Bipartisan Criticism Opens the Door to a Total TikTok Ban
TikTok’s CEO spent five grueling hours at a congressional hearing this week trying unsuccessfully to quiet concerns about the security of the popular social media site. Lawmakers are considering a ban on the platform owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy signaled support for a ban.
One of the most pointed moments in the lengthy hearing came when Florida GOP Congresswoman Kat Cammack displayed a TikTok video show a firing gun and a reference to Washington Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee that held the hearing. News report indicated the video was taken down during the hearing.
To the American people watching today, TikTok is a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party.
Rodgers opened the hearing by saying, “To the American people watching today, TikTok is a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party. A ban is only a short-term way to address TikTok.”
Committee members peppered Shou Chew, TikTok’s chief executive, about content moderation and “nefarious” leaks to Chinese intelligence agents. Chew said U.S. user data would be stored on “American soil” and kept off limits from Chinese governmental officials. He said TikTok doesn’t censor posts and has tools in place to limit the time teenagers can spend on the app.
His assurances didn’t resonate with committee members from both sides of the aisle. Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Delaware, said, “I came here hoping to hear some actions that would alleviate some of our concerns and our fears,” but remained unconvinced.
According to Texas GOP Congressman August Pfluger, Chew did accomplish something. “You have unified Republicans and Democrats, if only for a day, because we have serious concerns.”
Observers said the contentious hearing was a rough inaugural outing for Chew, who has met privately with lawmakers, but declined interviews and public appearances until now. For his part, Chew said the hearing felt “xenophobic”. TikTok paid for some of its top U.S. content creators to come to Washington, D.C. to express support for the platform. Several said their influencer posts enabled them to make a living.
One-Man Opposition to a Ban
New York Democratic Congressman Jamaal Bowman made a one-man stand in defense of TikTok. “Why the hell are we whipping ourselves into a hysteria to scapegoat TikTok?” he told reporters. Bowman, who posts short videos on TikTok about topics such as Alaska oil drilling and his favorite hip-hop songs, claimed the issue of security leaks was “warped by Washington groupthink”. A former middle school principal, Bowman says TikTok, which has 150 million users, is a valuable way to communicate with young people about serious issues.
Ana Swanson, who reports on trade and international economics for The Washington Post, tweeted that, This hearing feels to me like a potential turning point in terms of the scrutiny that Chinese companies receive in the United States. We’ve been hearing for years about a decoupling between the United States and China, but it’s really just begun.”
She further noted, “Quite a few well-known brands in the U.S. are Chinese owned: Volvo, the game developer Riot Games, GE Appliances, the pork producer Smithfield Foods. China also produces the majority of global goods like car batteries, solar panels, toys, some key medicines and much of our fast fashion.”
“Given the size and profitability of the American and Chinese markets, most global companies have tried to keep operating in both,” Swanson observed. “But as this hearing shows, companies are increasingly having to choose a side or risk a lot of negative publicity. Naming and shaming companies with ties to China is also going to be a big focus for the new Select Committee on China that has been set up in the House.”
President Biden has banned TikTok from government-provided phones and devices. He has encouraged ByteDance to divest its U.S. version of TikTok, noting as President he lacks the authority to ban the platform outright. The Chinese government has opposed a TikTok sale.
Many of the congressional critiques of TikTok centered on problematic content that can go viral, a trait shared by many other social media platforms. TikTok barbs included its role in promoting the blackout challenge, spreading videos sympathetic to suicide and allowing illicit drug sales. Washington Democratic Congresswoman Kim Schrier criticized TikTok for being “addictive”. Ali Breland, writing for Mother Jones, said, “Social media companies in their current form can’t exist without producing this kind of deleterious content.” Efforts to moderate and remove this content on TikTok and other platforms, “even with literal armies of moderators across the world”, have fallen short and most likely never could fully succeed, Breland says. The difference between TikTok and other platforms is that it has the best algorithm to spread content widely.
Project Texas Drew a Blank
TikTok’s counter-offer to Biden was branded as Project Texas that centered on technical features, but fell short of divestiture from its Chinese parent company. In his testimony, Chew insisted TikTok is independent, but admitted he is in regular contact with ByteDance officials and refused to say how much of TikTok’s revenue flows to its owner. Texas Republican Congressman Michael Burgess asked Chew whether ByteDance officials coached his congressional testimony. ByteDance has confirmed its employees have retrieved data from U.S. users of TikTok.
Swanson also offered some historical context, noting “the Chinese government blocked U.S. internet companies like YouTube, Facebook and others more than a decade ago. That set the stage for the rapid growth of companies like WeChat, Alibaba and TikTok.”
Utah Enacts Social Media Controls
Utah Governor Spencer Cox signed into law two measures that require parental consent before children under 18 can go onto social media sites such as TikTok and Instagram and prohibits their access to the sites between 10:30 pm and 6:30 am.
Arkansas, Texas, Ohio and Louisiana have similar measures under consideration. California enacted legislation last year barring technology companies from profiling children and using their information in ways that could cause physical or mental harm.