As a growing number of lawmakers raise national security concerns about 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 dig into these issues. 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 attempted to save his company.
In his talk, Chew, the CEO of TikTok, said the social network would not provide US user data to the Chinese government and has never been asked to do so. Chew stressed the steps TikTok has taken to protect US user data. And four separate times, Chew told the audience that the platform’s mission was to “inspire creativity and bring joy” to users.
The Harvard event is just one of several media appearances Chew has made in recent weeks amid mounting scrutiny of TikTok and of himself. Chew is set to testify on Thursday for the first time before a Congressional committee about “TikTok’s consumer privacy and data security practices, the platforms’ impact on kids, and its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party,” according to a statement last week from the committee. Meanwhile, federal officials are now demanding the app’s Chinese owners sell their stake in the social media platform, or risk facing a US ban of the app.
Chew, a Singaporean who has largely stayed out of the spotlight since taking over TikTok in 2021, recently sat for interviews with multiple US newspapers and this week showed up in a video on the corporate TikTok account to highlight the vast reach of the app, which he revealed now has more than 150 million users in the United States.
“That’s almost half the US coming to TikTok to connect, to create, to share, to learn, or just to have some fun,” said Chew, wearing in a hoodie and t-shirt like any other American tech executive in the clip. “This comes at a pivotal moment for us. Some politicians have started talking about banning TikTok, now this could take TikTok away from all 150 million of you.”
Chew’s heightened visibility appears to be part of a larger messaging campaign by TikTok to bolster its reputation in the US and remind voters – and their representatives – how essential the social network is to American culture.
A press conference is planned for Wednesday with dozens of social media creators on the steps of the Capitol, some of whom have been flown out there by TikTok. The company is paying for a blitz of advertisements for a Beltway audience. And last week it put out a docuseries highlighting American small business owners who rely on the platform for their livelihoods.
Behind the scenes, Chew has also met with members of Congress and TikTok recently invited researchers and academics to its Washington, D.C., offices to learn more about how it is working to address lawmakers concerns over its ties to China through its parent company, ByteDance. Its parent company has also ramped 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, the CEO of Global Cyber Strategies, D.C.-based research and advisory firm, who was among the researchers TikTok invited to be briefed on “Project Texas,” the company’s $1.5 billion initiative to address lawmakers’ security concerns. “They are throwing everything they can at the problem.”
In a statement, TikTok spokesman Jamal Brown said: “A U.S. ban on TikTok could have a direct impact on the livelihoods of millions of Americans. Lawmakers in Washington debating TikTok should hear firsthand from people whose lives would be directly affected by their decisions.”
For much of the past year, TikTok has been rolling out new features and policies to address privacy and security concerns that the Chinese government could gain access to US user data, as well as broader fears that its app, like other social platforms, can be harmful to some younger users.
TikTok recently set a default one-hour daily screen time limit on every account for users under 18 in one of the most aggressive moves yet by a social media company to prevent teens from endlessly scrolling. It rolled out a feature that aimed to offer more information to users about why its powerful algorithm recommends certain videos. And the company pledged more transparency to researchers.
Facing 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 its US user data to Oracle’s cloud platform, where it says it hosts “100% of US user traffic.”
The messaging campaign has only ramped up this week ahead of the hearing. TikTok rolled out refreshed Community Guidelines for content, which the company framed as being “based on our commitment to uphold human rights and aligned with international legal frameworks.” And Chew once again stressed TikTok’s independence from China.
“I understand that 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 U.S. users with the Chinese government,” Chew said in prepared remarks ahead of his testimony before Congress. “This is emphatically untrue.”
At the same time, TikTok is now betting on a strategy from American tech companies who have faced scrutiny for other reasons, playing up the impact it has on small businesses in the United States, including with the CEO’s prepared remarks and a mini docuseries it released last week titled “TikTok Sparks Good.”
The series spotlighted inspiring stories of American small business owners and creators. The first of the 60-second clips features a Mississippi soap maker with a deep Southern accent who built her company on the app, and the second features an educator who quit his job to focus on sharing informational videos on TikTok aimed at teaching toddlers how to read.
“Because of TikTok, I’m reaching millions of families who want to teach their toddlers how to read,” the educator says.
Dozens of TikTok creators who oppose a ban will also be holding a press conference on Capitol grounds on Wednesday evening with Congressman Jamaal Bowman, a Democrat from New York. TikTok flew out some of the creators, the company confirmed to CNN. (The Information was first to report the move.)
The list of expected attendees includes a disabled Asian American creator using her platform to combat ableism, a small business owner from South Carolina who launched a greeting card company via TikTok, and an Ohio-based chef who built her bakery business via the app. Some of the creators have hundreds of thousand or even millions of followers on TikTok.
Even with these efforts, Sherman expressed some skepticism about how persuasive the PR push will be, mostly because of how divided Washington is right now.
“Not everyone wants a ban,” he said. “For some lawmakers, it will matter that TikTok is taking all these steps to address security concerns.”
But for others, it won’t move the needle. “Some lawmakers, frankly, do not care what ads TikTok is taking out, what pledges it’s making on its blog about independence, data privacy … They see an unmitigable risk of Chinese government access to data and/or influence over content, and so are going to push for a complete ban.”
Lindsay Gorman, a senior fellow for emerging technologies at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy and a former Biden administration adviser, said that “by and large, TikTok’s lobbying efforts so far have been pretty ineffective.”
The problem, she said, is two-fold. First, even if TikTok takes steps to bolster its safeguards today, as it has been doing with Project Texas, concerns remain that it’s always “one update away from becoming a vulnerability.” And second, TikTok’s PR efforts in Washington won’t undo previous moments when the company “shot itself in the foot” by making what she said were “inaccurate statements” to Congress, “and then having revelations come out showing that those were inaccurate.”
After the initial, Trump-era calls for a TikTok ban appeared to fade in Washington, BuzzFeed reported in 2021 that US user data was repeatedly accessed from China and that “everything is seen in China.” The details in the report were seemingly at odds with remarks a TikTok executive gave before a Senate panel earlier that year, claiming that a US-based security team decides who can access US user data from China. Following the report, TikTok once again became a hot button issue in the nation’s capital.
But even as suspicion among US lawmakers grew, so did the app’s popularity in the country.
“I do think TikTok’s strongest argument to date is drawing on its creator user base,” Gorman said. But for some lawmakers with security concerns, the latest push “may be too little too late.”
In his TikTok video on Tuesday, Chew appealed directly to users of the app. The CEO asked them to write in the comments section to share “what you want your elected representatives to know about what you love about TikTok.”
The top comment on the clip, which has received upwards of 50,000 likes, simply reads: “You know something went wrong when the boss has to show up 😂”