by Emanuel Pietrobon

TikTok is the most controversial and discussed video sharing app of the moment. Created by the Chinese company ByteDance, and linked to the People's Liberation Army, TikTok has received many accusations since 2020, the year in which, abetted by the COVID19 pandemic, its unstoppable climb to the top of global social media began.

The app has been accused of playing a key role as a super-amplifier of misinformation, anger and conspiracy theories, just to name the most famous cases, during the pandemic emergency, the 2020 U.S. presidential elections - 347,225 videos containing election misinformation/disinformation and media manipulation uncovered/deleted in the second part of 2020, plus another 441, 028 shadowbanned for the same reasons -, the war in Ukraine and the French banlieue riots of June-July 2023 - which, according to Emmanuel Macron, were exacerbated by 24/7 coverage and lack of filters on videos uploaded by rioters, inherent in pyrotechnic assaults on police stations and looting of supermarkets, which would have stimulated the urge to emulate.

Regarding Ukraine, the "first war fought on TikTok," in the first year and a half of fighting, according to GMF research, only an infinitesimal part of the Moscow-linked disinformation network, consisting of twenty-two profiles, had an engagement of more than 114 million likes. But Kiev has also invested in conducting informational and psychological operations on TikTok, a platform that has been used to win the war of narratives, popularize war myths-such as the ghost of Kiev-and even instruct civilians in DIY resistance.

The above cases, which are not the only ones, seem to indicate that the application is or can easily become a super-psyop capable of interfering in electoral processes, fueling waves of instability, chronicling disinfodemics, and influencing the mood/values of users. Secrets to this enormous potential, which makes TikTok the most effective and efficient psycho-digital weapon around, are its intrusive data collection and unique algorithm.

The way TikTok collects, analyzes, and militarizes big data - the set of users' tastes, preferences, and values - is the reason the app ended up at the center of the strategic competition between the United States and China. Because big data are the key to getting inside people's minds. They are a tool for shaping the world.

TikTok, between election interference and brain interference

38.5 million results. This is the size of the worry about the repercussions that prolonged use of TikTok might have on intelligence that shines through by querying Google with a simple "Does TikTok make you dumber?" Concern that, medical research in hand, is not at all unfounded.

Experiments in the pediatric community, which is particularly interested in the impact of TikTok on the brains of younger users, have supported the psychological super-operation hypothesis: John Hutton of Cincinnati Children's Hospital described the app as a "dopamine machine," a joint study from Western Michigan University and Guizhou University of Finance and Economics showed a correlation between prolonged exposure to short videos and development of forms of addiction, research from the Technical University of Denmark found a causal relationship between time spent on the app and shortening of attention span.

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A person who spends more than ninety minutes a day on TikTok, whether it is for professional reasons or whether it is for leisure, boredom, or addiction, is more likely to self-inflict brain damage than those who use other social media or those who do not use social media at all: increased difficulties related to stress management, erosion of attention and concentration skills, worsening of short-term memory, and development of behavioral problems caused by narcissistic and instant gratification tendencies.

TikTok would be negative affecting young people's ability to perform activities requiring prolonged focus, directed attention, because it interferes with that portion of the brain responsible for decision-making and impulse control: the prefrontal cortex. A brain area that does not fully develop until the age of twenty-five and in so-called "tiktokized brains" matures halfway, damaged, resulting in slow reasoning/calculation and abnormally low attentional skills.

Dumbing down to manipulate

The tiktokized brain is a kind of atrophied thinking and calculation machine, from which the main speed gears have been removed, and is an ideal target for cognitive influence operations. For the slowing down of cognitive functions is nothing but "induced intoxication."

In cognitive wars, which aim at a Sun-Tzu style "victory without combat", induced intoxication can be an end in itself as well as the propaedeutic stepping stone to prolonged mental manipulation: so-called misaligned coherent thinking. This kind of mental manipulation of the most fragile and youthful users, in the case of TikTok, is carried out through a torrential rain of frivolous competitions (the infamous "challenges") and psychological operations disguised as humorous content, seemingly devoid of ulterior motives, which act as a firepower capable of breaking down mental defense barriers by saturation.

The potential of the aforementioned shower of high-cognitive-impact content, which in Western countries struggles to be fully realized - the TikTok issue here is more considered about espionage and data collection - is the subject of growing debate in the rest of the world. The latest country to ban the app from its market was Kyrgyzstan, not exactly a China rival, which described the move as a due act to protect the mental health of young people.

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Geopolitical analyst, foreign policy consultant and author. Graduate in Area and global studies for international cooperation (University of Turin), educated between Italy, Poland, Portugal and Russia. Specialized in hybrid warfare, Latin American issues and post-Soviet space.