Five Takeaways From TikTok’s Congressional Hearing

Kristin Snyder

Kristin Snyder is dot.LA's 2022/23 Editorial Fellow. She previously interned with Tiger Oak Media and led the arts section for UCLA's Daily Bruin.

Shou Zi Chew talking about TikTok on TikTok
Shou Zi Chew via TikTok

A few days ago, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew made his debut on the app he runs. Today, he made his debut before congress with an abysmal hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Without resorting to the obligatory “the clock is ticking on TikTok” joke, his efforts to convince representatives that TikTok is trustworthy only sowed further doubt about the app’s future in America.

Chew failed to distance TikTok from China

Evident throughout the hearing was the fact that every committee member was already convinced that TikTok poses a threat. Multiple people jokingly thanked Chew for uniting the committee in a bipartisan front. The uniting factor, it seems, was TikTok’s connection to its Chinese-based parent company, ByteDance.

Rep. Randy Weber derided TikTok as the Chinese Communist Party’s method of “indoctrinating our children with divisive, woke propaganda.” While Chew said that ByteDance is a private company, Rep. Anna Eshoo said she does not believe China has a private sector free of the government’s influence—which puts TikTok under their power. As such, she deemed his assertion that the Chinese government has not requested TikTok’s data to be “preposterous.” Coupled with the fact that Chew’s legal counsel also works with ByteDance, any lingering doubts that ByteDance and TikTok are entwined were quickly laid to rest.

People don’t have faith in Project Texas

In his opening remarks, Rep. Frank Pallone said that Project Texas, which is TikTok’s initiative to store American data via the software giant Oracle, is not acceptable protection against China’s influence. Chew met any questions regarding international access to US data with the fact that Project Texas will create a defensive “firewall” between the American databases and the Chinese side of the business.

Across the board, there was significant skepticism toward the plan’s efficacy. Pallone, and many others, shared sentiments that “the Beijing Communist government” would still be able to access information and influence the company. And, of course, the Texans in the room took offense to the project being linked to their state. Once meant to be the app’s saving grace, it's clear that Project Texas is unlikely to be a sufficient solution for these lawmakers.

Child safety was considered equal to data security

TikTok has often come under fire for promoting content that fosters mental health issues, promotes eating disorders and facilitates drug deals. Committee chair Rep. Cathy Rodgers began the hearing by saying that she wants to ensure that “TikTok doesn’t harm our innocent children.”

Chew responded to these questions with the apps’ safety measures, such as not allowing teens to livestream or send direct messages. But it was clear that no one was convinced. And pointing to the 60-minute time limit for teens led to multiple lawmakers claiming that their own children have been able to bypass these measures. Rep. Gus Bilirakis said the app is “literally leading to death.”

As Chew noted multiple times, these issues are not unique to TikTok. And here’s where lawmakers who focused on this argument failed—none of TikTok’s competitors have faced serious consequences for their impact on mental health issues, particularly amongst young people. While there are valid concerns about data privacy, TikTok shouldn’t be the sole company to be punished for harming children. Honestly, the idea that some committee members view kids ignoring their bedtime to scroll through TikTok as an important use of the government’s time is laughable. Critics have pointed to these types of questions as hypocritical when the government hasn’t meaningfully regulated content hosted by American platforms.

Many showed a half-baked understanding of technology

Throughout the hearing, there were numerous blunders that undermined the lawmaker’s understanding of how the internet works. Sure, some, such as Rep. Jay Obernolte, had detailed questions that reflected a baseline understanding of technology. But that wasn’t seen across the board.

In trying to demonstrate that TikTok pushes content that promotes suicide, Bilirakis showed a series of TikTok videos that do just that. One of those clips, however, was from hit TV show “The Bear.” Altogether and unsurprisingly, the reel took away from any genuine understanding of how the app can worsen mental health concerns. Rep. Richard Hudson appeared to be confused about how the app uses in-home wi-fi. And Rep. Buddy Carter seemed to think that TikTok wants to collect data about users’ eye dilation. Of course, not understanding something fully hasn’t stopped lawmakers from voting on a topic in the past. And teens making fun of them online likely won’t sway them in TikTok’s favor. Still, this embarrassing trend, a staple of big tech hearings, often works against lawmakers and their credibility.

Section 230 discussions aren’t going anywhere

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for two cases that could alter Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which prevents social media companies from being sued over user-generated content. There’s significant doubt over whether or not these particular cases have legs. But multiple people brought up Section 230 throughout today’s hearing, with Rep. Robert Latta from Ohio saying that TikTok’s amplification of potentially harmful content is a “perfect example” of why the law must be changed. So even if the Supreme Court doesn’t make any changes to the existing law or if TikTok survives this episode, people can expect some sort of legislative crackdown on Section 230 in the near future.

In all, this was a bad look for TikTok. Sure, its proponents are calling this “the most boomer hearing.” But that’s nothing compared to the political beating Chew took. Whether it actually leads to a TikTok ban or sale remains to be seen. What we do know is that TikTok lost a key battle in its quest to be seen as independent from the whims and fancies of the CCP.

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