Congress Asks Is TikTok Really 'An Extension of' the Chinese Communist Party?
TikTok's CEO served as little more than a punching bag for lawmakers with a dizzying array of big tech grievances.
Today's congressional hearing on TikTok was supposed to probe the company's ties to China, its plans to secure U.S. user data, and its effect on kids. For this purpose, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce called in TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew to testify. But it quickly became clear that lawmakers weren't at all interested in hearing what he had to say. Chew was there—as so many tech company leaders have been in recent years—as part punching bag and part prop, a body against which the dozens of participating lawmakers could hurl rants about algorithms, social media, and, in this case, communists.
During the first several hours of the TikTok hearing, lawmakers were largely split between focusing on issues of user privacy and national security and on whether TikTok is harming teenagers and other vulnerable populations. But on both fronts, Chew's interrogators seemed more intent on grandstanding than on actually learning or uncovering anything new.
Imagine someone repeatedly asking you if you plan to stop killing puppies. You would probably want to assert that you did not, in fact, kill puppies in the first place. Now imagine that every time you tried to say this, your interrogator yelled that whether you would stop murdering puppies was a simple yes or no question—so yes or no? That's basically what happened with Chew at this hearing, over and over again.
This is a shame, because there are actually lots of issues on which his answers could have been illuminating—especially about Project Texas, TikTok's plan to protect user data and give a third party (Oracle Corp.) access to its code.
Instead, the parts about TikTok's parent company ByteDance and its ties to the Chinese government followed a predictable pattern. A lawmaker would assert some unsubstantiated claim about Chew, TikTok, and/or ByteDance being tools of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and ask Chew some variation on whether he planned to remedy this. When Chew would start to object to the premise of the question, the lawmaker would quickly interrupt, insisting either that Chew was being untruthful or that it was a simple binary question and Chew could only answer yes or no.
It was maddening to watch, making clear just how little lawmakers cared about anything but hearing themselves talk. A few samples exchanges:
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D–Calif.) asked how TikTok can say there's a firewall on U.S. user data because "the Chinese government has that data." Chew responded, "Congresswoman, I have seen no evidence that the Chinese government has access to that data." Eshoo countered, "I find that preposterous."
Rep. Kat Cammack (R–Fla.) closed her time by telling Chew, "Your app is an extension of the CCP." Chew asked if he could respond but was told no, it was time to move on.
Rep. Bill Johnson (R–Ohio) claimed that TikTok's code was "riddled" with avenues of CCP "censorship" and asked Chew whether he had directed TikTok employees to "change that source code." Chew started to object, saying he didn't understand the question, and was told by Johnson that he should just answer yes or no.
Rep. Tim Walberg (R–Mich.) claimed ByteDance is "connected directly to the Chinese Communist Party." Chew said that wasn't true. Walberg said, "It's a fact," and Chew—starting to appear the slightest bit frustrated by this point—said, "It's not actually." Walberg said Chew reports directly to ByteDance, followed by, "Let me move on."
The demand that Chew provide yes or no answers to questions that clearly required more nuance was also a prominent feature of folks asking him whether TikTok was bad for children, people with eating disorders, and other groups. Lawmakers would offer a tragic anecdote about a kid who did something harmful after allegedly learning about it on TikTok or some sort of cartoonishly evil take on TikTok's operations. Then they would demand Chew answer yes or no to an inquiry premised on the fact that this evil caricature was true or to a complicated question about how TikTok's algorithm factored in or something like that.
Congressional hearings would be much better if Committee rules prohibited loaded questions. Not all questions can be answered with yes/no answers. https://t.co/LvmZgU3A3i
— Daniel Castro (@castrotech) March 23, 2023
"Your technology is literally leading to death," said Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R–Fla.) after telling a story about a young man who was supposedly driven to suicide by watching TikTok videos. "Mr. Chew, yes or no, do you have full responsibility for your algorithms used to prioritize content?"
When Chew tried to express sympathy to the kid's family, as any normal human being might in such a situation, Bilirakis interrupted, barking "Yes or no?" before launching into a tirade about how "we must save our children from big tech companies."
A lot of lawmakers took their turn questioning Chew to go on generic rants about how social media, algorithms, and tech companies were dangerous to minors. For instance: Big tech platforms, like cigarette companies, made a deliberate choice "to addict kids," said Rep. Kathy Castor (D–Fla.).
Others wanted to berate Chew because not everything posted to TikTok is 100 percent accurate (welcome to the internet, folks!). For instance, Rep. Diana DeGette (D–Colo.) was concerned that people could find incorrect information about self-induced abortions and COVID-19 treatments.
And what would a congressional hearing about tech issues be without a few doses of utter cluelessness about technology?
Rep. Richard Hudson (R–N.C.) wanted to know if TikTok accessed home Wi-Fi networks (if a person with TikTok on their phone connected to a home Wi-Fi network, then yes, Chew explained) and if that means TikTok was also accessing other devices connected to that Wi-Fi network. Rep. John Curtis (R–Utah) asked Chew if TikTok could write an algorithm that would "persuade me to change my view on a policy issue?"
Rep. Paul Tonko (D–N.Y.) asked if Chew could pledge that TikTok would stop using data about users' mental health to push particular content to them. When Chew responded, "We don't do that," he was greeted with the familiar refrain: "Yes or no?"
Tonko went on to ask what percentage of content seen by a TikTok user could be categorized as "harmful" and seemed annoyed by Chew's inability to simply spit out a percentage (as if there's some way to say definitively if every single video is harmful or not and if TikTok deliberately chooses to push some amount of dangerous videos to all users). Tonko upped this absurd question with more specific versions of it, demanding Chew say how much "distressing content" was pushed to teens, to expecting or new parents, to people with eating disorders, and to people with addiction issues (as if TikTok even knows such details about the personal lives of its users in the first place).
Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.) asked why TikTok couldn't be as good as some Chinese social media apps at removing potentially harmful content about government officials. "They dance around the issue, but of course the reason is that there's less free speech in China," commented Daniel Castro, vice president of the think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. "Americans should be glad that US social media is more free."
That gets at perhaps the central paradox of the hearing. U.S. lawmakers profess worry about the control the Chinese government has over private businesses, social media platforms, and internet user data of Chinese companies. At the same time, they're seeking ever more information from and control over U.S. platforms.