Since hitting the app store in 2017, millions have downloaded TikTok, the “social” video media platform. It’s since become the most popular app ever created. Instagram is adapting its algorithms and layout to emulate its looming rival, and kids too young to read are scrolling through videos that range from the ridiculous to the crass to the semi-pornographic.
A friend of mine, who no longer has the app, commented that when he did have it downloaded, he spent hours on it before at night before falling asleep. “It would be ten or eleven o’clock and then I’d check my watch it would be, like, four a.m,” he said. “It was bad.”
TikTok is owned by the Chinese video-sharing company ByteDance. While many have pointed out that the app poses a potential security threat, allowing China to mine American data and information, the biggest harm might just come from TikTok being what it is: an incredibly addictive and stupefying form of media.
A writer who goes by “Gurwinder” on his Substack page recently posted a detailed and insightful account of why TikTok has been so successful, what it’s doing to our minds, and further, how it could handicap an entire generation. He calls TikTok “a weapon of mass distraction,” writing,
Advances in the understanding of positive reinforcement, driven mostly by people trying to get us to click on links, have now made it possible to consistently give people on the other side of the world dopamine hits at scale. As such, pleasure is now a weapon; a way to incapacitate an enemy as surely as does pain. And the first pleasure-weapon of mass destruction may just be a little app on your phone called TikTok.”TikTok is a Chinese Superweapon – by Gurwinder – The Prism (substack.com)
While warfare in the past was all about inflicting pain, influential technologies like TikTok make their conquest through pleasure and “positive reinforcement.” If you’ve read or have encountered the synopsis of Aldous Huxley’s 1932 dystopian novel Brave New World, such language will sound eerily familiar. In Huxley’s estimation, state powers would not have to rule by force but by hacking human psychology and making us pleasure machines—infants who just want more milk.
TikTok is specifically designed to “figure you out” and generate video feeds that keep you watching. You might protest and say that while Tiktok is certainly a distraction, isn’t YouTube and Netflix too? What’s unique about Tiktok? It’s a fair observation and one that I’ve wrestled with, too. Instagram feels like a close second to TikTok in addiction, especially now that it’s trying to imitate its competitor by throwing video clips on users’ feeds. But while those other apps harvest human attention in a similar way, TikTok has mastered the algorithm and is pummeling other dopamine machines in the app market.
Tiktok uses a proprietary algorithm, known simply as the For You algorithm, that uses machine learning to build a personality profile of you by training itself on your watch habits (and possibly your facial expressions.) Since a TikTok video is generally much shorter than, say, a YouTube video, the algorithm acquires training data from you at a much faster rate, allowing it to quickly zero in on you. The result is a system that’s unsurpassed at figuring you out. And once it’s figured you out, it can then show you what it needs to in order to addict you.”
This algorithm tends to favor the outlandish, the gross, and even the criminal types of content while banishing more thoughtful material to the margins of the app. The results aren’t pretty.
Tragic reports are in of a young girl who died trying the TikTok “choke challenge.” Two California girls reportedly passed away in like fashion. Gurwinder features a picture in his article of two women sipping some kind of ice cream float out of a toilet bowl. It’s enough to make one gag, but in light of the TikTok algorithm that rewards this kind of tantalization and virality, sadly fits the bill. Another trend involves literally stealing cars—all in service to the clout.
It’s frightful to think how much more insane and suicidal the TikTok world will become if this goes unabated. Gurwinder notes that while the Internet in general is correlated with attention and memory impairment, TikTok is like the methamphetamine of distraction:
If it’s the passive nature of online content consumption that causes atrophy of mental faculties, then TikTok, as the most passively used platform, will naturally cause the most atrophy.”
Given how mind-numbing the technology is and how easily people on the app commit tomfoolery and even atrocity, it isn’t so hard to reckon how TikTok could be weaponized. Not by pain, but by pleasure—by making the human brain respond to any message or image so long as it titillates and delights.
If millions of Americans continue to watch hours a day of mindless junk, millions of American minds will be junked. It’s so serious that China itself has limited the app domestically, but they see no issue in proliferating it elsewhere around the globe. They want to keep their heads.
While it may sound like alarmism to many, TikTok is a slow killer. It will take its time and incubate in the minds of the upcoming generation, turning the best and brightest into addicts who are so incapacitated by screens they will prefer fakeness to reality, and conspiracy to the truth.
We are well past the “culture of the word” and into a society dominated by images and impressions. Leaders, teachers, policymakers, and especially parents need to know what they’re up against and protect their kids accordingly. Western civilization might actually depend on it.