TikTok is rolling out a charm offensive ahead of Thursday’s congressional hearing, putting CEO Shou Zi Chew in users’ feeds to warn them about a looming ban. Chew posted a minute-long video to the ByteDance subsidiary’s official TikTok account, rallying users to defend the app.
Chew’s video outlines points he’ll probably hit in his House Energy and Commerce Committee testimony later this week, where legislators will question whether the app’s Chinese ownership makes it untrustworthy. That includes the news that TikTok now has 150 million American users — something news outlets recently reported based on advance information about his testimony. “That’s almost half of the US coming to TikTok,” he observes, noting the number includes 5 million US businesses. “The majority of these are small and medium businesses.”
We also learn that TikTok has 7,000 American employees, which is less than the 10,000 or more that TikTok aimed for in 2020 but a big leap over the 1,400 US headcount that year.
But on to the bad news. “Some politicians have started talking about banning TikTok,” Chew says. While it’s a slightly odd assessment given that the “starting” happened almost three years ago and the “talking about” was signing an executive order issuing a ban, it’s true that the issue has morphed from a nebulous Donald Trump demand to a mainstream political position in the past few months. “Now this could take TikTok away from all 150 million of you.” Chew doesn’t do anything as gauche as call for users to participate in the democratic process by contacting their local congressperson, but he does ask them to “let me know in the comments what you want your elected representatives to know about what you love about TikTok.” The top comment so far: “You know something went wrong when the boss has to show up.”
“Some politicians have started talking about banning TikTok.”
Direct-to-user lobbying is nothing new for the tech industry — Google, Reddit, Uber, and Lyft have all engaged in it. But TikTok has kept a relatively low profile and focused on buttoned-down campaigns to convince politicians and reporters of its safety. This week, it garnered headlines for changing its safety policies and its approach to AI after news broke that it’s being investigated by the Justice Department for allegedly surveilling journalists. It’s also apparently sending influencers to Washington, DC, to defend the app.
A ban is almost certainly not the preferred option for many politicians. President Joe Biden’s administration has reportedly asked ByteDance to sell or spin off the company and sever its links to China — something that would assuage fears about TikTok spying on journalists, abusing users’ personal data, and secretly providing tracking data to government intelligence agencies since these are definitely not problems for US tech companies that Congress has not dragged its feet for years on fixing. It’s likely TikTok would oppose any ban in court, which users of the China-based WeChat did fairly successfully back in 2020.
But it’s not surprising Chew is finally pointing out an obvious fact: locking TikTok out of the US would be a nearly unprecedented move that huge numbers of Americans would notice, and TikTok is betting they won’t like it.