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Yesterday continued Congress’s recent history of calling tech executives into a hearing to berate them about their excessive collection of users’ private data for financial means. But where Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai suffered through the hearings only to face little to no repercussions for their potentially egregious collection of data and anti-competitive practices, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was met with something far more defined — and the users of his platform immediately picked up on it.
“Your platform should be banned,” was one of the first things Chew heard when the hearing started. That was from Chair Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-WA) in her opening statement. Her mind seemed made up, as did many of the members of Congress on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and for the next few hours, Chew was berated by the 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 happily exert influence to build profit but where it also has undue influence over the companies that base their operations there. Because TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is based in China, there’s potential for China to gain access to data managed by TikTok that 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 CFO and daughter of Huawei’s founder 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 firm in China to turn in data and to spy on other countries,” Lynette Ong, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, told me at the time.
China’s also retaliated against its own citizens. When Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma, spoke out against planned tech regulation, he seemed to disappear in a similar fashion to the famous actress Fan Bingbing (her crime was failing to pay enough taxes).
And users on TikTok took notice
But China’s ability to exert terrible influence on its companies and citizens and how that can make TikTok susceptible to undue influence wasn’t the line of questioning Congress seemed interested in pursuing. The few times it did come up, the questioning Congress member would often continue their rant, never giving Chew time to answer. Congress spent a lot of time asking him about affiliations with the Chinese Communist Party — China’s sole ruling political party. Frequently, they would refer to the party, generally called the CCP, as “communists,” calling back to 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 weird, brutal, xenophobic mess. And users on TikTok took notice.
They were not fans. The app has been flooded with videos (which TikTok itself could very well be boosting) of users mocking Congress, supporting Chew and TikTok, and pointing out the flagrant hypocrisy of Congress’s decision to target TikTok while ignoring the equally egregious abuse of data and algorithms by its American competitors. TikTok might drive dangerous challenges embraced by teens, but I don’t think it’s incited a genocide as Meta has.
This is kind of the problem with engaging in a xenophobic and deeply hypocritical campaign against a single, wildly popular app. Its very engaged users will notice you’re being an asshole! And while Chew certainly didn’t do himself or TikTok a lot of 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 you get people mad and on your side so you have the political capital to push through whatever bills you’ve written on the matter. But sometimes you just look like a dumbass, and Congress looked thunderingly out of touch yesterday. Whatever political capital they’d hoped to gain was lost on the users of TikTok. Representatives lectured Chew and TikTok users over the danger of the app, but wrapping it up in weird xenophobic rhetoric and tech illiteracy just made them look pathetic to the audience they were trying to reach.
If the plan was to get people to reconsider using TikTok as the United States jockeys for a global leadership with China, I don’t think it succeeded. Not if all our FYP feeds are anything to go by.