Ahead of TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew’s much-anticipated testimony in the United States House of Representatives today, the embattled tech firm conducted a full-court press on Capitol Hill. This included paying to bring TikTok influencers face-to-face with their home state lawmakers, staffers, and journalists, as well as sharing their journey with their collective audience of some 60 million followers.
TikTok covered travel, hotels, meals, and shuttle rides to and from the Capitol for dozens of influencers, according to the creators and the company itself. Each social media star was also invited to bring a plus one—whether they flew in from Oklahoma, hopped the Acela from New York, or drove in from their suburban Washington home. TikTok spokesperson Jamal Brown confirms that “TikTok covered travel expenses for all creators and a guest.”
“Any barriers to getting here they helped cover,” says Tiffany Yu, a Los Angeles-based influencer and disability advocate tapped to speak yesterday at a highly orchestrated press conference under the Capitol’s majestic dome.
While some influencers report paying their own airfare to Washington, everyone we talked to took the free hotel. It’s unclear precisely what folks were offered as part of the trip to Washington, but seemingly everyone got one perk or another. Beyond the more than 30 influencers in attendance, along with their travel buddies, WIRED counted 10 other people who were, in one way or another, at the Capitol on behalf of TikTok.
“More than 150 million Americans, including 5 million US businesses, rely on TikTok to innovate, find community, and support their livelihoods,” spokesperson Brown says. “A US 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.”
The nearly dozen influencers WIRED spoke with did not hide the fact that TikTok brought them to Washington to support the company. (The plan was first reported by Politico and The Information.) “They took us here, but we’re not being paid,” says Jorge Alverez, a mental health advocate from New Jersey. TikTok “paid for transportation—that’s also public information.”
Alexandra Doten, an expert in space communications who goes by @astro_alexandra on the app, is based near Washington, DC. But she says she also received support from the company. “I got the hotel too!” she says. “I don’t know. They just shuttle me there.”
While Doten was able to meet with her congressman, Maryland’s Glenn Ivey, this week, the highlight for her was meeting astronaut-turned-senator Mark Kelly of Arizona. She also got a true taste of life at the Capitol when the state’s other senator, Kirsten Synema, sent a staffer to meet with the influencers on her behalf. It’s unclear if their goodwill tour will sway any of TikTok’s countless congressional critics, who claim the app poses a threat to US national security.
Chew is the latest in a line of Big Tech executives who’ve had to face hostile (if often uninformed) lawmakers. But unlike Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg or Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai, Chew is the only CEO who has had technology banned on US government devices or been accused of being a puppet for the Chinese Communist Party.
TikTok’s response to lawmakers asserting that the CCP could use the app for everything from espionage to election-influence operations is to launch a PR offensive on Washington. In addition to the more than $10 million the company has dropped on lobbyists over the past two years, this week it also tapped the Los Angeles-based Hotline Agency, “a Black and queer-owned boutique creative communications agency,” to help retell its story. Hence, the company spending lavishly this week to ensure its best assets—its diverse group of creators—get private face time with Washington power brokers before members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee accuse Chew of being an operative for Chinese communists.
At TikTok’s press conference yesterday, the enthusiasm emanating from the crowd of more than 140 people was tangible; influencer stories were deeply personal. After a brutal month for the beleaguered tech firm, all the cheering and sign-waving for Yu and other speakers, including three sympathetic Democratic lawmakers, made it seem like TikTok had finally turned the tide and gotten organic momentum on its side. That tone soon clashed with the TikTok signs held by members of the crowd that had a glossy (but not too glossy) sheen indicative of a high-priced PR firm.
Much as the app’s users are addicted to its unparalleled For You feature, TikTok’s team carefully manicured this press conference to appeal to journalists’ most basic instincts. A taco influencer, with a cake served up for dessert; a nurse; a “patriot”; artists; musicians; and a model. The press corps, which made up roughly half the crowd, couldn’t look away.
The tech company isn’t just throwing money at its image problems. It also announced new safety features ahead of today’s hearing, including acquiescing to pressure to drastically limit the time children are allowed to spend on the app daily, from unlimited to 60 minutes.
TikTok also enjoyed the vocal support of some lawmakers. Advocates for the app say the company poses no more of a threat to America’s children than, say, Facebook did when it allegedly buried research showing Instagram was a health risk to children, according to one whistleblower.
“My question is, why the hysteria and the panic and the targeting of TikTok?” Congressman Jamaal Bowman asked yesterday’s crowd. “As we know, Republicans, in particular, have been sounding the alarm creating a red scare around China.”
But it’s not just Republicans calling for a TikTok crackdown. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has spoken out against the app, and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries appointed Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois—one of TikTok’s loudest foes in the Capitol—as the top Democrat on Republicans’ new, high-profile select committee on China. Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, recently introduced bipartisan legislation that could lead to a full TikTok ban in the US.
While the anti-TikTok furor marks one of the most bipartisan policy areas in today’s divided capital, Congressman Bowman says the rush to punish TikTok is distracting lawmakers from the serious privacy concerns he has with Silicon Valley’s finest. “It poses about the same threat that companies like Facebook and Instagram and YouTube and Twitter pose, so let’s not marginalize and target TikTok,” Bowman told the crowd. “Let’s have a comprehensive conversation about legislation that we need—federal legislation—to make sure people who use social media platforms are safe and their information is secure and their information is not being shared or sold to third parties.”
Bowman also correctly pointed out that “there are still data brokers who sell our data to other countries and businesses. In other countries, they sell to the highest bidder.” He concluded: “Let’s not be racist toward China and express our xenophobia when it comes to TikTok because American companies have done tremendous harm to American people.”
As for the influencers, they say it’s hard even to have a dialog with many members of Congress because fear of China has blinded them to what the influencers see as the beauty of TikTok’s social platform. In her remarks, influencer and Ohio native Nichole Baedri (aka @Backinthekitchenwithbae) invited the nation’s political class to join the wild ride that is TiKTok. “Connect with us on another level,” she said. Baedri further implored lawmakers to recognize the value of the app, like how it has helped marginalized individuals connect and share their stories in an impactful way. “Use the app as intended.”
When House Energy and Commerce Committee member Marc Veasey, a Texas Democrat, learned that TikTok had footed the bill for more than 30 influencers and hired a PR firm to polish its image, he says he was “not surprised”—even if his reaction suggested otherwise.
“I did not know that,” he said. “Wow. Wow.”
During the hearing, Veasey pressed Chew on all the voter disinformation on the platform, but he says the CEO’s response was guarded and off-putting. As you might expect, Veasey’s takeaway is the opposite of what TikTok influencers and staffers were selling to lawmakers on Capitol Hill all week.
“He came here today to be very careful, instead of transparent,” Veasey says. “He came to be careful and evasive. He did not come to be forthcoming.”