As a growing number of lawmakers raise national security concerns over TikTok’s ties to China, and some experts worry about the app’s impact on young people’s mental health, CNN is hosting a special to explore these questions further. Watch “CNN Primetime: Is Time Up for TikTok?” Thursday, March 23 at 9 p.m. ET.
At a Harvard Business Review conference earlier this month, where executives, professors and artists appeared for talks on corporate leadership and emotional intelligence, Shou Chew tried to save his company.
In his speech, Chew, the CEO of TikTok, said the social network would not provide US user data to the Chinese government and he was never asked to do so. Chew highlighted the measures taken by TikTok to protect US user data. And on four occasions, Chew has told the public that the platform’s mission is “to inspire creativity and bring joy” to users.
The Harvard event is just one of many media appearances Chew has made in recent weeks amid intense scrutiny of TikTok and himself. Chew is expected to testify for the first time before a congressional committee on Thursday about “TikTok’s consumer privacy and data security practices, the platforms’ impact on children, and its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party,” according to a statement. Committee last week. Meanwhile, federal officials are now demanding that the app’s Chinese owners sell their stake in the social media platform, or risk facing a US ban on the app.
Chew, a Singaporean who has largely stayed out of the spotlight since taking over TikTok in 2021, recently took part in interviews with several US newspapers and this week appeared in a video on the TikTok business account for highlight the wide reach of the app, which he revealed now has more than 150 million users in the United States.
“That’s nearly half of America coming to TikTok to connect, create, share, learn, or just have fun,” Chew said, wearing a hoodie and t-shirt like any other executive. American technology in the clip. “This comes at a pivotal time for us. Some politicians have started talking about banning TikTok, now it could take all 150 million of you out of TikTok.
Chew’s increased visibility appears to be part of a larger messaging campaign by TikTok to boost its reputation in the United States and remind voters – and their representatives – how essential the social network is to American culture.
A press conference is scheduled for Wednesday with dozens of social media creators on the steps of the Capitol, some of whom were transported by TikTok. The company is paying for a blitz of ads for a Beltway audience. And last week, he released a documentary series highlighting American small business owners who depend on the platform for their livelihood.
Behind the scenes, Chew has also met with members of Congress, and TikTok recently invited researchers and academics to its Washington, DC offices to learn more about how it’s working to address lawmakers’ concerns about its ties to China through its parent company, ByteDance. Its parent company has also stepped up federal lobbying, spending more than $5 million last year, according to data tracked by OpenSecrets.
“It’s life or death for TikTok, from their perspective,” said Justin Sherman, CEO of DC-based research and advisory firm Global Cyber Strategies, who was among the researchers TikTok has invited to be informed about “Project Texas”, the company. $1.5 billion initiative to address lawmakers’ security concerns. “They’re throwing everything they can at the problem.”
In a statement, TikTok spokesperson Jamal Brown said, “A US ban on TikTok could directly impact the livelihoods of millions of Americans. Washington lawmakers debating TikTok should hear firsthand from the people whose lives would be directly affected by their decisions. »
For much of the past year, TikTok has rolled out new features and policies to address privacy and security concerns that the Chinese government may have access to US user data, as well as broader fears that its application, like other social platforms, may be harmful to some younger users.
TikTok recently set a default daily screen time limit of one hour on each account for users under the age of 18 in one of the most aggressive moves yet by a social media company to prevent endless scrolling teenagers. It rolled out a feature aimed at offering users more information on why its powerful algorithm recommends certain videos. And the company is committed to more transparency towards researchers.
Amid concerns about its parent company’s ties to China, TikTok has also taken a number of steps to more clearly separate its US operations and user data from other parts of the organization. That includes moving all of its US user data to Oracle’s cloud platform, where it says it hosts “100% of US user traffic.”
The messaging campaign only intensified this week ahead of the hearing. TikTok has rolled out updated community guidelines for content, which the company has defined as “based on our commitment to uphold human rights and aligned with international legal frameworks”. And Chew once again emphasized TikTok’s independence from China.
“I understand there are concerns stemming from the inaccurate belief that TikTok’s corporate structure makes it beholden to the Chinese government or that it shares information about US users with the Chinese government,” Chew said in a statement. remarks prepared before his testimony before Congress. “This is absolutely false.”
Meanwhile, TikTok is now betting on a strategy from US tech companies that have come under scrutiny for other reasons, playing on the impact it is having on small businesses in the US. , including with prepared remarks from the CEO and a documentary mini-series she released. last week titled “TikTok Sparks Good.”
The series highlighted inspiring stories from American small business owners and creators. The first of the 60-second clips features a Mississippi soapmaker with a deep Southern accent who built her business on the app, and the second features an educator who quit her job to focus on sharing informational videos. on TikTok aimed at teaching toddlers how to read.
“Thanks to TikTok, I reach millions of families who want to teach their toddlers to read,” says the educator.
Dozens of TikTok creators who oppose a ban will also hold a press conference on the Capitol grounds Wednesday night with Congressman Jamaal Bowman, a Democrat from New York. TikTok has been stealing some of the creators, the company confirmed to CNN. (The Information was the first to report the move.)
The list of expected attendees includes a disabled Asian-American designer using her platform to fight ableism, a small business owner from South Carolina who started a greeting card company through TikTok, and an India-based chef. Ohio who started his bakery business through the app. Some of the creators have hundreds of thousands or even millions of followers on TikTok.
Even with those efforts, Sherman expressed some skepticism about the persuasiveness of the public relations push, primarily due to the current division in Washington.
“Not everyone wants a ban,” he said. “For some lawmakers, it will matter that TikTok takes all of these steps to address security concerns.”
But for others, it won’t move the needle. “Some lawmakers, frankly, don’t care about the ads TikTok puts out, the promises it makes on its blog about independence, data privacy… They see an irreducible risk of the Chinese government accessing the data and /or influences the content, and the same will push for a complete ban.
Lindsay Gorman, senior researcher for emerging technologies at the German Marshall Fund’s Securing Democracy Alliance and a former adviser to the Biden administration, said that “overall, TikTok’s lobbying efforts up to present have been quite ineffective”.
The problem, she says, is twofold. First, even though TikTok is taking steps to strengthen its protections today, as it did with Project Texas, concerns remain that it’s still “one update away from becoming a vulnerability.” And two, TikTok’s public relations efforts in Washington won’t undo previous moments when the company “shot itself in the foot” by making what it called “misrepresentations” to Congress. “and then bringing out revelations showing that these were inaccurate”. ”
After early Trump-era calls for a TikTok ban seemed to fade in Washington, BuzzFeed reported in 2021 that U.S. user data was repeatedly accessed from China and “everything is seen in China”. The details of the report were apparently at odds with remarks a TikTok executive made to a Senate panel earlier that year, saying a US-based security team decides who can access data from users. US users from China. Following the report, TikTok once again became a hot topic in the nation’s capital.
But even as suspicion among US lawmakers grew, the app’s popularity in the country grew as well.
“I think TikTok’s strongest argument to date is building on its creator user base,” Gorman said. But for some security-concerned lawmakers, the latest push “may be too little too late.”
In his TikTok video on Tuesday, Chew appealed directly to app users. The CEO asked them to write in the comments section to share “what you want your elected officials to know about what you love about TikTok.”
The top comment on the clip, which has received over 50,000 likes, simply reads: “You know something went wrong when the boss has to show up 😂”