to use this as a tool to manipulate America as a whole,” “The Chinese Communist government can compel companies based in Beijing, like TikTok, to share data with the Communist government through existing Beijing law or coercion,” and “We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values. Your platform should be banned.” And the incredible thing was, in the US Congress, in 2023, when Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on lunch, remarks like that were coming at TikTok from both sides of the aisle.”
Wang looked dejectedly down at his briefcase on the coffee table. “I should have listened to my mother. She wanted me to be an engineer.”
“No point in feeling sorry for yourself now,” I advised. “You chose to become a lobbyist for a Chinese Communist social media app, and now you have to live with it.”
“Yeah,” he agreed with an air of resignation and another deep sigh, “I make a hell of a lot more money doing this, I shouldn’t be sitting here feeling sorry for myself. But damn it, Tom! TikTok’s been banned by the US government, by the British government, by the Canadian government, by the Australian government, by the French government, by the New Zealand Parliament, by, what is it now, twenty-five US state governments? And and the entire country of India! There are members of Congress who I’m supposed to be lobbying who won’t even return my phone calls or reply to my texts anymore! And now, TikTok is going to be banned in the entire state of Montana!”
“Oh, it’s not so bad,” I consoled. “The law doesn’t take effect until 2024 and it only prohibits downloading TikTok, not using it.”
“It’s restraint of trade,” he wailed. “It’s a violation of the First Amendment!”
“If either of those things are true,” I pointed out, “then TikTok should be able to easily win a court challenge and get the law nullified.”
“In every state?” he objected.
“Hey, at this point, TikTok has more money than God,” I reminded him. “Litigation against a bunch of government lawyers should be a piece of cake. And besides, there are already plenty of TikTok users who are putting together law suits of their own to challenge the Montana ban, and rest assured, that will happen in every state that bans TikTok, and it won’t cost TikTok a dime. People love TikTok. They love its stupid design, they love its asinine content, they love its cretinous user community, they love its mendacious marketing, its manipulative user interface, and its greedy, evil business model. Actually, you know, less than half of TikTok users can even find China on a map. As a matter of fact, ninety percent of them are completely unaware of what the Chinese Communist Party is, and the ten percent who do have some vague notion of the CCP don’t care if it knows everything about them, as long as they can have their precious TikTok. They just want to keep watching mindless little TikTok videos, doing their half-witted TikTok dances, record themselves taking the next irrational, reckless TikTok challenge, and keep getting those continuous endorphin shots so cleverly implemented by TikTok’s sinister mind-control algorithms derived from decades of intensive Communist Chinese brainwashing research. So tell me, what are you worried about?”
“Now that you’ve put it that way,” Wang remarked in a darkening tone, “I’m not worried about doing better at my job anymore – I’m worried about losing it entirely. What you described just now is a product that sells itself, and once it’s sold, people will do anything to get it, kind of like… some kind of dope. Do products like that need lobbyists?”
“Of course they do!” I assured him. “Just ask the tobacco companies. Look – here’s what you need to do: you need to get yourself a TikTok account.”
A look of utter astonishment overtook this face. “Me? Why?”
“To lobby the children of members of Congress,” I said, and when I did, that face went ashen.
“Oh, Christ Almighty,” he gasped.
“And / or their grandchildren, nephews, nieces and so forth,” I added. “Whatever it is about TikTok you want to tell those members of Congress who won’t listen to you, once you put those things on TikTok, the kids in their families will tell them.”
He stared at me, stunned. “They will? How come?”
“Because,” I explained, “every family’s biggest influencers are its children.”
His jaw dropped. “Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Because you had me to think of it for you,” I answered. “That’s why I’m here.”
“Oh, yeah,” he agreed with a pleasant nod and a sudden smile, glancing at his platinum Rolex. “So it is. I guess we’re done, then. It’s past six. Can I buy you dinner?”
“Have you tried the Chilean sea bass with Sichuan black bean sauce at Nobu?” I asked. “It’s totally fire.”