Inside China's Plot To Turn America's Teens Into Chipotle Influencers
Read to the end for a really good song about rats and bears
First Up, Trump Vs. TikTok
Last Friday, news broke that Trump was planning to order Chinese AI company Bytedance to sell TikTok’s US operations or face a ban in the States. Contrary to what I assumed, it was not because TikTok witches recently hexed the moon. A quick aside, but apparently a bunch of people who have had their brains turned to mashed potatoes by #Resistance Twitter did become genuinely convinced over the weekend that Trump wanted to ban TikTok because of that comedian that does lip syncs of his speeches, which is extremely 🥴.
Here’s my favorite take on Trump trying to ban TikTok.
Depending on what your socio-economic status is, TikTok is either an extremely embarrassing lipsyncing app for anime cosplayers, a place for members of the US military to kill time, or a highly sophisticated Chinese artificial intelligence built to help popular American teenagers get Chipotle sponsorships. It also has this:
The TikTok Algorithm Problem™️
If you’re looking for a good summary of all of the issues at play here, I recommend Casey Newton’s The Interface newsletter from last week. The big news is that TikTok is reportedly planning to allow regulators to inspect their algorithm amid fears of Chinese data harvesting. Newton writes:
The company told me that while it would make its source code open for review, it would not share information about individual users with reviewers for privacy reasons. But it will give reviewers insight into the signals the app takes into account when choosing which videos to promote — a move that, the company hopes, will dispel fears that it will be used to push propaganda or influence campaigns at the direction of the Chinese Communist Party.
Yes, TikTok’s algorithms are extremely powerful and its relationship to Beijing is extremely concerning, but is TikTok any more terrifying than Facebook or YouTube? Also, even if the app is sold to Microsoft, are we really supposed to immediately be fine with TikTok’s data collection because now an American company is doing it?
Here’s another good take:
It’s also worth noting that while the US media is extremely interested in picking apart what all of this means for TikTok, it’s worth noting Trump’s ban will impact other Chinese apps like WeChat, as well, which will have a profound effect on how the Chinese diaspora in America communicates with their loved ones back in China.
A Tale Of Two TikToks
I saw this tweet going around during the initial phase of America’s TikTok moral panic last month. So, I did some digging around and, sure enough, it wasn’t hard to find kids teaching each other how to get on Douyin.
If you aren’t familiar with Douyin, it’s a TikTok-like app also made by Bytedance that is only available in China. Think of it as a sister app. My personal theory is that the fundamental problem with TikTok’s international relations is that it is basically impossible for Americans to wrap their heads around the difference between TikTok and Douyin.
I’d describe TikTok’s general press response as “exasperated” when asked about the relationship between the two apps. Which makes sense, Douyin isn’t a Chinese version of TikTok, it’s a different app that is not available in the US! But it is largely the same — short videos, an algorithmic recommendation feed, hashtags, challenges, cute video filters, and an emphasis on dubbing, dancing, and lipsyncing. (Douyin also publishes official push alerts for the Communist Party Of China 😬.)
Last December, while I was in Beijing, a driver who agreed to take me to The Great Wall spent the entire car ride enthusiastically showing me Douyin videos he had saved to his phone’s camera roll. His favorite one was a video of him doing cartwheels on the Great Wall set to a famous Chinese ballad. It seems like a cool app!
We’ve still got a little over a month before we have any clarity on Tiktok’s future. So in the meantime, let’s focus on what really matters…
The TikTok Influencer Stolen Valor Scandal
There’s a lot going on here, so buckle up. A 20-year-old influencer named Sebastian Bails is currently being accused of stolen valor (it’s a crime for anyone to fraudulently claim they served in the military) after he uploaded a video saying he was enlisting.
Bails is technically a makeup artist, but from what I can tell, he’s basically one those deeply cursed prank influencers and the bulk of his content focuses on the “relationship” he has with his “girlfriend” Lauren Godwin. He terrorizes her in most of his videos, but it’s all really scripted and Godwin appears to be extremely in on the joke. I actually saw her speak at a panel at VidCon last year and she seemed funny and weird in a cool way, so I’m not totally clear why she’s hitched her wagon to Bails. Here’s a good rundown of their whole deal from NBC News reporter Kalhan Rosenblatt.
Bails apparently went too far with this “pranks” though in his now-deleted video, titled, “Joining the Army PRANK on Girlfriend! We Both Cried,” which he uploaded a clip from to TikTok, writing, “finally revealing a secret I’ve been hiding… I’m joining the military and leaving this whole life behind.”
As I wrote above, TikTok is really popular with service members. When the army banned the app last year, it was a big deal. Soldiers are still using it, of course. A Garbage Day reader recently sent me a deeply upsetting TikTok video that appears to have been filmed by active drone operator. With visible OpSec details on a computer screen in the shot! I’m not linking to it because I’m not sure if it’s legit, but apparently, it’s not the only drone operator TikTok video out there.
Know Your Meme has a good collection of all the angry videos about Bails that various TikTokers were making. Bails gave a statement to The TikTok Shade Room a few days later that is just 🙏🏻🙌🏻 fantastic: “If it’s so bad to wear this costume then why does Party City sell it?”
Hell yeah, king.
Look, if TikTok actually is a CCP psyop and Beijing’s plan to erode America’s authority on the world stage is to use TikTok to turn all of Gen Z into sociopathic influencers maybe the app IS too dangerous to allow in the US.
One Last Good TikTok
Before You Go, Here’s Something Else Entirely
And Finally, Here’s A Good Meme
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P.S. here’s a really good song about rats and bears.
***All typos in this email are on purpose actually***