Joseph Yi Zheng Lian, NY Times - The threat from TikTok and WeChat

Joseph Yi Zheng Lian, NY Times
The threat from TikTok and WeChat


My old friend Danny Schecter, the legendary “news dissector” who was a widely admired television news producer, filmmaker, media critic, blogger, professor and author entitled his first book The More You Watch, The Less You Know.

Towards the end of his life – Danny passed in 2015, he realized, over the 20 years since he wrote, the problem had gotten much worse.  Now, the more you watch, not just on TV, but on your computer or smartphone screen, the more you think you know.  And much of that is utterly untrue.

Back in the day, Danny and I met at 20/20 in 1978 or nine the misinformation on TV news was mostly reductive, stories reduced from three to two to less than on and a half minutes, their reality reduced to caricatures.

But today, the problem is no longer a plate of news that skimps on the meat, it’s that everything on your info-plate has not only been poisoned, it’s been cooked up just for you.

Because the more you watch, the more they know about you. That’s how Cambridge Analytica worked for Donald Trump in 2016.

It designed thousands of political messages, many of them wild, disproved conspiracy theories, many simply hyper-nationalist dog-whistles, and sent them to millions of people billions of times via social media. They sent them in selected packages to people selected as most likely to believe the lies.

The key to this manipulation machine is data that defines the audience, that knows, each-by-each, what they like to buy as consumers and as citizens.

Cambridge Analytica armed Brad Parscale’s Trump campaign team to inflame some voters to get them to the polls or depress other voters so they’d stay home. They got their data by pillaging Facebook.

I don’t know where the Russians got their data for their well-documented directed disinformation campaigns in 2016, or how they’ve updated their targeting info for 2020, but almost everyone says they’re at it again.  That is almost everyone except Donald Trump.  He’s focused on digital influence, not from Russia, but from Iran and China.

Preventing a Chinese psy-ops social media triumph is the goal motivating the Trump administration’s various bans and restrictions on the Chinese social networking sites TikTok and WeChat.  TikTok features very short videos, often of dancing.  WeChat is a messaging service depended on by Americans with family or business connections in China. Pretty benign stuff, you might think, but remember, the more you TikTok and WeChat, the more they know about you.

Extreme narcissists like President Trump are known to see an excessive number of other people as enemies, but some of those alleged enemies can be real.  Our guest today, the distinguished journalist and economics professor Joseph Yi-Zheng Lian says Mr. Trump is right, both TikTok and WeChat are legitimate threats to American national security.


Joseph Yi-zheng Lian is a commentator on Hong Kong and Asian affairs for the NY Times and a professor of economics at Yamanashi Gakuin University in Japan.  He had been a regular columnist and chief editor for the Hong Kong Economic Journal, but was fired after writing critically about the Beijing Government’s interference in Hong Kong local political freedoms.



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