In front of TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew’s highly anticipated testimonial In the US House of Representatives today, the beleaguered tech company conducted a full-court press on Capitol Hill. This included paying to bring TikTok influencers face-to-face with lawmakers, staffers and journalists in their home state, as well as sharing their journey with their collective audience of some 60 million followers.
TikTok has covered travel, hotels, meals and shuttle rides to and from the Capitol for dozens of influencers, according to the creators and the company itself. Each social media star was also asked to contribute something, whether they traveled from Oklahoma, took the Acela from New York or drove from their suburban home in Washington. TikTok spokesperson Jamal Brown confirms that “TikTok covered travel expenses for all creators and one guest.”
“All the hurdles to get here, they helped cover,” said Tiffany Yu, a Los Angeles-based influencer and disability advocate, who was asked to speak yesterday at a highly orchestrated press conference under the majestic Capitol dome.
While some influencers say they pay for their own plane ticket to DC, everyone we spoke to got the hotel free. It’s unclear exactly what people were offered as part of the DC trip, but apparently everyone got one benefit or another. Beyond the more than 30 influencers in attendance, along with their fellow travelers, WIRED counted another 10 people who were, in one way or another, on Capitol Hill on behalf of TikTok.
“More than 150 million Americans, including 5 million American businesses, rely on TikTok to innovate, find community and support their livelihoods,” spokesperson Brown said. “A US ban on TikTok could directly impact the livelihoods of millions of Americans. Washington lawmakers debating TikTok should hear firsthand from the people whose lives would be directly affected by their decisions.
The dozen influencers WIRED spoke to made no secret of the fact that TikTok brought them to Washington to support the company. (The plan was first reported by Policy And information.) “They brought us here, but we don’t get paid,” says Jorge Alverez, a New Jersey mental health advocate. TikTok “paid for transportation, that’s also public information.”
Alexandra Doten, a space communications expert who goes by the name @astro_alexandra on the app, is based near Washington, DC. But she says she has also received support from the company. “I got the hotel too!” she says. “I don’t know. They just transport me there.
While Doten was able to meet her congressman, Glenn Ivey of Maryland, this week, the highlight for her was meeting astronaut-turned-Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona. She also got a real taste of Capitol life when the state’s other senator, Kirsten Synema, sent a staffer to meet with influencers on her behalf. It’s unclear whether their goodwill tour will sway any of TikTok’s countless congressional critics, who say the app poses a threat to US national security.
Chew is the latest in a line of Big Tech executives who have faced hostile (though often ill-informed) lawmakers. But unlike Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg or Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai, Chew is the only CEO whose technology has been banned on US government devices or accused of being a Chinese Communist Party puppet.