Digital Warfare: US and China go head to head in cyberspace

As the start of the new year sees Israel’s war on Gaza rage on, the US faces an ongoing battle in the cyber realm back home.

According to one survey by Gallup and Knight Foundation, trust in US media is so low that half of Americans believe national news outlets deliberately mislead them.

This rise in distrust is a common global pattern, with the UK having the second lowest levels of media trust according to a study of 24 countries by King’s College London. Held as part of the World Values Survey, just 13% of British respondents expressed confidence in the press.

Meanwhile, news consumption on social media is only growing, with data showing a third of Americans under the age of 30 now get their news on TikTok.

2023 saw the White House ramp up its efforts to manage the Chinese-owned tech giant, which has over 150 million users in the States, the highest of any country globally.

In March, platform CEO Shou Zi Chew even appeared before Congress, in an attempt to dispel allegations over the app’s collection of sensitive user data, as well as censorship of any content that goes against China’s Communist Party.

It’s all slightly ironic, considering the intense regulatory crackdown on domestic tech companies by Chinese authorities in 2020, which even saw e-commerce site Alibaba fined $2.8 billion in a landmark antitrust case in 2021.

US government and European Union’s parliament ban TikTok From staff mobile devices

The Asian nation’s technology sector has since conformed to new regulations, much like the control US officials perhaps wish to instill over TikTok.

In December, US presidential primary Nikki Haley publicly condemned the platform. She says: “We really do need to ban TikTok once and for all. For every 30 minutes that someone watches TikTok every day, they become 17% more antisemitic, more pro-Hamas.”

Her statements have since been debunked by Generation Lab, the data company behind the survey she references. However, it does beg the question of why TikTok faces greater reprimand when, for instance, Silicon Valley-owned Meta has already been proven to systematically censor Palestinian content in a review by Human Rights Watch.

So then, one must ask, is the real concern about data protection or threats to Silicon Valley business interests, or maybe even anti-Israeli sentiment in general?

While Instagram saw a decent growth of 47.8% between 2020 to 2022, TikTok doubled its user base. According to polling data shared by Axios, the majority of these users express pro-Palestinian sentiment. This is especially frequent among young people on the platform.

The tech giant has confirmed this natural trend, emphasising a need to listen to users: “This is a really difficult time for millions of people around the world and in our TikTok community.”

“We feel it’s important to meet with and listen to creators, human rights experts, civil society and other stakeholders to help guide our ongoing work to keep our global community safe.”

U.S. President Joe Biden participates in a virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping

So, would the North American giant really ban TikTok? And if they did, would more countries follow suit? TikTok was banned in India in 2020 over claims of illegal data collection. This occurred shortly after geopolitical tensions at the border between India and China.

The video-sharing app was also slapped with a $368 million fine by the European Union for data beaches in the same year.

However, the company has since taken steps on advancing data security in partnership with Oracle Cloud Infrastructure. According to TikTok U.S. Data Security, as of June 2022, 100% of US user traffic is now routed to the US-based computer software company.

As for the question of censorship, visiting fellow Michael Kwet at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project believes: “There’s no reason to believe TikTok will offer substantially more diverse views across the global media landscape”.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, he says: “When confronted with content moderation decisions, TikTok will do what all big social media companies do: remove content at the request of entities with power, so long as it becomes too costly to disobey.”

In the midst of Israel’s ongoing aggression in the besieged Gaza Strip, alongside rampant misinformation and media bias – one thing is clear: access to honest, independent journalism centred on human values, not corporate, is needed like never before.

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