Representative Jeff Jackson of North Carolina has used it to explain the complex fight over raising the debt limit. Representative Robert Garcia of California has used it to engage with members of the LGBTQ+ community. And Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania has used it to give an overview of Election Day results.
As pressure against TikTok mounts in Washington, the more than two dozen members of Congress — all Democrats — who are active on the social media platform are being pushed by their colleagues to stop using it. Many defend their presence on the platform, saying they have a responsibility as public officials to meet Americans where they are — and more than 150 million are on TikTok.
“I’m sensitive to the ban and recognize some of the security implications. But there is no more robust and expeditious way to reach young people in the United States of America than TikTok,” Democratic Representative Dean Phillips of Minnesota told The Associated Press.
Yet the lawmakers active on TikTok remain a distinct minority. Most in Congress are in favor of limiting the app, forcing a sale to remove connections to China or even banning it outright. The U.S. armed forces and more than half of U.S. states have already banned the app from official devices, as has the federal government. Similar bans have been imposed in Denmark, Canada, Great Britain and New Zealand, as well as the European Union.
Criticism of TikTok reached a new level last week as CEO Shou Zi Chew testified for more than six hours at a contentious hearing in the House. Lawmakers grilled Chew about the implications of the app for America’s national security and the effect on the mental health of its users. And the tough questions came from both sides of the aisle, as Republicans and Democrats alike pressed Chew about TikTok’s content moderation practices, its ability to shield American data from Beijing and its spying on journalists.
“I’ve got to hand it to you,” said Representative August Pfluger, R-Texas, as members questioned Chew over data security and harmful content. “You’ve actually done something that in the last three to four years has not happened except for the exception of maybe (Russian President) Vladimir Putin. You have unified Republicans and Democrats.”
While the hearing made plain that lawmakers view TikTok as a threat, their lack of first-hand experience with the app was apparent at times. Some made inaccurate and head-scratching comments, seemingly not understanding how TikTok connects to a home Wi-Fi router or how it moderates illicit content.
Representative Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, who is active on the app and opposes a nationwide ban, called the hearing “cringeworthy.”
“It was just so painful to watch,” he told the AP on Friday. “And it just shows the real problem is Congress doesn’t have a lot of expertise, whether it be social media or, for that matter, more importantly, technology.”
Garcia, who said he uses TikTok more as a consumer, said most of his colleagues who are proposing a nationwide ban told him they had never used the app. “It gets hard to understand if you’re not actually on it,” the freshman Democrat said. “And at the end of the day, a lot of TikTok is harmless people dancing and funny videos.”
“It’s also incredibly rich educational content, and learning how to bake and learning about the political process,” he said.
Representative Jamaal Bowman, D-New York, who has more than 180,000 followers on the app, held a news conference with TikTok influencers before the hearing. He accused Republicans of pushing a ban on TikTok for political reasons.
“There are 150 million people on TikTok and we are more connected to them than Republicans are,” Bowman said. “So for them, it’s all about fearmongering and power. It’s not TikTok, because, again, we’ve looked the other way and allowed Facebook and other platforms to do similar things.”
Critics of TikTok in Congress say their opposition is rooted in national security, not politics. TikTok is a wholly owned subsidiary of Chinese technology firm ByteDance Ltd., which appoints its executives. They worry Chinese authorities could force ByteDance to hand over TikTok data on American users, effectively turning the app into a data-mining operation for a foreign power. The company insists it is taking steps to make sure that can never happen.
“The basic approach that we’re following is to make it physically impossible for any government, including the Chinese government, to get access to U.S. user data,” general counsel Erich Andersen said during an interview with the AP on Friday at a cybersecurity conference in California.
TikTok has been emphasizing a $1.5 billion proposal to store all U.S. user data on servers owned and maintained by the software giant Oracle. Access to U.S. data would be managed by U.S. employees through a separate entity run independently of ByteDance and monitored by outside observers.
Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina took the unusual step of releasing a public statement urging all members of Congress to stop using TikTok, including from his home state — seemingly a jab at Jackson, who is one of the more active members with more than 1.8 million followers.
“I was just saying if we’re having a discussion about TikTok then I think we ought to at least reduce the pull factor by elected officials who can simply come off of it,” Tillis said this week, when asked about his statement. “I don’t have a TikTok account. So that was an easy separation for me.”
Loud warnings about TikTok have also been coming from President Joe Biden’s administration. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and FBI Director Christopher Wray have told Congress in recent weeks that TikTok is a national security threat. Blinken told lawmakers the threat “should be ended one way or another.”
But some members are unconvinced.
“It’s like turning your cell phone off on an airplane. You’re supposed to do. And if it was super dangerous, I don’t think we will be allowed to have the phone on the plane,” Representative Greg Landsman, D-Ohio, said Wednesday, “So if it was super dangerous for members of Congress to have this app on their phone, you have to imagine the administration or our government would say absolutely not, you can’t have it on a government phone.”
Concerns about what kind of content Americans encounter online, or how their data is collected by technology companies, also aren’t new. Congress has been wanting to curtail the amount of data tech companies collect on consumers through a national privacy law, but those efforts have stalled repeatedly over the years.
Supporters of TikTok on Capitol Hill are urging their colleagues to educate themselves about social media as a whole, so Congress can pass legislation that deals with broader issues of data privacy, instead of hyper-focusing on a ban on TikTok, which could risk political backlash and a court fight over the reach of the First Amendment.
“We are uninformed and misinformed. We don’t even understand how social media works. We don’t know anything about data brokers and how data brokers sell our data to foreign countries and foreign companies right now,” Bowman said. “So ban TikTok tomorrow, this stuff is still going to be happening.”
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