Does TikTok evoke Ferguson’s nostalgia over British Empire?

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By Ai Jun Source: Global Times

Photo: VCG

The US government’s clampdown on TikTok is nothing more than a trick of certain politicians to seek political interests with excuses that can hardly justify themselves. Unfortunately, some observers cannot see through this. Worse, certain Western elites have a twisted mind-set on a Chinese social media app that poses a real challenge to US internet giants.

Niall Ferguson, a British historian, who has worked at a number of world-renowned universities, including Stanford, Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford, recently published a column on Bloomberg claiming TikTok is digital “opium” used by China for its imperial ambitions.

“TikTok is not just China’s revenge for the century of humiliation between the Opium Wars and Mao’s revolution. It is the opium – a digital fentanyl, to get our kids stoked for the coming Chinese imperium.” This is Ferguson’s core argument. As a historian, he must be familiar with the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century, when the British Empire opened Chinese market through the opium trade. The British might be measuring China’s corn by his own bushel, especially when facing the decline of the West.

Yet it cannot be more farfetched to label TikTok as digital “opium” used by China, or to prove the so-called Chinese imperial ambition. TikTok simply won the fierce competition by itself. In 2018, Facebook launched the so-called TikTok-inspired video app Lasso, which is a cheap version of TikTok to attract young users. But Lasso failed, and was shut down in July, as quiet as when it debuted.

To prove his argument, Ferguson laid bare his vigilance against TikTok’s AI-based algorithmic feed which ensures users get personalized content. It only proves how little he knows about internet technology, as all social media platforms work the same way. If any digital platform with an AI algorithm is considered digital fentanyl, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are all opium. Obviously, Ferguson is cool with those “addictive” US social media.

Technology is neutral in nature; how they are used differs. Ferguson claims China “intends to export its anti-liberal vision to the rest of the world” via TikTok. Seriously? Could anyone possibly unpack short videos of animal antics through a geopolitical lens, or consider them anti-liberal? Does anyone believe after watching videos of people singing, dancing or doing magic tricks, teenagers from Western countries can be brainwashed by socialism?

China did not purposely make use of the platform to achieve anything, not to mention that even the CIA confirmed there is “no evidence” Chinese intelligence services have ever accessed TikTok data.

On the contrary, it is the US government that has been notorious in promoting American-style values and policies worldwide through the internet, seeking global public opinion hegemony and raising pro-US forces across the world. For Washington, truth must be something that can be portrayed as it wants, just like how it has been smearing China’s effort in the fight against COVID-19 on social media.

When it comes to information collection, or internet surveillance, also mentioned by Ferguson, the most infamous case of a government-launched worldwide espionage project is the US’ PRISM surveillance program. Edward Snowden, the whistleblower of the program, now lives miserably in asylum in Russia.

Ferguson’s article is full of nostalgia over the Western empires’ glory in the past, and some Westerners’ mentality – hoping to see China as a subordinate to the West. The time has come for Western elites like Ferguson to rediscover the world. Take Ferguson himself. He may need to research more about why his country, the UK, has few global internet giants, rather than whine about TikTok.

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