OPINION: As the old adage goes, knowledge is power. That’s why over the centuries, one of the first moves made in any power grab is taking control of the supply of information.
Until a few years ago, that meant control of the presses that enabled newspapers to be printed and of the radio and television airwaves.
But today the control of information is not as simple as issuing commands to newsrooms.
For many under-30s in particular, social media has become the primary source of information.
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In New Zealand, our social media focus is on United States-owned platforms, the likes of Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube.
But there is much more to social media than what the US produces.
Among the platforms popular in Asia are Japan’s Line; China’s WeChat, Weibo and Bilibili; South Korea’s Snow; and even Facebook-owned WhatsApp, which is particularly popular in Southeast Asia.
And the one hitting the headlines right now is short-form video app TikTok, which the US government has moved to ban.
The app, best known in New Zealand for comic videos, dance routines and Kiwi dads making school lunches, has become another instalment in the US-China trade war.
It’s a good reminder that while New Zealanders tend to think of meat and dairy when it comes to trade in goods, an increasing amount of trade these days is digital, technology services, entertainment, and information.
TikTok’s parent company is Beijing-based company ByteDance, which is subject to China’s intelligence and security laws.
In moving to ban it, the Trump administration cited concerns around national security and privacy issues.
India has already banned TikTok, citing similar concerns.
For its part, TikTok filed a legal challenge last week saying that the executive order was “not rooted in bona fide national security concerns” and accused Trump of using the ban to score political points against China. Later in the week, its chief executive Kevin Mayer resigned.
TikTok is hardly the first social media app to come out of Asia – but it’s arguably the first to become a global force. By April, the app had surpassed more than two billion downloads globally.
It has hit its stride in 2020, driven in part by users wanting to overcome some of the sense of isolation imposed by Covid-19. It has slightly different features to the Chinese version of the app, Douyin, which has its own ecommerce platform.
In the US, TikTok has more than 100 million active users, and its growth amongst young people is particularly strong.
The Trump administration has given ByteDance till November 12 to find an American buyer, with Microsoft said to be the most likely contender. A purchase would potentially also include the service in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
In addition to TikTok, the US has also moved to restrict messaging app WeChat, owned by Chinese company Tencent.
While a TikTok ban hits the domestic market of US users, a WeChat ban hits mainly Chinese-Americans.
In diasporic communities, it is often used to keep in touch with family and friends in China, where Google, Facebook and many other apps New Zealanders are familiar with cannot be accessed.
Hence, a group of WeChat users have responded by suing the Trump administration, claiming a ban would impinge of freedom of speech and other constitutional rights.
US companies have also raised concerns about the potential for negative impacts on their ability to reach Chinese consumers.
In New Zealand, WeChat is a key form of communication among Chinese communities. And it has increasingly been used by businesses for e-commerce, and by government agencies for communication with Chinese communities.
WeChat is the international “sister” of Weixin, which serves users in mainland China.
There, it is used for mobile payments, ordering taxis, keeping in touch with friends and family, appointments, and for contact-tracing.
Concerns have been raised that the platform has become so ubiquitous in daily life that it potentially gives authorities unprecedented levels of social control.
It was also the platform that Chinese “whistleblower” doctor Li Wenliang used to warn friends about Covid in a group chat in late December. A post that quickly circulated.
Social media is a force to be reckoned with, a democratised space where everyone can have a voice.
It has the power to bring people together, communicate important health and safety messages, and provide much-needed distraction in the time of a pandemic.
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And it can highlight injustices and mobilise movements. It can also, however, be used to control the narrative, as a source of information or misinformation.
TikTok may be the first Asia-grown social media platform to go truly global, but it won’t be the last. How governments around the world respond will have impacts on us here in New Zealand.
We may be used to watching developments in Silicon Valley but New Zealand businesses will increasingly need to keep an eye on tech trends coming out of Asia, because these apps are making their mark on the rest of the world.
How companies adjust to this new source of knowledge could well determine the powerhouses of the future.
Simon Draper is the executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Te Whītau Tūhono.