Historian Niall Ferguson’s article about TikTok claims the app plays a pivotal role in China’s imperial ambitions, an argument rendered instantly moot by his declaration that he, like us, doesn’t necessarily understand what it is.
And that’s OK. Niall Ferguson is a 56-year-old man. It’s normal to defer to a child to get the gist of TikTok before hanging China’s plans for world dominance around it, or comparing it to crack cocaine.
“I asked my eight-year-old son what I should look out for,” says Ferguson. “He recommended the dancing ferret. I never found it.” Maybe try typing “dancing ferret” into the search bar?
He might own up to his lack of expertise, but the historian still has a good swing at fusing a clickbait buzzword with his ten-a-penny geopolitical anxieties in a bid for relevance. We almost admire his hubris in flinging words like “inane” at a children’s app without fear of laceration beneath a shower of glass-house smithereens.
It’s not every day you get to see a former Harvard professor this carried away about something they appear to have only just heard of. “TikTok is not just China’s revenge for the century of humiliation between the Opium Wars and Mao’s revolution,” writes Ferguson, presumably in blood. “It is the opium – a digital fentanyl, to get our kids stoked for the coming Chinese imperium.”
He hypes up the sophistication of TikTok’s algorithms so much as to convince himself they brainwash western teens into “berating their parents for racism” – as if that would go amiss – in a way comparable to how “Chinese children denounced their parents for rightist deviance” during the Cultural Revolution. Downtime opened the app to check if he has a point, and was met with a Baby Looney Tunes Bernard Manning crudely mimicking Nigerians.