IT IS A CLICHÉ that in this age, wars are more battles of perception than actual ‘kinetic operations’ by well-equipped armies launching attacks on clearly identified adversaries. Those certitudes of warfare now seem ancient as the ongoing conflict in the Levant clearly shows. While Israel Defence Forces (IDF) conduct ground operations in the Gaza Strip, the real war, it seems, is being waged across the Western world where Hamas and its allies have mobilised public opinion to a frenzied pitch. The objective is clear: mount extraordinary ‘street pressure’ on these governments so that Israel can be forced to back down.
Much of this coordination across different countries is being achieved through social media, but one app stands out: the Chinese-controlled TikTok video content-sharing device. TikTok’s parent company ByteDance has clear links with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In recent years, Western intelligence agencies and their leaders have repeatedly warned about the dangers of giving TikTok a free run in their countries.
As with many other things Chinese, India sensed the danger years before others grasped it. Back in 2020, at the height of the tension resulting from the Galwan incident, India banned TikTok. While the ban on TikTok was part of a broader set of measures to limit the role played by China in the Indian economy— Chinese investments and trade were also restricted—the ban on the app clearly had a security focus. Intelligence officials and tech security experts had concluded that TikTok was a giant data-gathering app with the data flowing back to servers that were either controlled by the Chinese government or to which it had unfettered access. As such, the app could be used for spying as well as for influence operations. The latter, through the use of its controlling algorithm, remains under Chinese control. Traditional security concerns rest on the use of massive amounts of data gathered through TikTok by China; influence operations are certainly possible by others as can be seen in the Israeli conflict where Hamas and its affiliates have made skilful use of TikTok.
The problem is true for social media in general, but increasingly so in the case of TikTok. American politicians such as Republican Congressman Mike Gallagher, who represents the eighth district of Wisconsin, have pointed out that TikTok is now the top search engine for more than half of Gen Z, and six out of 10 Americans are “hooked” up on the app before their 17th birthday. In a recent piece in the online portal The Free Press, Gallagher noted these and other TikTok usage statistics and added that “By tweaking the TikTok algorithm, the CCP can censor information and influence Americans of all ages on a variety of issues. It can shape what facts they consider accurate, and what conclusions they draw from world events.”
It is interesting to note that a number of countries have banned the use of TikTok, including the UK and Canada, but not the US where every now and then, there are noises about banning the app but nothing has been done about it.
While street protests against Israel are now common throughout most Western countries, it is in the US where the maximum pressure is being exerted via intellectuals, university protests, and even in official circles. The use of apps like TikTok is now akin to adding fuel to the fire in a highly polarised environment.
TikTok could be used for spying as well as for influence operations. Traditional security concerns rest on the use of massive amounts of data gathered through TikTok by China; influence operations are possible by others as can be seen in the Israeli conflict where Hamas and its affiliates have made skilful use of TikTok
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Here there is a difference to some extent between what is being seen in Europe, especially the UK, France, and Germany on one hand, and the US on the other hand. The European countries in question have significant numbers of migrants from the Middle East who have landed there in different waves. Some have come from former colonies over time, and others in recent years through waves of illegal migrations. These ‘liberal’ countries accepted very large numbers of migrants under the assumption that over time these migrants would ‘integrate’ into their societies. A case was also made by intellectuals of various hues that ‘diversity’ was a good thing for these overwhelmingly white and Christian societies. But over time, neither did these migrants integrate into their host societies, nor did the so-called diversity help them in any way. If anything, these migrants—often unskilled and unable to cope with the demanding life in highly individualistic Western societies—have ended up forming enclaves of their own. In these enclaves, crime, joblessness, and all the toxic ideas endemic to the home countries of migrants, can be found in abundance. From the banlieues of Paris to the ‘no-go’ areas of Swedish cities, law enforcement, and anti-terrorist police units are at their wit’s end to keep order.
There are, no doubt, a handful of migrants who have done well in their host societies. But these are more the exception than the rule. In contrast to the trouble created by droves of poorly-skilled migrants, these ‘success stories’ are often amplified way beyond reality. The protests against Israel and the open support to Hamas, a terrorist group, is enough to destroy the carefully crafted narrative of the hard-working immigrant.
It is here that apps like TikTok enter. In an already difficult and polarised environment, these apps come in handy to inflame passions. Hamas’ skilful use of the events in Gaza is a case in point. This is in stark contrast to what the Israeli government is able to do. The difference in the amplification of messages is starkly visible to anyone who uses social media.
What can be done to change this?
It is too late to do anything much in many European countries where migrants now number in millions. But the lesson for those countries where these numbers are still within manageable levels is simple: do not allow more migrants, especially from the Middle East. The other, far more pressing, thing that needs a check is the regulation of social media. This is a contested domain. On the one hand are ‘free speech’ champions who want no fetters on social media. On the other, are governments that see the dangerous side effects of such media with trepidation but are able to do precious little. At some point, multinational regulation of social media and emergent technologies such as Artificial Intelligence is essential if the world is not to spin out of control. It is no one’s case that freedom of expression and speech be policed or controlled by governments, but it is also true that not taking appropriate steps will only make matters worse.
So far, India has not had to face what Western countries and Israel have witnessed in recent weeks. For a country that is far more diverse than any in the West, India is often forced to take steps that are routinely described as ‘anti-democratic’. It is common to see reports that paint a graphic picture of internet shutdowns in India. But the reverse of these unpleasant measures that governments in India are forced to take is the far-less turbulence seen even in some very difficult areas to govern. India was prescient to note the danger posed by TikTok. That is something that the West is only waking up to.