TikTok’s CEO Shou Chew heads to Congress Thursday to defend the app known for its viral dance videos and lip syncing against concerns it poses a national security threat.
Pressure has been building from both the White House and Congress to force the Chinese-owned company to sell TikTok to an American company or face a nationwide ban.
And while TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, have never been in more political hot water, over on the app it’s still all viral pasta recipes, dogs demanding a “cheese tax,” and not a whole lot of paranoia about data privacy.
The scrutiny TikTok is getting on Capitol Hill is something we’ve seen before, said Shannon McGregor, an assistant professor at University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism and a social media researcher.
“This happened with radio and television,” McGregor said. “This is not distinct to social media, but because of the very quick rise of Americans and young Americans using TikTok, we’re seeing this moral panic cycle play out.”
And when we say TikTok has had a “very quick rise,” we’re talking about 150 million Americans using the app on a monthly basis, according to an announcement from TikTok. That means the number of Americans using the app has grown by more than 100 million users since 2019, according to data from Statista.
One of those users is Heidi Kaluza. She’s a creator who talks about sustainability in the fashion industry with her roughly 50,000 followers.
Kaluza said she understands concerns about personal data but isn’t concerned herself. She said she’s been aware of how her data has been used for a long time, and “whether it’s our government or the Chinese government, they probably have access to it anyway. … There’s really no way to opt out at this point.”
Kaluza wondered instead why there is new focus on data privacy, and why it’s on this company in particular.
“I don’t want just the ‘big, dark, scary China is using your information,’” she said. “It’s like, ‘OK, well, how? And why would they be using it in that way?’”
McGregor said that sentiment is common among social media users.
“When we look at public opinion polls, people will report being vaguely concerned about how much data these platforms have on us, but not to the point where they really want to take away their use of it or even the benefits we get from it,” McGregor said.
Arianna Tong, a lifestyle influencer with almost 120,000 followers on TikTok, said she’s more concerned about creators like her who rely on the app to make money.
“All these people now have opportunities and capital and resources to have the life that they want,” Tong said. “Creators are people, and they’re now finally getting to pursue opportunities that they’ve never dreamed of.”
So is there a way to ensure user safety on TikTok without booting the whole platform?
McGregor said lawmakers could go a different direction altogether. She’d like to see lawmakers “passing bills that allow independent researchers access to social media platform data so that we can answer these questions,” she said.
“How much propaganda is there on TikTok? I don’t know, but that’s an empirical question,” McGregor added.
We’ll see how TikTok’s CEO navigates questions himself when he appears on Capitol Hill tomorrow.