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Trump Swings Against TikTok, WeChat

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The most honest explanation for the White House’s latest move is this: ????? But I’ll do the best I can.

On Thursday, the Trump administration signed executive orders that seemed to seek a ban on two China-based smartphone apps, TikTok and WeChat, from operating in the United States or interacting with U.S. companies. This step was a long time coming, but it still felt surprising.

The practical significance of these White House mandates and a similar State Department policy statement this week aren’t exactly clear yet. Two high-profile apps might be gone from the United States in 45 days, or not. But the philosophical implications are concerning.

On paper at least, internet policy in the United States is creeping a little closer to what happens in countries like Russia and India: The government makes draconian rules about what technology its citizens are allowed to use. And it can be hard for people to know if those rules are based on legitimate national security concerns or expressions of nationalism.

If you’ve been following this newsletter, you know that some U.S. officials are worried about TikTok potentially handing over reams of data collected on Americans to the Chinese government, and helping spread a Chinese-friendly view of the world. There are similar fears about WeChat, which is widely used in China and also by Chinese people abroad and those who do business there.

What we have now is a series of just plain weird things that could get even weirder. First, in the case of TikTok, the U.S. government is effectively negotiating — in public — a sale between a foreign company, ByteDance, and an American company, Microsoft.

And I don’t know what will happen to WeChat, or how either order would be enforced. Is the White House going to demand that Apple, Google or U.S. internet providers prevent people from downloading WeChat and TikTok? Would this apply to Apple and Google outside the United States, too?

And what happens to video games like League of Legends and Fortnite, and the carmaker Tesla? WeChat’s parent company, Tencent, owns all or parts of those properties.

It’s possible none of this will happen: Executive orders sometimes never become action.

What we’re seeing now is a struggle to figure out the right approach to U.S. digital security. (At least, I think that’s the goal.)

TikTok is a black box that siphons large amounts of data about users (like other social networks) and is likely beholden to orders of the Chinese government.

Chinese security forces have used WeChat to spy on and intimidate members of the Chinese diaspora. Chinese-backed hackers regularly try to steal sensitive digital information about Americans and secret business information of American companies.

The internet, like everything else, should be subject to appropriate government regulation and rules. I mentioned Russia and India because those countries sometimes cross the line between protecting citizens and cutting them off from the outside world.

The United States isn’t threatening to turn off the internet, as India sometimes does. But the U.S. government is taking a hard line to cut off apps that Americans rely on, and it’s not clear how much protection Americans will gain in return.

It feels like there must be a middle ground — as my colleague Kevin Roose recently suggested — that addresses some of the potential risks of foreign-owned apps without resorting to extreme measures.

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ImageA 1904 illustration of Standard Oil.
Credit…Udo J. Keppler/Buyenlarge, via Getty Images

There are tempting comparisons between today’s American tech superpowers and the industrial monopolies of a century ago. What we really need are the old memes.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, industrial conglomerates like Standard Oil and U.S. Steel were regularly portrayed as octopuses or other tentacled creatures in illustrations, editorial cartoons and other visual depictions.

I kept coming across these octopus drawings as I dug into the history of U.S. antitrust law, which was a response to those old industrial monopolies. This history is relevant today, of course, because a handful of American tech superpowers are now being compared to those Gilded Age trusts.

Edward O’Donnell, the chair of the history department at College of the Holy Cross, said tentacled monsters were very popular images a century ago to depict anxieties about big corporations unfairly wielding power and poisoning food, mistreating workers and bending government officials and competitors to their will.

The octopus was, yes, a meme.

There’s this famous 1904 illustration of Standard Oil (see above) with one tentacle wrapped around the U.S. Capitol building, another squeezing white collar and blue collar workers and others grabbing at depictions of the shipping, steel and other industries.

The Curse of California,” which appeared in a satirical magazine in 1882, showed the bosses of the Southern Pacific railroad in the eyes of a monster that was squeezing miners, farmers, wealthy power brokers, wheat exports and stage coaches.

Illustrators of the age knew what teens on TikTok and Russian propagandists on Facebook figured out nearly a century later: A powerful visual can influence public opinion about important topics.

You may recognize that the tentacled creature is also a visual used in anti-Semitic tropes. This is not a coincidence, Dr. O’Donnell said. Institutions and people who were believed to have achieved power unfairly and abused it have often been depicted with octopus images.

In addition to Jews and monopolists, subjects that got the tentacles treatment included British imperialism in the 19th century, the Soviet Union under Stalin and 1940s Japan. And now, it seems, the 21st century technology superpowers.

  • It’s not an election day. It’s election days/weeks: The institutions most responsible for our understanding of government — the news media and, yes, social networks — are preparing for how to communicate the results of this November’s U.S. elections.

    My colleague Ben Smith wrote earlier this week about news organizations planning for voting results to take days or weeks, in part because of heavier use of mail-in voting during the pandemic. BuzzFeed News also wrote that some Facebook employees are worried that longer ballot counting will create opportunities for people to use Facebook to undermine the legitimacy of the election.

  • The risks of turning mental health care into an app: Talkspace, the app that lets people text and chat with a licensed therapist, has made therapy much more accessible, but my colleagues Kashmir Hill and Aaron Krolik also found cases in which the company treated patient confidentiality cavalierly and prioritized marketing over patient welfare.

    Their reporting, Kash and Aaron wrote, suggested “that the needs of a venture capital-backed start-up to grow quickly can sometimes be in conflict with the core values of professional therapy.”

  • Microsoft Excel is changing our genes (sort of): Scientists have run into trouble when alphanumeric symbols of genes like “MARCH1” are misread as dates when they’re typed into Excel spreadsheets. And because it’s apparently easier to change scientific nomenclature than to change the settings in Excel, the names of about 27 genes have been changed to avoid spreadsheet misinterpretation, according to The Verge.

A young gorilla is trying, and failing, to get his father to goof around with him. (The kid gorilla is Gus, by the way. Elmo is the big poppa.)

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