That TikTok audience was pretty messed up, right?
Yesterday continued Congress’ recent history of summoning tech executives to a hearing to reprimand them for their excessive collection of private user data for financial gain. But where Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai have suffered from hearings to face little to no repercussions for their potentially egregious collection of data and anti-competitive practices, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew has encountered something much more defined. – and users of its platform immediately picked up on it.
“Your platform should be banned,” was one of the first things Chew heard as the hearing began. This was from President Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-WA) in her opening statement. His decision seemed made, as were many members of Congress on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and for the next few hours Chew was berated by committee members for everything from TikTok challenges to NyQuil chicken.
The members seemed particularly interested in TikTok’s relationship with China. And that makes sense. China is an authoritarian capitalist state where the government will willingly exert influence to generate profits, but where it also exerts undue influence on the companies that base their operations there. Since TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is based in China, it’s possible that China has access to data managed by TikTok, which it might not be able to for companies based in other countries. such as Meta and Google.
China’s reach in this regard is wide and its ability to exert influence is powerful. When Canada arrested the chief financial officer and daughter of the founder of Huawei in 2018, China retaliated by arresting two Canadians and retrying and sentencing a third to death. “Because of the nature of the political system in China, you are naturally associated with the government, and the government could put a lot of pressure on any company in China to provide data and spy on other countries,” Lynette Ong, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, told me at the time.
China has also retaliated against its own citizens. When Alibaba founder Jack Ma spoke out against planned tech regulation, he seemed to disappear the same way famous actress Fan Bingbing did (her crime was not paying enough tax).
And TikTok users noticed
But China’s ability to wield terrible influence over its businesses and citizens and how that can make TikTok vulnerable to undue influence was not the line of questioning Congress seemed to want to pursue. The few times this happened, the congressman asking the question would often continue his rant, never giving Chew time to respond. Congress spent a lot of time asking him about his affiliations with the Chinese Communist Party – the only ruling political party in China. Frequently they referred to the party, usually called the CCP, as “Communists”, reminiscent of the days of McCarthyism.
Between their obsession with communism, their often obnoxious and condescending tone, and the occasional assumption that Chew was Chinese, despite his repeated reminders that he is Singaporean, the hearing was a strange, brutal and xenophobic mess. And TikTok users took notice.
They weren’t fans. The app has been inundated with videos (which TikTok itself may very well be boosting) of users mocking Congress, supporting Chew and TikTok, and pointing out the blatant hypocrisy of Congress’ decision to target TikTok while ignoring the equally flagrant abuse of data and algorithms by its US competitors. TikTok could lead to dangerous challenges for teens, but I don’t think it incited genocide like Meta did.
That’s kind of the problem with engaging in a xenophobic and deeply hypocritical campaign against a single hugely popular app. Its highly engaged users will notice that you are an asshole! And while Chew certainly didn’t do himself or TikTok many favors yesterday or in the years since Trump first called for a ban, Congress was in rare form.
The idea of a congressional hearing is to drive people crazy and on your side so that you have the political capital to pass all the bills you have written on the issue. But sometimes you just look like a jerk, and Congress seemed terribly out of touch yesterday. Whatever political capital they hoped to gain has been lost on TikTok users. Reps lectured Chew and TikTok users about the danger of the app, but wrapping it in bizarre xenophobic rhetoric and tech illiteracy made them pathetic to the audience they were trying to reach.
If the plan was to get people to reconsider using TikTok as US jockeys for global leadership with China, I don’t think it succeeded. Not if all of our FYP feeds are reliable.