Congressional Users Of Tiktok Defend The App’s Ability To Reach Voters

It has been used by North Carolina Representative Jeff Jackson to simplify the debate over increasing the federal debt ceiling. California’s Robert Garcia, a Democrat, has utilized it to talk to people in the LGBTQ+ community. Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey has used it to summarize the outcomes of the election.

The more than two dozen members of Congress (all Democrats) who are active on the social media platform are under increasing pressure from their colleagues to cease using it as the backlash against TikTok grows in Washington. Several of these public figures explain their participation on TikTok by arguing that it is their civic duty to connect with the people wherever they may be.

“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 Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota told The Associated Press.

Yet, there is still a small population of legislators that use TikTok. Limiting the app’s use, mandating a sale to cut ties with China, or outright banning it has widespread support in Congress. The U.S. military, along with more than half of the states in the United States, and the federal government have all banned the software from government-issued devices.

Tiktok Lawmakers Defend App's Voter Reach
Tiktok Lawmakers Defend App’s Voter Reach

The European Union’s ban is similar to those in Denmark, Canada, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand. Last week, CEO Shou Zi Chew appeared for more than six hours at a heated House hearing, during which TikTok was heavily criticized.

Chew was questioned by lawmakers about the app’s impact on users’ mental health and its potential consequences for U.S. national security. Both Republicans and Democrats asked Chew pointed questions regarding TikTok’s moderation policies, data security in the United States in relation to Beijing, and journalistic surveillance.

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“I’ve got to hand it to you,” said Rep. 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.”

The meeting made it clear that legislators perceive TikTok as a threat, but their lack of first-hand experience with the app was evident at times, with several making false and puzzling comments about things like how TikTok connects to a home Wi-Fi router and how it moderates illicit content.

The session was “cringeworthy,” according to Representative Mark Pocan (D-WI), who is an app user and opponent of a countrywide ban.

ABC provided the following statements:

“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.”

According to Garcia, most of his colleagues who are advocating a statewide ban have admitted to him that they have never used TikTok. The newly elected Democratic representative said that “It gets hard to understand if you’re not actually on it,” “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. New York Democrat Jamaal Bowman, who has over 180,000 TikTok fans, convened an influencer news conference just before the hearing. He claimed that Republican lawmakers were using their support for a ban on TikTok for partisan gain.

“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 fear-mongering and power. It’s not TikTok, because, again, we’ve looked the other way and allowed Facebook and other platforms to do similar things.”

Lawmakers who oppose TikTok cite national security concerns rather than partisan motives. ByteDance Ltd., a Chinese technology company, owns 100% of TikTok and appoints its management team. Concerns have been raised that Chinese authorities may demand user information from ByteDance, turning TikTok into a data-mining operation for China.

The corporation claims it has taken precautions to prevent such an occurrence. While speaking with the Associated Press on Friday at a cybersecurity conference in California, general counsel Erich Andersen stated, “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,” 

TikTok has been pushing a plan to spend $1.5 billion to have all U.S. user data stored on servers owned and maintained by software giant Oracle. U.S. citizens working for a separate organization not affiliated with ByteDance and subject to outside oversight would control who has access to data stored in the United States.

North Carolina Republican Senator Thom Tillis took the unusual step of issuing a public statement urging all members of Congress to stop using TikTok, including those from his home state. This was likely a dig at North Carolina’s own Jackson, who is one of the more active members of Congress 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.”

The Biden administration has also issued stern warnings regarding TikTok. Both FBI Director Christopher Wray and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have testified before Congress in recent weeks, claiming that TikTok poses a threat to national security.

Tiktok Lawmakers Defend App's Voter Reach
Tiktok Lawmakers Defend App’s Voter Reach

Blinken urged lawmakers to eliminate the danger by saying it “should be eliminated one way or another.” Yet, not everyone in the group agrees. “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,” Rep. 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.”

Complaints about the information Americans see online and the data tech companies gather on them are also not new. But, efforts to pass a national privacy law to limit the data tech companies collect on consumers have consistently stagnated in Congress.

On Capitol Hill, TikTok advocates are urging their colleagues to learn more about the social media landscape as a whole so that they can pass legislation that addresses broader issues of data privacy rather than focusing solely on a ban on TikTok, which could lead to political backlash and a legal battle over the scope 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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