The word “idiot” has a fascinating etymology: it comes from the Greek διώτης (idiōtēs), meaning an individual or private citizen, as opposed to someone holding a public office.
From there, the word evolved through Latin to refer to somebody with no education or lacking in professional skills, and on into French as stupid, and then, following the Normand conquest, was used in English to mean somebody who was mentally deficient. By the mid-twentieth century, a television was being referred to as the idiot box.
In the third decade of the 21st century, a Chinese company has designed an application based on an algorithm that has addicted millions of young people in the West, who spend several hours a day scrolling through short videos. But in China itself, it is used very differently, and instead hosts educational content; what’s more, children and adolescents are restricted to using it for just 40 minutes a day. That should give us pause for thought, especially if we are talking about a country that considers itself historically wronged by the West for a specific episode, the so-called Opium Wars, which occurred during what they call the “century of humiliation”, and in which China was forced to accept imports of opium that idiotized millions of people, turning them into addicts.
Readers who are unaware of this episode in China’s history may dismiss my fears as a conspiracy theory, but whichever way you look at it, ByteDance is not merely a Chinese social media company, and is instead being used by the Chinese government to gain control and influence in the West. The separation between the product in China (Douyin) and its Western equivalent (TikTok), the rigid controls designed to avoid harm to Chinese youth and the drive to turn it into a search engine and a supplier of news and disinformation for certain segments of the population has led several countries or states to investigate ByteDance or directly ban its use on official phones or computers.
What makes TikTok different is that it is based on machine learning designed specifically to hook users with content so that they spend hours and hours on it each day. This highly efficient approach is prompting other networks to imitate it: predicting the videos that will feed people’s need so that they keep scrolling endlessly, spending a good part of their time doing nothing else in the mistaken belief that what they are really doing is finding news or getting useful information, when in reality they are merely being dumbed down, wasting their time, and interacting with other groups of people who are just as idiotized as they are.
In short, machine learning applied to distract people. Add geolocation and user characterization to the mix, and we have a perfect weapon able to influence the West, which, as in the case of opium in the 19th century, cannot be banned, for fear of the wrath of those with an interest in consuming it. Beijing’s goal is clearly to undermine Western society by controlling the news and content young people consume, shaping their attitudes and views on a wide range of issues, and making their only aim in life to create a viral video.
If you’re a parent and still believe TikTok is just a fun social network for kids to create funny videos; wake up. They’re probably already using it as a source of information and wider content. I’m not being alarmist: take a look yourself at TikTok and make your own mind up if you want your children to join the growing ranks of idiots in our society.
This post was previously published on MEDIUM.COM.
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