While many lawmakers are pushing for a ban or sweeping changes to the popular video-sharing app TikTok, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., has embraced the app, gaining nearly 160,000 followers and 2 million likes posting about his thoughts and the workings of Congress.
On Wednesday, Bowman will host a press conference with more than 30 TikTok creators whose platforms are threatened by the U.S. government’s push toward greater restrictions on the app. The event stands in stark contrast to the deep skepticism TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is sure to experience from many of Bowman’s colleagues when he testifies Thursday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee about how the company protects U.S. users from surveillance and other harms.
Fears about how U.S. user data could be accessed by the Chinese government via TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance have inspired bans of various degrees across the country, including a federal ban of the app on government-owed devices.
TikTok last week said the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS), threatened a broader ban of the app if ByteDance wouldn’t sell its stake. The interagency group is reviewing potential national security risks stemming from ByteDance’s 2017 acquisition of TikTok precursor Musical.ly. TikTok, in turn, has offered a sweeping plan to make its processes more transparent and removed from the parent company in an effort to quell the concerns.
But Bowman believes fears over potential risks associated with the app have been disproportionate to the available evidence about its vulnerabilities.
“Now, if I get more information based on the DOJ investigation or something like that, I will stand up and say I was wrong and go the other way,” Bowman said, seeming to refer to the recently reported Justice Department investigation into allegations that former ByteDance employees spied on journalists. “But right now what I’m hearing is a lot of fear mongering and speculation and not as much actual evidence.”
That’s led TikTok to be unfairly singled out, both as a social media company and a business with a Chinese owner, according to Bowman. The U.S. has many longstanding business ties with China, he said, and there are plenty of other China-based apps on American phones as well.
Bowman supports new regulations for the tech industry but believes they should apply to all the major platforms to protect consumers.
“TikTok or not, we haven’t done enough in terms of making sure social media is safe, not addictive, doesn’t push misinformation and can be used in the safest possible ways,” Bowman said.
Wednesday’s press conference will highlight creators with more than 60 million collective followers who will share the app’s impact on their lives. TikTok has leaned into the strategy of highlighting users in its appeal to lawmakers. On Tuesday, Chew appeared in a video on TikTok’s official account pointing to the company’s 150 million monthly active users in the U.S. and asking those users to share in the comments what they love about the app.
While TikTok helped bring the creators to Washington, Bowman’s office has been working primarily with the creators to organize the event, according to Emma Simon, Bowman’s digital director and press secretary. Bowman’s office had already planned to meet with the creators. Simon said she learned the TikTokers hoped to gather a press conference and worked with them to make it happen.
Bowman’s experiences on TikTok have informed his thinking about the app, where he said he’s encountered noticeably less misinformation and hate than on other platforms. He said banning the app would effectively drive some creators back to platforms where they may encounter more negativity or at least a different atmosphere than the one that exists on TikTok.
He’s found that TikTok has helped him reach new constituents he hadn’t engaged before with other communication methods, particularly younger constituents.
Unlike Bowman, many of the lawmakers who will be questioning Chew on Thursday do not have a TikTok account (or at least one that is public-facing). That lack of familiarity with the app may be part of what’s driven lawmakers toward a ban, Bowman said.
“When you don’t understand something, you’re often afraid of it. And when you’re afraid of it and you don’t understand it, you look to get rid of it,” Bowman said. “I think that is what many members of Congress are looking to do now.”
Bowman became more personally engaged in TikTok at Simon’s urging. Simon, 23, is in TikTok’s core demographic and said she pushed Bowman to engage more directly with the app to reach constituents, shifting it from an avenue his office previously used just to repost media hits.
“It all started to change” once she got him to vlog the days-long Speaker of the House election earlier this year, Simon said. The videos helped Bowman rapidly grow his following and marked a new tone for the congressman on the platform.
Simon’s pitch to her boss was to show him just how many young users are on TikTok, especially over other platforms. She said he loves engaging with young people and is passionate about education. Fears of Chinese influence weren’t really part of the discussion.
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