Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press. Views expressed here are his own.
It is common for critics of tech firms to reference the addictive qualities of the major social media platforms. But a recent proposed law designed to ban one such platform from operating in the United States entirely appears motivated at least in part by a particularly strong claim about such qualities that is circulating among Republican policymakers and other public figures on the right: the notion that TikTok is “digital fentanyl.”
In a December 13, 2022 press announcement for proposed legislation that would ban TikTok from operating in the United States– the Averting the National Threat of Internet Surveillance, Oppressive Censorship and Influence, and Algorithmic Learning by the Chinese Communist Party Act (ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act)– Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) used the phrase to characterize the social video platform:
TikTok is digital fentanyl that’s addicting Americans, collecting troves of their data, and censoring their news. It’s also an increasingly powerful media company that’s owned by ByteDance, which ultimately reports to the Chinese Communist Party – America’s foremost adversary. Allowing the app to continue to operate in the U.S. would be like allowing the U.S.S.R. to buy up the New York Times, Washington Post, and major broadcast networks during the Cold War. No country with even a passing interest in its own security would allow this to happen, which is why it’s time to ban TikTok and any other CCP-controlled app before it’s too late.
Rep. Gallagher may have adopted the phrase “digital fentanyl” from Republican Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr, who used it in a Fox News appearance on November 11, 2022.
At the end of the day, TikTok is China’s digital fentanyl. A lot of people look at TikTok and think it’s just a fun application for sharing dance videos or other funny videos. But that’s just the sheep’s clothing underneath of it – It operates as a very sophisticated surveillance app, and it’s not the videos, but it’s pulling everything from search and browsing history, potentially keystroke patterns, biometrics, including face prints, voice prints.
And Carr himself may have encountered the phrase in right-leaning discourse on TikTok. A Twitter search shows that it appears popular with right wing figures, such as Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams, who used it in a tweet in October. But it appears to have originated with conservative writer and historian Niall Ferguson, who may have first conjured the term in an August 2020 column in Bloomberg.
TikTok is not just China’s revenge for the century of humiliation between the Opium Wars and Mao’s revolution. It is the opium — a digital fentanyl, to get our kids stoked for the coming Chinese imperium.
Strong words! But is the metaphor accurate? I asked a handful of experts whether “digital fentanyl” is an appropriate way to describe a social platform that most people use to watch short, snappy videos that are often set to music.
Certainly, some regard social media generally as addictive, and reckon TikTok is a particularly potent format. Anna Lembke, Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine, chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic, and author of the book Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance In The Age of Abundance, referred to Tiktok as a “potent and addictive digital drug”:
I can’t speak to the surveillance piece mentioned in the article, but I can attest to the addictive nature of TikTok and other similar digital media. The human brain is wired to pay attention to novelty. One of the ways our brain gets us to pay attention to novel stimuli is by releasing dopamine, a reward neurotransmitter, in a part of the brain called the reward pathway. What TikTok does is combine a moving image, already highly reinforcing to the human brain, with the novelty of a very short video clip, to create a potent and addictive digital drug.
But is it comparable to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can bee 50-100 times stronger than morphine? Ofir Turel, a Professor of Information Systems Management in the School of Computing and Information Systems at the University of Melbourne who has researched the impact of social media use on the brain, regards the comparison as “a bit much and inaccurate”:
While there are similarities between substance and social media interaction with the brain, there are also important differences. I believe that while social media should certainly be criticized for its negative effects on users, comparing it to fentanyl is a bit much and inaccurate. Social media is like substances in that it can drive overconsumption and dependency and infringe upon normal functioning in other life domains. However, unlike fentanyl and other substances, social media can have positive uses and effect. In addition, it does not create neurotoxicity that harms the brain. But- certainly- criticism of social media practices and features are in order.
Likewise, Matthew Gentzkow, a Professor of Economics at Stanford University who has published numerous papers on digital addiction and social media, as well as on the drivers of opioid abuse, says he is unaware of specific research that would substantiate the use of the phrase:
Credible research on the impact of TikTok is still quite limited. I haven’t seen any evidence establishing harms from TikTok that are comparable to those from fentanyl.
Indeed, the comparison would appear to diminish the dangers of fentanyl itself, says Jay Van Bavel, Associate Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at New York University and Director of the Social Identity & Morality Lab:
I have very serious concerns about social media but I would not call it “digital fentanyl”. In 2021, fentanyl and fentanyl analogues accounted for the most drug overdose deaths in the United States, with 71,238 deaths. To my knowledge social media did not directly cause a single death. So this is a metaphor meant to create a sense of panic, but it’s not accurate from any scientific standpoint. However, lots of research suggests social media use can harm people and society. The effects are usually more indirect (e.g., by creating anxiety or spreading misinformation).
The metaphor I prefer is an unhealthy diet, because it doesn’t require thinking about social media as an addiction and can reveal significant individual and societal harm. I also think it maps better onto the psychology of social media use which is designed to appeal to human nature (e.g., our innate social desires and preferences). Food companies engineer fatty and sugary foods (which our species strongly prefers because they are rich in calories) to make people consume an unhealthy diet for profit, which harms individual health and has created an obesity epidemic. In the same way, tech companies engineer social media platforms (which our species strongly prefers because it allows us to gain social connection and status) to make people consume an unhealthy information diet for profit, which harms individuals and has broader negative consequences for society.
More research and access to platform data is necessary to study the addictive qualities of platforms such as TikTok. And, security and privacy concerns related to TikTok are worthy of consideration, and potentially legislative action; though many of the concerns raised in the ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act— such as surveillance and the potential acquisition of sensitive user data by a Chinese company– might better be addressed through comprehensive privacy legislation, such as the American Data Privacy and Protection Act. Even if TikTok disappeared from American phones tomorrow, the Chinese government or loyal private sector entities could simply buy data on American citizens from brokers on the open market.
But the use of phrases like “digital fentanyl” might suggest some lawmakers and talking heads are more interested in an incendiary turn of phrase than an accurate assessment of the dangers of TikTok, or threats to the mental health and privacy of American citizens more generally.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.