This week, TikTok came to Washington for what turned out to be a public flogging. But the embattled, extremely popular video platform didn’t just bring its soft-spoken CEO and the usual talking points about being a responsible platform for free expression. It brought some TikTokkers.
Talk of banning TikTok in the U.S. has been in the air lately. It’s not the first time. In the summer of 2020, then-President Trump began an ultimately abortive attempt to crack down on the video app, which is owned by the Chinese tech conglomerate ByteDance. Over the past few months, some public universities have started to restrict access across their networks, and more than 30 U.S. states now forbid the app on government devices. In December, Sen. Marco Rubio introduced legislation to ban the Chinese-owned platform from the country altogether, and now the Biden administration is threatening to boot the app if ByteDance does not sell TikTok’s U.S. operations to a domestic owner.
The arguments against TikTok boil down to a concern about data privacy and security, and the possibility that the Chinese government could have access to U.S. user data or use the platform for surveillance. On Thursday, CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to try to make his case. Politicians came with their knives out.
The day before, TikTok had tried to make its case in a friendlier setting, in a press conference on the House Triangle near the U.S. Capitol. In tow: three members of Congress, and a gaggle of TikTok creators.
The idea was to echo the official corporate line, which is that TikTok is a platform beloved by millions (true), that Americans have built businesses on the platform (undoubtedly, though TikTok’s monetization programs have been criticized as being piddly), and that it’s basically benign despite the arguments of its detractors (it’s complicated). But I wanted to hear from the hand-picked influencers who came to town—not just to know what they’ve gotten out of the platform, but to try to figure out if TikTok’s attempt to brand itself as a friendly social network that just happened to be owned by one of China’s biggest tech companies has a shot. (According to a press officer for Rep. Jamaal Bowman, whose office planned and organized the press conference, “the creators were flown out by TikTok for a lobbying day.”)
For Callie Goodwin, who TikToks at @sparksofjoyco, the platform’s benefits have been twofold. The 29-year-old started using TikTok to promote her greeting card business in June 2020. Here’s an example:
While Goodwin’s presence on the app has sparked incredible interest in her business, it’s also given her a best friend and a community more generally.
“I was a loner in high school, and in college, I didn’t have a large group of friends,” she told me after the press conference. She described how she built 90,000 followers on TikTok, whereas she had never been able to get much traction on other platforms. “It would be devastating if that were to go away,” she said. She knows that without the app, she’d need to find new ways to engage with others. “If there were to be a ban, I would lose a major source of income and a major source of community—not just for my business but for my life.” On the eve of the congressional hearing she told me, “I’m trying not to think about tomorrow.”
Another TikTokker I met was Aidan Kohn-Murphy (@aidanpleasestoptalking), the founder of a progressive advocacy group called Gen-Z for Change, who highlighted the uniqueness of the TikTok algorithm and how he feels it prioritizes authenticity. The company’s For You feed algorithm has been praised by users for introducing users to content that is eerily appealing to them, a function of how it shows content to test sets of users to detect potential virality. What that means is that randos can have a bigger shot of going viral on TikTok than elsewhere. Kohn-Murphy’s content is primarily political, and he sees the app as one of the best ways, if not the best way, to reach young people in massive groups and get them out to vote.
Some members of Congress made plain how concerned they are that TikTok’s Chinese owners could abuse the platform for nefarious ends. But the creators? There was some whataboutery.
“When you look at social media platforms as a whole, we do need to upgrade security for every single site, not just TikTok,” said Naomi Hearts (@naomiheartsxo), a 25-year-old creator who posts comedy, body positivity, and trans activism content. (Many critics of TikTok do contend that the U.S. should also pass a comprehensive data-privacy law applying to all platforms.)
Was any of this compelling? When I first heard that TikTok would be “flooding D.C. with influencers,” my mind inevitably jumped to the Charli D’Amelio or brand ambassador archetype. This was somehow even more wholesome. But it also showed off a wide range of TikTokkers, stretching beyond the platform’s reputation as a teenage nonsense app.
There were teachers who use the app as an education platform. There were creators like Jason Linton (@dadlifejason), a TikTokker in Oklahoma who uses the platform to share his family’s foster care and adoption story. There were people like Kenneth Jary (@patriotickenny) who, after using the app to fundraise for a new mobility scooter, pays it forward by doing the same for other veterans.
Clearly, this is the side of TikTok that ByteDance would like Congress to see—people using the platform to enrich their lives, without any particular fear of data leaks. Right now, TikTok has become a punching bag of sorts from both sides of the political aisle, with members of Congress pointing out the app’s potential for spreading misinformation, the lack of content moderation, and the possible connection to the Chinese Communist Party. A friendly presser isn’t going to sway anyone—but it probably did give the creators a few more followers.