Progressive lawmakers are emerging as the fiercest defenders of TikTok on Capitol Hill as the push to ban the popular video-sharing app heats up in Washington.
A handful of left-leaning lawmakers — including members of the “Squad” — have voiced support for TikTok and opposition to banning the platform, taking on a vocal coalition of bipartisan members who believe the app should be prohibited in the U.S.
The anti-TikTok ban crowd — while recognizing that the app poses concerns — has advocated for a broader conversation about data privacy and social media, arguing that zeroing in on TikTok would not alleviate the issues at hand. Members have also pointed to free speech concerns and the practical and political positives that come with the platform.
“I think what you’re seeing is [the] progressive caucus coming out, you know, one, on behalf of the First Amendment, two, more importantly, that we want to do something across all social media platforms around privacy of data,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a former chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told The Hill in the Capitol late last month.
He said, however, that the group has not formally discussed the matter and support “just happens” to be within the caucus.
The congressional campaign to ban TikTok hit a fever pitch last month when the CEO of the app, Shou Zi Chew, testified before a House committee for five hours. Lawmakers from both parties grilled him on concerns regarding national security, data privacy, the dissemination of misinformation and safety for children.
TikTok is owned by Chinese-based company ByteDance, which has led to fears among some lawmakers that the app could be subject to Chinese laws when it comes to how U.S. data is handled.
Members in both chambers have sponsored legislation that would either ban the app or give the Biden administration the ability to do so if deemed necessary. But a small, yet growing, group of Democrats and at least one Republican — Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) — is pushing back against a prohibition, setting the scene for a high-stakes and high-profile clash over social media in the U.S.
Calls for a ‘comprehensive conversation’ about social media
Some of TikTok’s progressive defenders argue the concerns posed by the app are no different than those of other social media companies, calling for a “comprehensive conversation” about all internet platforms.
“We have seen numerous examples of harmful data privacy and misinformation tactics by large social media companies, and at no point has an outright ban on their platforms been considered until now,” Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) said in a statement. “I have concerns about the potential privacy and misinformation risks posed by TikTok, but I also have similar concerns about Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and other for-profit social media companies.”
Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), the first high-profile lawmaker to back the app amid the campaign to ban it, expressed the same concerns at a press conference last month alongside TikTok creators.
“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, a TikTok user himself, said.
That argument, however, has come under some scrutiny. Darrell West, a senior fellow at the Brookings Center for Technology Innovation, told The Hill that while other social media companies do “collect an extraordinary amount of data on customers,” concerns regarding TikTok are on a higher level because it is owned by a Chinese-based company.
“They collect a lot of information about consumers,” West said of platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, “but of course the concern about TikTok is it’s owned by a Chinese company and so therefore, you know, is there a risk of the information being shared with Chinese authorities?”
“Facebook does not operate in China so, you know, there’s little risk of that,” he added.
Some say a TikTok ban would not address concerns at hand
Lawmakers have argued that banning TikTok would not help address the concerns at hand, namely how much data social media companies are allowed to collect.
“To me, the solution here is not to ban an individual company, but to actually protect Americans from this kind of egregious data harvesting that companies can do without your significant ability to say no,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said.
The congresswoman posted her first video on TikTok last month to stake her opposition to a ban.
During a press conference with TikTok creators last month, Pocan said “there is a real problem and we should be addressing it and it includes TikTok and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and other platforms, about our data and our privacy of our data and selling our data and allowing misinformation — but that is not what’s being addressed when people say they want to ban TikTok.”
West, the Brookings fellow, agreed with that sentiment, saying that “banning one app is not going to deal with the wide range of privacy and security concerns that are out there.”
The practical — and political — benefits of TikTok
Progressives have also cited the practical and political benefits of TikTok when pushing against a ban.
Bowman, Pocan and Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) held a press conference last month with TikTok creators, who outlined how the app helped turbocharge small businesses and create communities.
“TikTok is a lot of things to a lot of different people,” Garcia, who called himself a “TikTok superconsumer,” said. “First and foremost, it is entertainment, it is fun.”
“But also, the thing to think about is what it’s done for small businesses, the amount of revenue it’s actually beginning back into the system for all of these content creators, for brands, for businesses across the country, and for the profiles it’s raising of folks who would not have the same voice on any other platform,” he added.
Lawmakers have also recognized the power TikTok holds in speaking with voters. Rep. Summer Lee (D-Pa.), who is against a TikTok ban, called the app “an incredible organizing tactic,” and Bush said it “served as a platform for organizing.”
Some have speculated that Democrats may be opposed to a TikTok ban out of fear of losing support among Generation Z voters, who helped the party perform better-than-expected in last year’s midterms.
Asked about that idea late last month, Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-Fla.) — who made history last year as the first Generation Z individual to be elected to Congress — told reporters “it’s something to think about but it’s not the driving factor.”
“There’s real concerns about data and privacy, but those same concerns exist for all big tech, for all social media, and I think it’s important that we look at it,” he added.
Lawmakers seek more information
Lawmakers who are against banning TikTok also said they want more information. They noted that despite hearing about national security concerns with the app, Congress has not yet received a briefing.
“Usually when the United States is proposing a very major move that has something to do with significant risk to national security, one of the first things that happens is that Congress receives a classified briefing,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “And I can tell you that Congress has not received a classified briefing around the allegations of national security risks regarding TikTok.”
“So why would we be proposing a ban regarding such a significant issue without being clued in on this at all? It just doesn’t feel right to me,” she added.
FBI Director Christopher Wray testified last month that TikTok “screams” of national security concerns, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he believed the platform was a national security threat and “should be ended one way or another.”
Bush, however, said she has not seen any evidence to back up such claims.
“As Congress members, we have not received a single briefing–classified or otherwise–on national security risks posed by TikTok, and at this time, I have not seen sufficient evidence to justify a nationwide ban,” she said in a statement.