In the aftermath of TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew’s brutal five-hour congressional hearing on Thursday, TikToker and disinformation researcher Abbie Richards summed up what so many creators thought: “It’s actually remarkable how much less Congress knows about social media than the average person,” Richards told londonbusinessblog.com.
About TikTok, users mocked congressmen for misunderstanding how technology works. In one case, Representative Richard Hudson (R-NC) asked Chew if TikTok connects to a user’s home Wi-Fi network. Chew replied in bewilderment, “Only if the user turns on Wi-Fi.”
The ignorant questions were not unique to the government’s questioning of Chew. During a high-profile hearing in 2018, the late Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) infamously asked Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg how Facebook makes money if the app is free. Zuckerberg replied: “Senator, we’re running ads‘, a grin unsuppressing. At a technical hearing two years ago, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) created another infamous viral moment by asking Facebook’s global chief of security if she would “commit to ending finsta.”
As entertaining as these flaws in basic knowledge are, TikTok creators are deeply concerned about the future of an app that has given them a community and, in some cases, a career.
TikTok creator Vitus “V” Spehar, known as Under Bureau News, has gathered 2.9 million followers by sharing news worldwide in an accessible way. But in this week’s news cycle, they take center stage (literally: they sat right behind the CEO of TikTok, as he testified).
“I think it’s really concerning that a government is considering removing US citizens from the global conversation on an app as robust as TikTok,” Spehar told londonbusinessblog.com. “It’s not just banning the app in the United States, it means disconnecting US citizens from Canada, the UK, Mexico, Iran, Ukraine and all the first-line reporting you see from those countries, it just shows up on our [For You Page].”
Spehar is part of a group of TikTok creators who traveled to Washington, DC this week to advocate on TikTok’s behalf — and against the looming threat of a national ban. They attended a press conference Wednesday afternoon hosted by Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), a rare dissenting voice in Congress who raised questions about what he described as the “hysteria and panic” around TikTok.
Congress made it clear that they don’t understand TikTok, they don’t listen to their constituents who are part of the community of TikTokers – and are using this TikTok hysteria as a way to pass legislation that will give them super powers to ban any app that they deem ‘unsafe’ in the future,” Spehar said after the hearing.
Both tech ethicists and makers share this frustration. Dr. Casey Fiesler, a professor of technical ethics and policy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, believes national security concerns about the app are overblown.
“The risk seems to be completely speculative at this point and to me I’m not sure how it’s significantly worse than all the things that are currently a concern about social media that the government has not focused on,” Fiesler said. She has an audience of over 100,000 followers on TikTok where she discusses things like the nuances of moderate content and other topics that may be covered in her graduate courses.
“I don’t think there’s any way to consider this a general data privacy issue without going after every other technology company,” biker told londonbusinessblog.com. “The only thing that makes sense is that it’s literally just about the fact that the company is based in China.”
There is still no evidence that TikTok has shared data with the Chinese government. But reports have revealed that employees of TikTok’s Beijing-based parent company ByteDance have been looking at US user data. A research last year revealed that engineers in China had open access to TikTok data on US users, undermining the company’s claims to the contrary. Another report, confirmed by ByteDance, discovered that a small group of engineers improperly accessed the TikTok data of two American journalists. They planned to use the location information to determine if the reporters had crossed paths with ByteDance employees who may have leaked information to the press.
Still, TikTokers point out the distinction between sharing data with a private Chinese company and the Chinese government. TikTok, for its part, has been trying to appease US officials with a plan called Project Texas, a $1.5 billion venture that will move US users’ data to Oracle servers. Project Texas would also create a subsidiary of the company called TikTok US Data Security Inc., which plans to oversee every aspect of TikTok related to national security.
Spehar said they prefer solutions like Project Texas to US government proposals like the RESTRICT Act, which would give the US new tools to limit and potentially ban the export of technology by foreign adversaries.
“I don’t think we should be looking at things like the RESTRICT Act, or any kind of broad legislation that gives the government the power to say, ‘We’ve decided something is unsafe,'” they told londonbusinessblog.com.
Multiple congressmen asked Chew how TikTok is moderating dangerous trends, such as “the blackout challenge,” in which kids try to see how long they can hold their breath. Kids died from this behavior after it spread on TikTok, but the game is not from the platform: 2008, the CDC warned parents that 82 children had died from a trend dubbed “the choking game.” One congressman even referred to “NyQuil chicken” as a dangerous TikTok trend, despite the fact that there’s little evidence that anyone actually ate chicken soaked in cough medicine and the trend started years ago on 4chan.
“The moral panic about TikTok challenges is something I’ve debunked extensively, and then they just get parroted by these politicians who don’t understand what moral panic is,” Richards told londonbusinessblog.com. “To use misinformation that I’ve written so much about and tried to debunk, and to see it used against TikTok was just so irritating.”
Richards does acknowledge that TikTok’s best feature is also its worst: anything can go viral. She believes that TikTok’s “bottom-up” information environment lends itself to misinformation, but that same dynamic also brings up good content that would never be featured on any other social network.
Richards is also one vocal critic of TikTok’s content moderation policy, which — like any other social network — isn’t always applied evenly. During Thursday’s hearing, Representative Kat Cammack (R-FL) dramatically displayed a month-old TikTok video with a gun next to text threatening the leader of the House Committee that orchestrated Chew’s testimony. It’s a clear violation of TikTok’s content guidelines, but Richards points out there was little engagement.
“In the context of TikTok, something with 40 likes is effective moderation,” Richards said. “That means the video doesn’t reach many people.” She believes that a video like the one the Florida legislator highlighted shouldn’t be on the platform at all, but if it doesn’t end up reaching many users, the potential for harm is limited.
Other creators expressed frustration that congressmen didn’t consider how TikTok has helped Americans, such as LGBTQ+ people who found a community on the app or small business owners who went beyond their wildest dreams after going viral.
Trans Latina creator Naomi hearts, which has 1 million TikTok followers, was invited by TikTok to support the app in DC (TikTok compensated this group of creators, including Spehar, by covering lodging and travel expenses). She said she met other TikTokers on the trip who used the app to gain traction with their small businesses.
She, too, found an audience on TikTok that she couldn’t build anywhere else, after struggling to gain followers on Instagram. But on TikTok, even small accounts can go viral, a phenomenon that can jump-start a career if things go well.
“The normal person’s message…for example me, who was just a big trans woman growing up in South Central Los Angeles and having a dream — my message wasn’t there,” Naomi Hearts said, referring to Instagram.
Spehar also highlighted the role TikTok plays in helping people connect beyond the confines of their everyday environment.
“You can find communities that you can’t find where you live,” Spehar said. “I think about kids in Northwest Arkansas and in Tennessee — TikTok is literally one of the reasons they don’t commit suicide because they know they’re not alone.”
While Richards mostly writes about disinformation on TikTok, she laments the app’s positives that could be lost if it were banned in the US
“Banning TikTok would ultimately do the most harm to marginalized communities, least represented by institutional news and organizations,” Richards said. “And if that entire infrastructure suddenly disappears, they are just suddenly in the dark.”