TikTok’s hideous hall of mirrors is a cancer in our culture – David Behrens

It was only a matter of time before someone directed a legal arsenal at the social media monsters around whom our lives now seem to revolve. But no-one expected the first shot to be fired from Ilkley.

Anne Longfield at her home in Ilkley.
Anne Longfield at her home in Ilkley.

Anne Longfield, the former children’s commissioner for England, lives there, and it is she who is behind the latest attempt to clip the wings of these predatory vultures – or, better still, shoot them clean out of the sky.

Her point is that the questionable tactics of social platforms like TikTok – to which peer pressure has driven an estimated 3.5m under-13s in this country alone – has compromised their privacy and that of their families. Personal information, says Ms Longfield, has been taken without warning and reused without their parents’ consent.

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I hope the courts will throw the book at TikTok – though even the largest fine will create barely a ripple in the ocean of their multinational revenue – but I hope too that this test case will set off an avalanche of others, and not just at this one company. For the truth is that TikTok is merely at the tip of an iceberg of insidious and antisocial behaviour which, taken together, is a cancer at the heart of our social culture.

The TikTok app on a smartphone.

I say this not as some decrepit technophobe – only one of those labels is accurate – but as a computer evangelist who embraced the online world earlier than most and made a decent living out of it for two decades. But I always liked to think I could tell the difference between a technical innovation that was useful to me and one that was merely a passing bandwagon to jump on board until the next one came along. Under-13s do not have the same powers of discernment.

TikTok is the 21st century equivalent of one of those cheap charm bracelets you used to find in seaside slot machines; a trinket that glitters briefly before the eye but is ultimately useless. It allows its users to make short videos on their phones, which typically involve dancing. These are then copied and shared, and popularity measured in viewing figures.

That’s fine if you’re Anton Du Beke, but not if you’re an impressionable pre-teenager.

The particular problem of TikTok, argues Ms Longfield, is its alleged noncompliance with the European data laws that are supposed to protect everyone’s privacy; the same rules which compel the rest of us to tick boxes we don’t understand before we’re even allowed to see the cricket scores. In 2018, when the rules were introduced, Facebook and Google were hit with £6bn lawsuits for their failure to comply.

But while the American companies have now adapted their offerings, the Chinese-owned TikTok has not, according to Ms Longfield’s lawyers. As a result, she now wants compensation for every one of its users.

Yet even the astronomical settlement she is seeking would not get to the heart of the problem with all these companies, which is not their readiness to collect personal data but to distort it. Information fed in by users is reflected back at them like some hideous hall of mirrors, encouraging and amplifying narcissism, sexism and every other conceivable ism.

Ms Longfield is not the only policymaker to recognise this. The House of Lords Committee on Digital Technologies has urged the Government to deal with what it says is a “pandemic of misinformation”, and a Commons Select Committee on digital media wants an “online harms” regulator appointed-.

After years of regulating our broadcast media, how has our system of checks and balances collapsed so spectacularly and so quickly? Put simply, it’s because neither parents nor politicians can keep pace with the viral spread of new technologies. Children are seduced by them. Adults who should know better are persuaded to keep their scepticism at bay, lest their colleagues think they are out of touch.

It is in places like Ilkley, amongst ordinary families who would not normally countenance antisocial behaviour, that these platforms are at their most Machiavellian. This is where seeds of discontent take root in susceptible users, where previously there were none. TikTok and Facebook know more about their young audiences than their own parents.

It is the perfect town from which to start a counter-revolution, and hats off to Anne Longfield for choosing to do it.

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