TikTok is ramping up a PR campaign to fend off the possibility of a nationwide ban by US President Joe Biden’s administration, and it’s bringing some unconventional advocates to the rescue: online influencers.
Dozens of TikTok creators — some with millions of followers on the video-sharing app — took to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to lobby in favor of the platform, a day before lawmakers plan to grill the company’s CEO over concerns about user data falling into the hands of the Chinese government.
Shou Zi Chew plans to tell the US Congress on Thursday that TikTok, which was founded by Chinese entrepreneurs and has 150 million US users, is committed to user safety, data protection and security and keeping the platform free from Chinese government influence.
He will also answer questions from US lawmakers concerned about the social media platform’s effects on its young user base.
At the heart of TikTok’s problems is a Chinese national intelligence law that would force Chinese companies to hand over data to the government for purposes that could compromise national security. There is also concern that Beijing could push pro-Chinese narratives or misinformation through the platform.
At a media event coordinated by TikTok on Wednesday, some content creators acknowledged that the data security concerns are legitimate, but pointed out the precautions the company is taking. This includes a $1.5 billion plan — dubbed Project Texas — to route all US data to domestic servers owned and maintained by software giant Oracle.
TikTok has tried to sell that proposal to the Biden administration, but skeptics have argued it doesn’t go far enough. The government is reportedly demanding that the company’s Chinese owners sell their shares or face a nationwide ban.
Janette Ok, a fashion and beauty influencer on TikTok, said in an interview Wednesday that TikTok invited her to the lobbying event a few weeks ago and paid for her trip to Washington, DC.
She has been able to make a full-time career out of her videos and earned income through partnerships with brands seeking to capture the attention of her 1.7 million followers. She said that her popularity on TikTok has also given her other opportunities such as TV and commercial acting roles.
“I don’t know much about politics, but I know a lot about fashion and I know a lot about people,” Ok said. “And just to be here and share my story is what TikTok invited me to do.”
Tensions surrounding TikTok have been building on Capitol Hill, reaching a boiling point late last year when a proposal to ban the app on government phones passed with bipartisan support and was signed by President Biden.
Republicans in the House of Representatives are pushing for a bill that would give Biden the power to ban the app.
Other bills have also been introduced — some bipartisan — including a measure that would sidestep challenges the administration would face in court if it continued with sanctions against the social media company.
The effort to target TikTok is part of a larger, tougher approach taken by Congress in recent months as China’s relationship with two US adversaries — Russia and Iran — has entered the picture. A recent spy balloon incident even forced some wary Democrats in Congress to join Republicans in the opposition.
There is now a strong bipartisan concern in Washington, DC that Beijing would use legal and regulatory power to seize US user data or use TikTok to spread favorable stories or misinformation.
But the company has also received backing from at least three progressive lawmakers who say they oppose a ban on the platform. At a press conference on Wednesday with the influencers, Representative Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat, characterized national security concerns that have been brought up as xenophobic hysteria due to TikTok’s Chinese heritage.
He said if Congress wants to have an “honest” conversation about data collection, it should focus on a national privacy law that would cover all social media companies, not just TikTok.
“Usually when there’s a national security issue, they hold a bipartisan briefing on that specific topic,” Bowman said. “We have not received a bipartisan congressional briefing on TikTok’s national security risk.”
TikTok’s response to the political pressure can be seen all over the Capitol, with the company posting ads at area airports and subway stations that contain promises about securing users’ data and privacy and creating a safe platform for its young users .
Last year, the company spent more than $5.3 million sending lobbyists to the Hill to make its case, according to Open Secrets, a nonprofit organization that tracks lobbying expenses.
On Thursday, Chew, a 40-year-old Singaporean who was named CEO in 2021, will stick to a familiar script as he urges officials not to pursue a blanket ban on TikTok or sell the company to new owners.
TikTok’s efforts to ensure the security of its users’ data goes “above and beyond” what all of its rivals do, according to Chew’s prepared remarks released ahead of his appearance before the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
“Let me say this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Chew will say.
He will distance TikTok from its Chinese roots and deny the “inaccurate” belief that TikTok’s corporate structure makes it “beholden to the Chinese government”. ByteDance has grown into a private “global company,” Chew says, with 60 percent owned by large institutional investors, 20 percent owned by the Chinese entrepreneurs who founded it, and the rest owned by employees.
That TikTok sends data about its US users to Beijing is “emphatically untrue,” he will say.
“TikTok has never received a request to share U.S. user data with the Chinese government,” says Chew. “TikTok would also not honor such a request if one were ever made.”
A TikTok ban, according to Chew’s declassified comments, would hurt the US economy and small US businesses that use the app to sell their products, while reducing competition in an “increasingly concentrated market”.
Chew adds that a sale “does not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access.”