A fiery coalition of more than two dozen TikTok content creators gathered outside the steps of the nation’s capital on Wednesday to fiercely oppose lawmakers’ growing calls for a nationwide ban. Each of these protesters had their expenses covered by TikTok.
The social media company’s spokesperson confirmed it paid for the creators’ travel expenses in a statement sent to Gizmodo. These payments, according A Wired report, covered hotel, travel, meals and shuttle rides for the creators, some of whom traveled across the country to attend the gathering. Around 30 TikTok influencers attended the protest and each of them was reportedly allowed to bring their own plus one. A dozen influencers in attendance told Wired they weren’t paid to attend the event itself, but nearly all accepted the company’s offer to pay for a hotel room. The critical rally took place on the eve of a highly anticipated event House Energy and Commerce Committee Hearing where lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle grilled TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew for nearly five hours. The overwhelming consensus of this hearing: lawmakers, regardless of political affiliation, seem determined to ban TikTok or press for a forced sale of the company.
“All the obstacles to get here, they [TikTok]]helped cover,” said Tiffany Yu, a Los Angeles-based influencer and one of the speakers at the rally. TikTok did not respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment asking the total amount spent on creators.
Influencers have given a human face to the 150 million American users of TikTok
Speaking to a crowd of more than 140 people at the rally, creators praised the app for providing them with a platform to express themselves, build communities and, in some cases, expand the reach of their business. Together, the influencers present would have around 60 million followers. Many held signs reading “Keep TikTok”.
“I want to put an end to the misconception that this is just an app. It’s so much more than that,” said TikTok creator Duncan Joseph. according NBC News. “If it were to be removed, these communities could not just go elsewhere. This is home…and you just can’t tear that social fabric away from so many people.
The rally took place just a day after CEO Chew posted his own TikTok where he claimed the app had over 150 million monthly US users, a 50% increase from the 100 million users reported two years earlier. Chew referenced that figure several times during his congressional testimony, where he tried to convince adversarial lawmakers of the app’s critical importance to a wide range of Americans. Protesters paid to travel to DC have given these numbers a human face.
“More than 150 million Americans, including 5 million American businesses, rely on TikTok to innovate, find community and support their livelihoods,” a TikTok spokesperson told Gizmodo. “A U.S. ban on TikTok could directly impact the livelihoods of millions of Americans. Washington lawmakers debating TikTok should hear first-hand from people whose lives would be directly affected by their decisions.”
TikTok supporters say a ban could crush free expression online
The protesters were joined by several US lawmakers, including New York Democratic Representative Jamaal Bowman, who has become one of TikTok’s most vocal supporters in recent months. Speaking to an audience at the rally on Wednesday, Bowman rejected fellow lawmakers’ categorization of the Chinese-owned app as a national security risk and said the company “poses roughly the same risk as Facebook and Instagram and YouTube and Twitter”. In the past, Bowman has said he’s worried lawmakers are singling out TikTok because of “xenophobic anti-China rhetoric.”
Bowman, who himself has a TikTok account with approximately 163,000 subscribers, told the New York Times this week, he never made an appointment with a TikTok employee. However, one of his aides admitted that TikTok actually helped orchestrate a meeting between the lawmaker and influential protesters. The lawmaker did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
“My question is: Why the hysteria and the panic and the targeting of TikTok? Bowman said at the rally. “As we know, the Republicans, in particular, have been ringing the alarm bells, creating a red alert around China.”
TikTok may have a dearth of friendly politicians in DC, but the same can’t be said for advocacy groups. On Thursday, 16 leading organizations, including the ACLU and Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, sent an open letter to members of Congress opposed to a nationwide ban on TikTok… The groups said such a ban would have “serious ramifications for free expression in the digital sphere” and raise questions about the First Amendment.
“For citizens, and especially the tens of millions of young Americans who use TikTok, witnessing a popular social media platform summarily shut down by the government will raise serious questions in the minds of a rising generation about the sanctity of free speech in our system. of governance,” the organizations wrote.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing was an abject victory for Congress, but not necessarily because they made a particularly compelling case. TikTok’s complicated Chinese ownership has made its CEO an easy target. Lawmakers have relentlessly attacked TikTok’s CEO, with some choosing to focus on gruesome but rare cases of deaths resulting from TikTok trends and others questioning the company’s Chinese ownership. On this last question, there was simply no answer that would adequately satisfy legislators. House members dismissed TikTok’s plan, dubbed “Project Texas,” to route US users’ data through a US company as insufficient, and questioned Chew’s honesty. After nearly five hours of questioning, Chew, who had retained his composure impressively until then, finally expressed some exasperation, telling lawmakers they were basically asking him to do the impossible and prove a negative regarding the hypothetical Chinese government surveillance on TikTok.
A recent poll suggests that average American internet users share similar concerns about TikTok’s connection to China, though the degree of concern depends a lot on age and whether or not they use the app. A recent survey conducted by SocialSphere found that nearly half (49%) of millennial voters between the ages of 27 and 42 said they support a nationwide ban on TikTok. That figure fell to just 34% for Gen Z voters. 71% of Gen Z voters said they had an active TikTok account, compared to just 43% of millennials.
TikTok: outgunned and underfunded in Washington
TikTok and its parent company ByteDance is no stranger to DC circuit of influence. Last year, according Open Secrets, ByteDance spent $5.3 million on lobbying, almost 20 times the $270,000 spent in 2019. That sounds like a lot (and it is), but it has nothing to do with the combined amount of lobbying spent by US tech companies last year, some of which would directly benefit from a TikTok ban. Last year, Bloomberg estimates Meta, Amazon, Alphabet and Apple collectively spent $70 million, with Amazon alone spending nearly $20 million. In addition to their big sacks of cash, these American companies also shopped around the neighborhood long enough to form deeply forged relationships with DC lawmakers that they can lean on for support. US telecoms like AT&T have been building this type of political relationship for even longer. This ingrained power is partly how they managed to kill all of a sudden landmark bipartisan antitrust reform bills last year that looked almost certain to pass months earlier.
TikTok, on the other hand, is not so lucky. Other than Bowman, few if any lawmakers in 2023 want to be seen as committing to a company, rightly or not, associated with the Chinese government. With polls showing public opinion gradually moving against TikTok, looking tough is increasingly an easy win for lawmakers. So with US tech companies and other industry heavyweights outspending and no real big political figures willing to champion their cause, is it really that shocking that TikTok relies on its creators to spread its political message? An outright ban on TikTok, thought not so long ago to be a Trump-era fever dream, seems closer to reality than ever. TikTok finds itself in a struggle for survival and needs all the help it can get.