In a rare display of bipartisanship, Republican and Democratic lawmakers united to skewer TikTok’s CEO on Thursday over the app’s dangerous impact on children, collection of American data, and ties to the Chinese Communist Party.
TikTok CEO Shou Chew struggled to respond to the barrage of criticism from House Energy and Commerce Committee members over the app’s "invasive surveillance practices," its "Beijing Communist-based China ownership," and its promotion of "suicide, self-harm, and eating disorders to children"—indicating the strong appetite on Capitol Hill for banning the social media site.
"Your platform should be banned," said committee chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R., Wash.) in her opening statement. "I expect today you’ll say anything to avoid this outcome. We aren’t buying it."
Rep. Frank Pallone (D., N.J.), the leading Democrat on the committee, said he agreed with "much of what [McMorris Rodgers] just said" and argued that the "combination of TikTok’s Beijing Communist-based China ownership and its popularity exacerbates its danger to our country and our privacy."
The hearing comes as Congress has been considering several bills to rein in or prohibit the app, amid warnings from national security officials that the popular platform harvests U.S. data that can be used for Chinese surveillance and propaganda operations. It also shows that many Democrats have deep concerns about TikTok despite reluctance from the Biden administration and some left-wing activist groups to endorse an outright ban of the app.
"You have, in fact, been one of the few people to unite this committee, members Republicans and Democrats, to be in agreement that we are frustrated with TikTok, we’re upset with TikTok," Rep. Tony Cardenas (D., Calif.) told Chew, while Rep. Buddy Carter (R., Ga.) welcomed the TikTok CEO to "the most bipartisan committee in Congress."
Chew told the committee that TikTok took their concerns "very, very seriously," saying the company is working on a "firewall" to protect U.S. data and describing "safety, particularly for teenagers, as a top priority for us." He also downplayed the Chinese government’s control over the platform through TikTok’s Beijing-based parent company ByteDance.
"ByteDance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government. It’s a private company," Chew said.
But Chew was evasive when questioned later about ByteDance’s China ties and youth-targeted algorithms, drawing frustration from several committee members.
"I’m not asking how you look at it. Fact, is [ByteDance] a Chinese company or not?" demanded Cardenas in one testy exchange, in which Chew declined to give a clear answer.
"I frequently have this discussion with others about what is a company that is now global," said Chew, to which Cardenas shot back: "I prefer you answer the question and stop dancing verbally."
Rep. Kat Cammack (R., Fla.) also pressed Chew about a post from a TikTok user that threatened violence at the committee hearing, which she said was posted on the platform 41 days ago, before the hearing was publicly announced.
"Me asf at the House Energy and Commerce Committee on 3/23/2023," said the post, which included an image of a gun firing.
Cammack called this a "direct threat to the chairwoman of this committee, the people in this room, and yet it still remains on the platform."
"You expect us to believe that you are capable of maintaining the data security, privacy, and security of 150 million Americans, when you can’t even protect the people in this room?" she asked.
Many members expressed concerns that TikTok’s algorithms promoted video content that encouraged mental health issues, drug use, and body insecurities among teenagers, pregnant women, and vulnerable populations. Chew said he was unable to say what percentage of the platform’s content was "potentially harmful."
"There are those on this committee, including myself, who believe the Chinese Communist Party is engaged in psychological warfare through TikTok to deliberately influence U.S. children," said Carter.