Skip to content

Social Media, Authoritarianism, and the World As It Is


Meredith Whittaker (@mer__edith) is the President of Signal and the Cofounder and Chief Advisor of the AI Now Institute.

Earlier this month, the United States House of Representatives passed the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, a bill that would force TikTok’s parent company to sell the platform to U.S. citizens or be banished from the U.S. market. The same fate could await any other platform the President designates as a “foreign adversary-controlled application.” A loud mix of celebration and outcry greeted the bill’s movement, splitting both right and left and placing common allies across from each other. While its path in the Senate remains uncertain, the issues the bill raises and the political fissures it has exposed must be critically engaged.

In this I am not a neutral observer. I stake a position in the “outcry” camp. I see no evidence that this bill will offer meaningful privacy protection from China, the United States, or anyone else, or liberate people from the mental buffeting of engagement-driven algorithms. What the bill would do is ensure that TikTok joins almost all other widely-used social media platforms on earth under U.S. control, enriching U.S., not Chinese, interests and further entrenching U.S. social network dominance. U.S.-owned social media platforms include the top four most widely used services in the world, with TikTok lagging far behind YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp. Nineteen of the twenty most widely used social media platforms in the world are based in either the United States or China — making all other countries consumers, not developers, of these services. In light of the existing concentration of military and financial power in the United States, handing the country even more “control” over all relevant social media platforms is not something we should reflexively embrace — especially when there is no evidence that U.S. control will make them meaningfully better in any way.

In this brief essay, I outline why I am particularly concerned with the implications of U.S. control in our present political moment, a view that is rooted in concerns for free speech and expression. Those who raise such concerns often do so in bad faith, and because of this, liberals and some on the left tend to dismiss these worries out of hand. In ceding speech and expression to the right, they misunderstand the problem that the current tech industry and its business model present, and thus proffer the wrong solutions, with this TikTok bill being just the most recent example.

Forging Political Weapons

By giving the President — any President — the power to designate which platforms are “foreign adversary controlled,” this bill provides the executive with a powerful new tool to coerce tech companies and exert control over the information ecosystem that platforms shape. While the “foreign adversaries” designation is narrow, and only applies to China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia for now, the long history of dubious fact patterns and malformed evidence that has sufficed to establish links between targeted organizations or individuals and malign actors should chill any optimism suggested by this limitation.

Consider, for instance, the case of the Holy Land Foundation. The Holy Land Foundation was, in the 1990s, the largest Muslim charity in the United States, and supported aid organizations in Palestine — many of which were also supported by the U.S. government. In the wake of 9/11, HLF was targeted by the Bush administration’s DOJ. Even though no direct or knowing link to terrorist activity was ever alleged, let alone concretely established, HLF was still designated a terrorist organization. Its assets were seized, and its leaders ultimately convicted of material support for Hamas “on the notion that the social programs they financed help win the ‘hearts and minds’ of Palestinian people for Hamas.” This was in a climate, not unlike our own, marked by strong Islamophobia.

Historically, such designations have proven flexible and highly conducive to political weaponization. From the McCarthy era, to the post-9/11 patriotic frenzy, to the recent wave of bans targeting pro-Palestinian student organizations, there’s a well-worn template that should give us pause before handing any given executive branch the power to force the divestiture of platforms so-designated, as this bill would. Indeed, the very idea that TikTok presents a threat to national security shows how such designations are often driven by ulterior motives — in this case, at least in part, hostility to support for Palestine. Many proponents of the ban harnessed the sinophobic narrative that TikTok was akin to “Chinese Opium,” enacting mind control to “brainwashkids against Israel. Josh Hawley, for instance, alleged that the platform was a “purveyor of virulent antisemtic lies.” To be clear, there is no evidence for this claim, even as there is evidence that U.S.-based social media platforms suppressed pro-Palestinian speech, something we examine below.

Importantly, the power to designate platforms as “foreign adversary controlled” doesn’t have to be used to exert disciplinary force. By simply existing, it provides a stick that can be wielded to jostle platforms into compliance, whether foreign or domestic. We already see this pattern in action, when politicians saber rattle in the direction of Section 230, in many cases less with serious intention than as a threat meant to provoke tech company compliance ‘or else.’

The World As It Is

In voicing opposition to this bill, my views depart from incisive people with whom I generally agree, including many engaged in legal scholarship and policy advocacy. This may have something to do with my current role as Signal’s President, which requires that I scan a wide horizon for threats to privacy and free expression from government and industry, take these threats seriously, and prepare for them even if I lack definitive proof that they will materialize. In this endeavor I need to respect the libidinal pull of culture and culture-makers as powerful shapers of politics and legislation, and remember that ultimately power makes law, law doesn’t make power. And whatever I do, I have to work the rules as written alongside the world as it is: marked by self-interest, power asymmetries, and political corruption — all against the backdrop of an accelerating climate crisis and rising authoritarianism.

This is a different mode of attention than most policy and legal work. As professions — not necessarily as individuals who engage in such work — these fields share an unspoken but foundational presumption of a functional, liberal state whose machinery of checks, balances, and independent agencies will produce, in the end, a more or less just outcome. A focus on the details of a particular case, or bill, or enforcement action tends to assume an orderly world lies beyond, into which such work will be situated and can produce incremental improvement. The problem is that in our current moment, these implicit assumptions look increasingly like a counterfactual diorama, a pretty archetype that bears less and less resemblance to the real world. And it’s here, in these lovely-if-specious counterfactuals, that I see many of the arguments in favor of this bill residing: from those that easily adopt the pronoun “we” when referring to the U.S. state, to those arguing that something — anything — applied to discipline platforms is a step in the right direction — a direction that a coherent body, we are to assume, is steadily striding toward.

When we examine the big picture, such assurances fray. We see an illiberal tide with a deeply censorious agenda driven by a well-resourced and organized network working to take power. Across the US, state legislators are acquiescing to what PEN America has called “the work of a growing number of advocacy organizations that have made demanding censorship of certain books and ideas in schools part of their mission.” These bans seek to suppress, in particular, literature that engages race, racism and LGBTQ themes, and they’re part of a fierce and growing anti-DEI and anti-LGBTQ backlash aimed particularly at trans people. This movement is behind a surge in anti-gay legislation, like Florida’s 2022 “Don’t Say Gay” law, which proscribes discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in public schools. Meanwhile, pregnant people in states that leapt to restrict access to reproductive care after Dobbs now rightly fear being unable to access any medical care, due to hospitals’ worries of liability were medical staff to harm a fetus in the process of caring for a person. And Jessica Burgess is serving two years in prison. Facebook messages, handed to law enforcement by Meta, comprised key evidence used to convict her and her daughter of accessing and managing reproductive care in Nebraska, after their home state had criminalized it.

The Trump campaign and its backers have done little to hide their aspiration to bring these state-level restrictions on speech and freedom to the national level. In contrast to the lead up to 2016, during which it often felt like even Trump did not expect to prevail, his former staffers and allies are busy planning for victory. (Victory that I consider likely, particularly as Biden’s position on Gaza over the past six months has alienated the same young, progressive, Black and brown voters who would be required to push him to victory in November.) Consider, for instance, Project 2025, a coalition led by the Heritage Foundation and shaped by former Trump personnel that is focused on assembling an army of 20,000 potential administration staffers “to begin dismantling the administrative state from Day 1” and to centralize power under the executive branch such that it could unilaterally enact policies, including a federal abortion ban. This dovetails with the Trump campaign’s own stated plans, which focus on casting off as many checks on presidential authority as possible and bringing “independent agencies — like the Federal Communications Commission, which makes and enforces rules for television and internet companies, and the Federal Trade Commission, which enforces various antitrust and other consumer protection rules against businesses — under direct presidential control.”

The Right Has a Point

The Right has a point. In that they understand social media platforms as critical infrastructure capable of shaping and distorting our shared information ecosystem, and they recognize that controlling how this ecosystem is “distorted” is a better use of their time — in pursuit of power and influence — than trying to create a magic formula that can “democratize” or “balance” the influence these platforms exert.

This keen understanding, and a media strategy built around it, is evident in Twitch streams and YouTube channels that synchronize with X bots and local TV news, frequently demonstrating impeccable message discipline across an internally resonant ecosystem. To maintain and grow this ecosystem — and to develop muscles of platform discipline and control — those invested in this project direct significant attention to Meta, Amazon, Google, and other dominant platforms companies. They take to their streams and feeds to decry as censorship any move by these actors that might curtail their content and reach, while legislators and pundits echo and amplify these claims. And they threaten, sue, and work to discredit independent researchers who document and decry this behavior.

When we read headlines announcing that the former Treasury Secretary under Trump, Steven Mnuchin, is assembling a group of investors eager to buy TikTok and place it under U.S. jurisdiction in response to the bill’s movement, we need to understand this as a preview of how “U.S. control” would operate in practice, and place it within the broader context of this canny right-wing media strategy.

I worry that liberals and some on the left routinely downplay the threat to speech that these platforms and the prospect of government control over them present. This is in part because there are few staunch defenders of free speech among their ranks these days. It’s not hard to see why this is. The bad faith invocation of free speech has been used by some heinous characters to defend online harassment, doxxing, and surveillance-based micro-targeting. Moreover, the past two decades have witnessed the gauche instrumentation of the First Amendment to argue for corporations’ rights to do whatever the fuck they want, including the tech industry’s brandishing the constitution to defend their metastatic business model.

It’s true, there is a lot of disingenuous nonsense when it comes to free speech discourse. But this doesn’t mean we should confuse these essential rights with the actors who speciously invoke them — something we often see in the liberal tendency to deny that centralized platform control of speech is a significant problem. The real problem, much liberal policy implies, is too little control of speech — too little monitoring, surveillance, and age-gating; too little trust, and too little safety; too many criminals hiding in shadows with not enough national security oversight; and too little U.S. ownership and “control.” The all-too-commonly proffered solution to the harms that flow from platform surveillance practices and business models is to ensure that they are wisely governed by upstanding people applying appropriate norms and standards. The fight, in other words, is aimed at expanding power over these platforms to governments and sometimes NGOs. With the counterfactual vision of an ordered and just state standing in for any critical thinking about who will actually exercise such power, and how. Let alone who is likely to be harmed — from sex workers, to dissidents, to queer teens trying to access LGBTQ resources in a future where these are criminalized. 

To be clear, I am not saying that norms and standards are bad. No publicly accessible message board or social media platform, from the biggest to the smallest, can survive without standards around content and behavior and some way to enforce these standards. From Usenet groups to Signal’s community forum to Facebook: without standards, spam will make your network unusable, bots will drown out and sow confusion, “that one guy” will clutter up every conversation with a long off-topic screed, and coordinated harassment and trolling will work to repress the speech of its targets.

No, the actual problem isn’t tech qua tech. It’s the fact that we live in a world of nation-states and massive multinational corporate actors that flex power akin to states. And in this world, information control and asymmetry are key tools for the expansion and exercise of such power. So of course centralized media platforms — from Western Union in the 19th century, to Instagram and TikTok now — will always comprise a strategically significant lever desired by those who wish to maintain and expand their authority. As a result, governance of these platforms and their norms and standards will always be hotly contested and viciously politicized as states and corporations vie for influence, popular legitimacy, and power. Bolting more surveillance, monitoring, and oversight onto these formations only creates more places to exert such control.

This reality isn’t hard to see. The Chinese government acknowledges it openly and acts accordingly by enforcing censorious and protectionist policies that dictate these standards and tightly restrict platform scope and ownership. It’s also at work in the United States, in different and more subtle ways: from the Obama campaign’s then-celebrated voter targeting efforts during the 2008 and 2012 election contests, which were heralded as tech-savvy; to the credible evidence of election-related disinformation in 2016 and 2020 — both of which were enabled via the affordances of these surveillance advertising platforms; to TikTok removing content discussing the dire situation of the Muslim Uyghur minority; to X censoring posts critical of Modi at the Indian government’s request; to this moment, when U.S.-homed media platforms — from Instagram to YouTube to Facebook — have moved in seeming lockstep to deprioritize pro-Palestinian speech, a position that echoes (and is almost certainly informed by) the mainstream political establishment in the US and other Western states. And it’s not that TikTok is a bastion of anti-censorship. There’s evidence that it has also dampened the reach of some pro-Palestine content. But what’s important here is that the perception of TikTok’s divergence from this pro-Israel norm played a meaningful part in actuating the bill’s movement in the house.

The problem here is the platforms themselves. There is something deeply wrong with the whole form. With their self-reinforcing business models, their reliance on surveillance, and their role in undermining an independent media ecosystem and replacing it with their monolithic feeds. And with the fact that there are only a handful of them, clustered mainly in the United States, representing staggeringly lopsided and concentrated power in the hands of a few companies whose positions generally mirror the common sense of the U.S. state and whose actions always prioritize profit and growth, whatever else they may do.

So, What?

The world would be better if these platforms were dismantled and their revenues shared with the people, professions, and communities whose livelihoods and public spaces they’ve worked to foreclose, and if a more localized variation on digital spaces for deliberation, discussion, and discovery could be constructed in their wake. But we’re not even close to this. 

Standing in this moment, with platforms that exercise outsized control over our information ecosystem going nowhere, we need to weigh our choices and define what we’re actually fighting for. The right is fighting to take control of these platforms, while liberals and some on the left are fighting to expand vectors of platform control, without thinking hard enough about who will wield this power and who is likely to get hurt. We can’t treat these factors as “outside the scope of this paper.” We need to map and sit with the implications of this conjuncture — a complex endeavor I barely begin here. My hope in offering this analysis is to open up a larger conversation among those invested in dismantling the dangerous centralized power of the tech industry, and to do the work of mapping and thinking together. 

For now, I believe that taking all of this seriously means rejecting any move that would further concentrate global surveillance and propaganda power within the borders (and often hands) of a single government — the United States. It is always dangerous to treat nation-states like home teams, without acknowledging that these forms are always, in every case, containers whose function is to hold and codify power over subjects, and that those wielding power from within these structures can do so benevolently, or with unspeakable brutality. 

When it comes to the implications of this analysis for the TikTok bill, I think it is vastly preferable to exploit and expand the cracks and corner rooms where dissent is still possible instead of leaning on a state to codify and enforce rules that — only in some counterfactual — would be applied to make platforms more private, democratic, or friendly to dissent. This is where we need to recognize that the agonism of big-power geopolitical platform rivalry could produce some collateral good, creating opportunities for dissent in the spaces shaped by competing interests. Or, to oversimplify for the sake of explanation, one platform may suppress pro-Palestinian speech, and another may suppress documentation of Uyghur genocide, but together they could provide access to both. In my view, this is vastly preferable to shuttling the entire world’s information ecosystem and digital surveillance hubs under the sole jurisdiction of the United States — a country that is far closer to the precipice of authoritarianism than many of my legal and policy colleagues acknowledge in their daily work.