- TikTokers criticized lawmakers’ poor comprehension of the app and greater internet after clips from hearing went viral.
- While TikTokers came to the platform’s defense, the hearing did little to dissuade lawmakers about the app’s potential risks.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew’s testimony before Congress Thursday drew heavy criticism from lawmakers and pundits, who called the app’s leader evasive and left the platform’s future in America uncertain.
But on TikTok, the criticism was directed toward Congress.
“This is so embarrassing. I swear to god we need to get competent and younger people in office,” one TikToker wrote in the caption of a video with more than 10.7 million views.
“I have beef with our Congressmen and women,” another TikToker said in a video with more than 350,000 views. “These people already have their mind made up.”
Skeptical lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee grilled Chew for more than four hours during the hearing on TikTok’s potential threat to national security.
Lawmakers from both political parties have raised alarm in recent weeks that the short video site, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, could be used by the Chinese government to spy on Americans and spread misinformation. Several lawmakers recently introduced bills that could ban the app in the U.S.
But for some people on the app, national security concerns were overshadowed by the lawmakers’ line of questioning that TikTok users say highlighted Congress’ lack of understanding of social media.
“It was embarrassing. I can’t even call it a joke because jokes are funny,” said Peyton Frye, 28, a TikTok user from Warwick, Rhode Island. “It is painfully obvious that these people did not understand the questions that they were asking.”
Congress ‘does not understand how the internet works’
Moments after the hearing went viral on the app, TikTok users criticized what they said was poor comprehension of TikTok and the internet.
Some commenters drew comparison to the infamous viral clip of Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., asking a top Facebook official if the company would “commit to ending finsta” — a slang term for the secondary Instagram accounts teens often use more authentically and privately.
“It was really clear to me and to a lot of other people that Congress really as a whole does not understand how the internet works and also really just doesn’t understand what TikTok is,” said Gabrielle Cerberville, 31, a content creator from Kalamazoo, Michigan.
TikTok more than dancing, users say
“I don’t think that they seem to get TikTok is really no longer just a place where teenagers do dances. It hasn’t really been that way since 2018,” Cerberville added.
The app has provided a space for users with a variety of interests and purposes, including the ability to promote small and local businesses. Some users have even managed to earn a living through the app.
Ahead of the hearing, TikTok went on the offensive; Chew took to the platform himself to make his case to users, claiming in a video posted to the company’s account that a ban would stop TikTok’s 150 million Americans from accessing the app and asking users to share what they love about TikTok in the comments.
Commenters appeared largely sympathetic to Chew’s plea, giving personal testimony about the app’s impact on their lives and requesting that he “save us all” from a possible ban.
TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said in a statement that the hearing was dominated by “political grandstanding” and criticized the committee for failing to acknowledge the “5 million businesses on TikTok or the First Amendment implications of banning a platform loved by 150 million Americans.”
Data privacy concerns remain
While hordes of TikTokers immediately came to the defense of Chew and the platform, the CEO did little to dissuade lawmakers about the app’s potential risks.
“I’m not been reassured by anything you’ve said so far,” Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., told Chew Wednesday. “Quite frankly your testimony has raised more questions for me than answers.”
Central to the lawmakers’ inquiries was the question of how TikTok uses American users’ personal data. Chew dodged questions about what the app does with users’ data, its ties to China and the ways the platform prevents harmful content for children, though he said that TikTok does not sell data to “any data broker.”
While TikTok and its proponents have argued it’s not the only social media company to collect personal data, the app’s Chinese ownership makes the platform not subject to U.S. laws.
“In the U.S, if these companies get your data and they do bad things with it, you have recourse, you can go to court,” said Doug Schmidt, co-director of Vanderbilt University’s Data Science Institute. “Not so with TikTok …if it’s accessed by people in other parts of the world and they do things with it that you don’t like, you’re just basically out of luck. There’s nothing you can do.”
Chew did not answer fundamental questions during the hearing, including what kinds of data the app collects and what it is being used for, according to Schmidt.
Security experts have said that the company’s ties to China and vast American influence are reasons for alarm. FBI Director Christopher Wray testified in December the agency was concerned the app could be used to collect user data for “traditional espionage operations.”
As Chew on Thursday repeatedly avoided clear yes or no answers to the lawmakers’ inquiries, committee members grew frustrated and signaled that their minds were made up.
“TikTok has repeatedly chosen a path for more control, more surveillance and more manipulation,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., chair of the committee. “Your platform should be banned.”
Contributing: Ken Tran, Rachel Looker