In the latest development of the “TikTok Ban” saga, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew appeared before the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Thursday, March 23. The hearings included a lot of large posters and grandstanding from lawmakers, similar to what executives at Twitter and Facebook have faced.
To briefly recap ... lawmakers and the White House have backed attempts to ban TikTok in the U.S. over growing national security concerns. This move against TikTok, which started in 2020, has resurfaced with the introduction of the No TikTok on United States Devices Act to prohibit the app from being downloaded on U.S. devices and to ban any commercial activity with TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance.
What Do Supporters of the Ban Say?
Both the FBI and Federal Communications Commission have warned that ByteDance could collect user data to share with China’s government. Although there is no evidence that TikTok or ByteDance have shared U.S. user data with the Chinese government, two main events elevated the level of concern that led to the introduction of the act:
- In 2017, China implemented a law requiring companies to give the government any personal data relevant to the company’s national security.
- In December 2022, ByteDance said it fired four employees who accessed data on two journalists from Buzzfeed News and The Financial Times while attempting to track down the source of a leaked report about the company.
Chew has previously stated that TikTok has not shared U.S. user data with the Chinese government, nor would it comply if asked to do so – a notion heavily questioned by Congress.
What’s the Latest?
On Tuesday, March 21, TikTok announced it hit 150 million users in the U.S. and called for support against the ban:
- In a company news post on its website, TikTok celebrated reaching 150 million active users in the U.S. (nearly half of the country).
- In the post, TikTok states it will proactively address U.S. national security concerns and that they have already set up safeguards for users in the U.S. In the last two years, TikTok has invested $1.5 billion in setting up TikTok U.S. Data Security.
- In the post, they announced the launch of the U.S. Data Security (USDS) Site aimed at providing transparency into their commitments and answering common questions around efforts to safeguard data. They are also asking users to share their appreciation for TikTok with their elected representatives.
On Thursday, March 23, Chew testified before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee in a crucial hearing that could decide the fate of the app in the U.S.:
- Chew addressed lawmakers’ concerns over data safety and content manipulation in his opening remarks, emphasizing steps taken by the company to protect user data. Chew cited Project Texas, an ongoing effort to keep all data on U.S. users within the U.S., through a partnership with Austin-based cloud computing company Oracle. Chew assured the lawmakers that TikTok will protect the U.S. data from unwanted foreign access, stating “TikTok will remain a place for free expression and will not be manipulated by any government.” At the same time, TikTok reiterated the statement on Twitter.
- Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., showed a TikTok video of an animated gun shooting bullets that appeared to target Rep. McMorris Rodgers, the committee chair. Cammack noted that TikTok’s community guidelines state that they have a firm stance against enabling violence, but that particular video had been up for 41 days. The video was taken down during the hearing, Chew later confirmed.
- Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., asked a series of questions about the spread of misinformation. Chew admitted that TikTok is not perfect but invests a significant amount in content moderation. DeGette said that his generalized statements are “not good enough.”
- When asked if ByteDance employees have spied on U.S. citizens in the past, Chew responded, “I don’t think ‘spying’ is the right way to describe it.”
- In a statement after the hearing, TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said that while Chew came prepared, the hearings were consumed by “political grandstanding that failed to acknowledge the real solutions already underway.” Oberwetter also criticized lawmakers who support the ban for not mentioning businesses who use and depend on the app or the First Amendment implications.
Since the hearings, TikTok has now claimed the top spot of app downloads in the U.S. It has also launched a campaign highlighting how TikTok has been a major asset for American entrepreneurs and small businesses and how a ban could impact those businesses. TikTok has also been in contact with key advertisers to address a variety of concerns.
It’s hard to say at this point what will become of TikTok in the U.S. Overall, lawmakers seemed unconvinced and unwilling to accept Chew’s responses with many questions coming off as decided accusations. Chew, on the other hand, mostly navigated questions by not making any definitive commitments. Overall, his arguments didn’t seem overly convincing or assuring to lawmakers. The March 23 hearings demonstrated the political tides are building on this issue. Whether that sort of grandstanding will actually disrupt a multi-billion-dollar business remains to be seen. In terms of perceived political influence, a full 25% of TikTok’s user base in the U.S. are aged 10-19, which is not the target audience for swaying the political landscape in the U.S.
There is certainly cause to believe Chew never had a chance either way. As tensions rise between the U.S. and China, TikTok may be caught in the middle of a much broader disagreement between the two nations. Further moves from China, specifically against the U.S., could force the White House to act.
As long as the audience and functionality of TikTok remain in place, TikTok should still be used “business as usual” - especially since most social influencer campaigns are short-term and would likely complete before a potential ban could be put into effect. For the long-term, other social platforms with similar audience makeups and video-sharing as their core capability should be considered, such as Instagram and YouTube. Many TikTok influencers have already begun to expand their content and strategy on these platforms to establish a back-up-plan if TikTok were to be banned. With social media platforms ever evolving with the times and trends, so should our strategies.