TikTok’s reputation in Washington as a danger to the American public has been building for years, buoyed by lawmakers who have fixated on the foreign-owned app in response to concerns about the rise of China and the harmful effects of social media on children.
Its American tech competitors have fanned these allegations, shifting political scrutiny away from their own practices.
But as TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew faces an impending congressional grilling and the company encounters a perilous suite of problems — capped by pressure from the Biden administration for its Chinese owners to divest their stakes — it is mounting a campaign to wrest itself from its role as Washington’s boogeyman.
Shou Zi Chew’s ‘death wish’ mission: Defend TikTok on Capitol Hill
TikTok is leaning on the aggressive playbook of its American peers in an attempt to ingratiate itself with Capitol Hill. The company’s strategy has grown increasingly sophisticated in recent months: TikTok has spent record amounts on lobbying, launched an ad campaign touting its contributions to American businesses and hired a cadre of experienced Washington operators to help push its message to lawmakers. Chew drafted himself into a vigorous charm offensive, making an unusual number of personal appearances with lawmakers, while the company rolls out policy changes intended to assuage concerns about data privacy, misinformation and harms to children.
But TikTok, owned by Beijing-headquartered ByteDance, faces steep odds in winning over Washington lawmakers, who have been skeptical of the company’s promise to protect Americans’ data, including a $1.5 billion investment in data security dubbed “Project Texas” developed amid negotiations with Biden administration officials. House Energy and Commerce Committee aides, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity to preview the panel’s hearing, said they do not expect anything that Chew might say in his testimony to convince lawmakers that Project Texas would sufficiently address their national security fears.
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Meanwhile, American tech industry surrogates are warning lawmakers that TikTok will try to “make their testimonies as boring as humanly possible” and “fill their testimonies with technical jargon,” said Jacob Helberg, a commissioner on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review, who previously served as a policy adviser at Google.
Helberg is the organizer of the Hill & Valley Forum, a group that seeks to connect Washington policymakers with Silicon Valley venture capitalists and executives at events and dinners. On Wednesday night, hours before the TikTok hearing, some of the most influential figures in the tech industry — including former Facebook board member Peter Thiel — will huddle with lawmakers at the Library of Congress for one of the group’s dinners, where they plan to warn lawmakers about a technological arms race with China and alleged national security risks of TikTok.
In discussions with lawmakers, Helberg says he’s urged them to focus on divestment and whether the company will shut down its engineering operations in China, rather than privacy programs.
Facing a steep trust deficit in Washington, TikTok has tapped its growing bench of lobbyists and consultants, including several political heavyweights, to try to dispel concerns about the platform ahead of the hearing. Joseph Crowley, the former chair of the House Democratic Caucus, has sat in on several private meetings with lawmakers, according to two congressional aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private discussions, as have other former members. The company also hired former Reps. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), now at the law firm K&L Gates, and Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), now at the law firm Dentons, to lobby on its behalf.
Chew has been a Capitol Hill regular in recent weeks, taking the rare step of attempting to meet with every member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is hosting the hearing and has more than 50 members.
“Our team in Washington is — and always has been — focused on educating lawmakers and stakeholders about our company and our service,” TikTok spokeswoman Brooke Oberwetter said in a statement. She added that the company plans to continue to brief lawmakers about its efforts to address national security concerns.
In meetings with lawmakers, Chew has framed the app as primarily an entertainment tool used by over 150 million American users, the aides said, suggesting a ban would deprive users globally of U.S. content. (The company has mirrored this language in public statements, calling the crackdown “a ban on the export of American culture and values to the billion-plus people who use our service worldwide.”)
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Chew has also criticized efforts by competitors to paint TikTok as a danger to children, a thinly-veiled jab at rival Facebook, according to two congressional aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private sessions. The Washington Post reported last year that Facebook funded a campaign to hype up those concerns nationally.
Chew told lawmakers that TikTok is ahead of industry peers in some aspects of protecting children online, highlighting policy changes implemented ahead of the hearing, the aides said.
This playbook borrows the well-worn tactics Meta has used to sway Washington for years, refined amid public scandals including its role in spreading Russian disinformation and alleged privacy missteps.
TikTok has been buying up ads in Washington highlighting its commitment to data privacy, including sponsored newsletters from Axios and a full-page ad in The Washington Post. Another campaign posted on TikTok, Twitter and Facebook touts its contributions to small businesses. The ads, which include the hashtag #TikTokSparksGood, show an entrepreneur who quit his job and uses TikTok to bring videos about teaching toddlers to read to millions.
The company has emerged as one of the largest tech lobbying spenders in Washington, surpassed in 2022 by only Amazon, Meta and Google parent company Alphabet. In 2022, TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, spent $5.3 million on lobbying Washington last year, an annual record for the company, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Open Secrets.
In recent weeks TikTok has made targeted changes to its app and company policies that appear to respond to lawmakers’ concerns. On Tuesday it updated its policies on synthetic media, amid concerns the platform could be abused by the to spread disinformation and propaganda. After a “60 Minutes” report critiqued TikTok for promoting harmful content to children rather than the educational videos offered by its Chinese counterpart, Douyin, the company rolled out a dedicated feed for featuring posts about science and math.
Chew plans to tell lawmakers that the app will prioritize teenagers’ safety and protect U.S. user data from unauthorized foreign access, according to testimony that he submitted to the committee ahead of the hearing. He will pledge to work with lawmakers to develop regulations “for the entire industry.”
But TikTok is much younger than its American tech rivals, and lacks the years-long relationships with Washington policymakers, think tanks and other advocacy groups that have bolstered Silicon Valley amid regulatory scrutiny.
Though TikTok is a member of the industry group NetChoice, it has been shut out of other key American tech industry groups, including the left-leaning Chamber of Progress. In the run-up to the hearing, these surrogates have repeated criticisms of the company, warning policymakers eager to regulate them that they increasingly face competition from foreign apps.
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Adam Kovacevich, the head of Chamber of Progress, backed the Biden administration’s plan to force TikTok’s Chinese owners to sell, writing in an op-ed the app presented “serious risk of foreign interference.” Chamber of Progress is funded by Google and Meta. Kovacevich, who previously worked for Google, said that the company has not been lobbying lawmakers on TikTok, but he has been sharing his perspective with the media.
Unlike Facebook and Google, TikTok does not disclose which third party groups, academic institutions and nonprofits it funds. The company declined repeated requests to provide such a list.
American Edge, a group funded by Meta, shared an op-ed critical of TikTok and warned of the risks of China’s technological advances in a newsletter.
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Congressional aides said their contacts have been largely with TikTok directly, a rare occurrence on Capitol Hill, which is often flooded with trade groups and other associations going to bat for various embattled tech giants.
Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), who met with Chew ahead of the hearing, called it “refreshing to have a frank, productive conversation face-to-face with a tech CEO who was willing to admit his company has problems and extend more than platitudes about how to fix them.”
“When you speak out about a tech giant, you immediately get contacted by lobbyists, attacked by Big Tech-funded dark money groups, or even see an AstroTurf campaign in your district,” she told The Post. “TikTok has certainly ramped up its outreach since they’ve been under the spotlight, but they haven’t embraced the full Big Tech playbook.”
In the absence of traditional D.C. surrogates, TikTok has turned to some of its most powerful allies: its own influencers. TikTok influencers are planning multiple events on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, including an evening news conference with Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.)
TikTok’s swift buildup of a Washington battalion reflects both its unique risk profile and a growing realization among major tech companies that they need to take the threat of Washington seriously early, said Matt Perault, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science and a former Facebook public policy director. (TikTok has provided funding for Perault’s academic work).
“Every generation of tech companies has done this more quickly,” Perault said. “From D.C.’s perspective, maybe it’s never fast enough.”
Drew Harwell contributed to this report.