TikTok Containment meets "The threat of a good example": Inversion gets more than 15 seconds of fame

  • Marcus Breen


When President Donald Trump proposed to ban the Chinese social media platform TikTok on national security grounds on August 6, 2020, it marked a pivotal moment in the interaction between many contending layers of political life. Cojoined in a register of nationalist rhetoric, US national policies cross-referenced geopolitics, and the history of international competition and cooperation in global trade flows with and against China. As such, the proposed ban gave credit to the ancient popular Chinese saying: “Things that oppose each other also complement each other” (Ban Gu nd: 84). More precisely, when seen through the lens of digital networking, Trump’s announcement marked an inversion of the un-assailed US domination of all things digital. In so doing, it marked a challenge to the overdetermination of technology by the United States against the emergence of a new, more complex set of forces operating through the digital or virtual sphere as well as every other level of human activity, given that so much of life has become defined by communication technologies. The Chinese model had arrived via the internet. This model, drawing on state planning for a managed economy that addresses the entirety of the Chinese population in a program of socialist development– provoked the ban on TikTok and, as such, operates as an example of the narrow US commitment to dominate the world with its communication technology. The resulting landscape is one in which communication is revealed as central to the continuing dialectic of human history through the collision between China as TikTok and the US as a national security state. Donald Trump’s announced bans on TikTok exposed this contradiction, illustrating how the inversion of the global power structure was constituted by the complementary energy of digital interaction.