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3 winners and 3 losers from Congress’s TikTok hearing

TikTok, and its CEO Shou Chew, never really stood a chance.

TikTok CEO Shou Chew sits alone at a long table table and looks away from a huddle of photographers in front of him.
TikTok CEO Shou Chew faces photographers during a break in his testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s much-hyped hearing on TikTok, featuring CEO Shou Chew, took place Thursday without many fireworks. But over the course of five hours, lawmakers grilled Chew not only about TikTok’s or his own links to China, but also issues that are common across all social media platforms, like the promotion of harmful content and the immense amount of data they collect about their users.

Members of the committee were almost uniformly critical of TikTok, but many — though not all — eschewed the grandstanding that has become more common at high-profile hearings like this. Instead, they asked Chew things that they actually seemed to want answers to.

This was Chew’s first appearance before Congress, and he’s generally kept a low profile in the United States until fairly recently. So aside from the polished and infrequent videos Chew has posted on TikTok itself, the hearing was the first time many Americans got to see the company’s public face. While the hearing was never going to make or break TikTok, if Chew really blew it, his app’s future in the US could be that much cloudier. And while he was at times evasive and seemed unprepared for some questions that he must have known would be asked, Chew’s big day on Capitol Hill wasn’t a total disaster. His performance probably won’t change anyone’s mind, either.

Thursday’s hearing was also Congress’s chance to make the case to the American people that the app is a national security threat that can only be addressed by a ban. That allegation comes from the potential for the Chinese government to obtain the data of TikTok’s 150 million US users or influence its recommendation algorithms to push propaganda or disinformation on them. Yet that allegation has been backed up by very little public evidence that such things are happening, and so the unprecedented move of banning an app based on that allegation has seemed extreme and possibly unnecessary.

But again, many members of the committee focused their questions not on national security but rather on potentially harmful content that TikTok pushes on children and the potential impact that can have on them. It is certainly true that TikTok is favored by younger users, and the app also has a recommendation algorithm that has been characterized as more powerful and elusive than its American counterparts. But children’s safety issues aren’t unique to TikTok — something many members of Congress also acknowledged — and they also aren’t exactly a national security threat.

At times, the hearing was more about making the case for regulations about social media and children in general than it was about the national security threat posed by one app. And, like opposition to TikTok specifically, there’s a lot of bipartisan agreement that such industry-wide laws are needed. If anything comes out of this hearing, it may be those.

While a lot of questions remained unanswered — and some, arguably, went unasked — there were a few winners and losers.

Winner: The case for children’s online safety laws

If you thought this hearing was just going to be about TikTok’s links to China, you were wrong. Members of the committee also interrogated Chew about algorithms that push content about suicide, drugs, and eating disorders on a vulnerable audience — all the while collecting data about them to make money. TikTok challenges, most especially the “blackout challenge” that has allegedly caused several deaths, also got several mentions (not mentioned: Meta’s alleged role in spreading them). Multiple suicide-related videos that were sourced from TikTok were used as one Congress member’s visual aid, though one of those videos was a clip from Hulu’s The Bear.

The fact is, these are not TikTok-only problems, which Congress knows and the committee acknowledged in the hearing. Many members used the hearing to call for children’s online safety laws that would apply to all social media platforms. That’s not a coincidence. While Congress has had trouble coming together on how, why, and even if it should rein in Big Tech when it comes to privacy, antitrust, and Section 230, there is a significant bipartisan and bicameral consensus that something should be done to protect kids. This hearing won’t be the last thing you hear about it. —Sara Morrison

Loser: Shou Chew

Before the committee had even taken its first break, the scene in the hearing room had started to feel like the Simpsons parking lot fight meme. You know, the one where Homer (dressed up as Krusty the Clown), beats up an actor playing a thief as kids cry “stop, stop, he’s already dead!” Members of Congress showed TikTok’s CEO no mercy with their lines of questioning, lecturing, and clips of dangerous content found on the app. You could argue that Chew never stood a chance.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew looks up at the ceiling of a committee hearing room. He is wearing a white dress shirt, light blue tie, and navy blue suit.
TikTok CEO Shou Chew before he testified to the House Energy and Commerce Committee on the social media app, it’s relationship with its Chinese owner ByteDance, and its handling of user data.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Chew had set himself up for failure before entering the room: A few days before appearing on Capitol Hill, Chew posted a video to TikTok announcing a landmark 150 million Americans, or nearly half of all US citizens, now use TikTok every month. Then, in his opening statement, Chew made the case that the app was thoroughly enmeshed in American culture, arguing that it provides a platform for more free speech and expression, for businesses to grow, and for short videos to enrich American life.

The only problem with this defense of TikTok is that these American lawmakers don’t think all of this amounts to a good thing. They’re convinced TikTok is a danger, and are concerned precisely with how enmeshed in Americans’ lives the app really is. Chew just proved their point.

Chew also, generally, seemed unready for how many questions he would get about TikTok’s internal processes, its ties to the Chinese government and Communist Party, and how data is used. —Christian Paz

Winner: Rep. Jay Obernolte

It’s no surprise when members of Congress, who are famously out of touch when it comes to how the internet works, barely seem to understand some of the technical questions they’re asking, let alone the answers. At least three different representatives in the hearing called the app “Tic Tac,” which is a breath mint. But Jay Obernolte, the Republican from California who has an actual background in computer engineering, development, and artificial intelligence, peppered Chew with questions about the logistics of Project Texas and how it would be possible, technically, for it to give enough transparency into TikTok’s inner workings to mitigate national security concerns. Because of this, when Obernolte came to the conclusion that he didn’t think Project Texas would work, he was believable. —SM

Loser: Project Texas

Project Texas is TikTok’s $1.5 billion attempt to be allowed to continue to operate in the US. The effort intends to mitigate national security concerns as much as possible by keeping all US user data in the country’s borders on servers owned by an American company, Oracle. There would also be some third-party oversight on both the access to data and algorithmic recommendations. At one point, it seemed the Biden administration, through the interagency Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States, would finalize this agreement. But it didn’t, and it seems neither Congress nor TikTok has much faith in its future. There were a few notable exceptions, but by and large Congress didn’t seem particularly interested in Project Texas, except to push Chew on why it wouldn’t be enough.

For his part, Chew gamely tried to defend what the company once saw as the key to TikTok’s future in America when given the rare opportunity, saying, “I haven’t heard a good reason why it doesn’t work,” toward the end of the session. —SM

Rep. Jay Obernolte of California, who has a background in engineering, demonstrated an above-average understanding of how TikTok might work, and peppered Shou Chew with questions.
Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Loser: TikTok’s transparency

Almost every time members of Congress asked a specific question about how TikTok works, how much money it is making, or the ties between TikTok, its Chinese parent company, and the Chinese government, Chew would give a similar reply: That’s private company information that it does not have to disclose. In other instances, he deflected by simply saying he’d check with his team and “get back to you.”

Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA), summed up the frustration in the room when he remarked on how his questions weren’t seeking out “trade secrets.” “You remind me a lot of Mike [sic] Zuckerberg,” Cardenas said. “When he came here, I said to my staff, ‘He reminds me of Fred Astaire: a good dancer with words.’ And you are doing the same today. A lot of your answers are a bit nebulous. They are not a yes or no answer.”

Republican and Democratic members frequently reacted the same way to Chew’s opaque answers. Rep. Angie Craig (D-MN) tied together an answer from Chew, in which he declined to state how he was paid, to the problem of TikTok being foreign-owned: “If you were an American company ... we could see who your shareholders are. The answer you provided earlier today — you would ‘rather not tell us what your compensation is or how it is derived’ — no American CEO would like to tell us that. But they have to.” And she tied his ambivalent answers to why Congress doesn’t buy the Project Texas defense: “How can you say that you are protecting American users’ privacy with the CCP being so heavily involved with ByteDance? It’s not possible.”

Chew didn’t help his case for transparency when he stumbled on simple questions, like whether TikTok is a Chinese company or if TikTok supports genocide. —CP

Winner: Bipartisanship and good old-fashioned civility

Shou Chew did something rare in today’s Congress: He united Democrats and Republicans on the Energy and Commerce committee in a bipartisan condemnation of TikTok.

From the start of the hearing, this consensus was evident: “Let me say that I agree with much of what you just said,” Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), the ranking member on the committee, said in response to the Republican committee chair’s opening statement. Two hours later, Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA) made light of the grilling Chew had been enduring: “Welcome to the most bipartisan committee in Congress. We may not always agree on how to get there, but we care about our national security, we care about our economy, and we sure as heck care about our children.” And later, when Cardenas took a break after asking about how much investment TikTok was planning to make in moderating Spanish-language content, disinformation, and deadly or dangerous content, he chided Chew: “It might sound a little funny, but 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 are upset with TikTok.”

That same sentiment continued to pop up throughout the more than four hours of questioning and points to the larger problem TikTok has: It doesn’t have the active support of anything close to a significant number of members of Congress, and it is in a convenient position for members to show their tough-on-China credentials. —CP

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