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A rising great power fills the ports of a decaying empire with its merchants and goods. Its ambassadors mock the diplomatic and political traditions of their hosts and refuse to be bound by them. Soon, the great power is openly allowing poisonous drugs to be pushed on the old empire’s streets, refusing to do anything to stop their spread. China in 1839? Or Britain and America in 2023?
A century and a half on from Britain’s wicked traffic in soul-destroying drugs, ruthless imperial commerce is wreaking its revenge on the West. Britain’s primary motive in the Opium Wars was of course profit, but one can wonder if British leaders were happy to pump sedatives into Chinese veins, rendering a once formidable civilisation easy prey for economic exploitation.
The modern version of this grim imperial politics is played out in many of the old ways of course — China’s always lacklustre cooperation with US counter-narcotic operations ceased in 2020 — and China has been a major source of the synthetic opioid fentanyl in America, contributing to 80,000 opioid overdose deaths in 2021 alone.
But as well as more prosaic poisons, China has been happy for the social media platform TikTok to explode into the Western internet — even as it remains inaccessible within China itself. Although TikTok (like many Chinese-based tech services) is seen by some, including US Cyber Command, as a cybersecurity risk, it is the content, not the potential snooping, that poses the greatest danger.
TikTok takes all the most destructive tendencies of social media and pushes them to the extreme. Heavily targeted at children, it has created an audience that reports experiencing stress at videos longer than a minute in length. One third of users watch TikTok videos at double speed. The algorithm operates on an especially marked feedback model — the “garbage in, garbage out” approach.
Start to watch highly sexualised content, videos featuring self harm, suicide, eating disorders or gender dysphoria, and you will soon be fed more videos on these topics. The process is also highly memetic, playing on our most basic instinct to copy what we see.
Last month, tourists and shoppers were horrified by the sudden appearance of hundreds of teenagers attempting to loot businesses on Oxford Street. The mystery was soon solved — the robbery was inspired by messages on TikTok. This was civil disorder by flashmob. Organising hundreds of people to break the law at once is an effective way to get away with theft, but it’s often just as much about performativity. Mizzy rose to notoriety in his pursuit of social media stardom.
But more disturbing than the destruction is the self-destruction inspired via TikTok. Apart from spreading eating disorders and depression by social contagion, it has spread far more improbable mental illnesses. Thanks to “awareness-rasing” content and influencers, there are now thousands of teenagers self-diagnosing with ADHD, autism, Tourettes, multiple-personality disorder and other rare conditions. Other TikTok influencers promote the “child-free” lifestyle, turning the choice not to reproduce into a mix of political movement and spiritual ideal. Proponents range from the idiotic but innocuous (one woman went viral boasting about being able to sleep in) to the sinister and anti-social — with one user celebrated in the leftwing press for promoting “child-free” public spaces.
TikTok may not be snorted, smoked or injected, but it’s just as spiritually lethal to Western culture as any drug. Especially targeted at children, it promotes mental illness, self-harm, infertility, triviality and despair. It makes us victims of our worst instincts. If Western countries don’t want our own century of humiliation, it’s time we chucked the whole horrible platform into the sea — or its nearest digital equivalent.