Rep. Jamaal Bowman, DN.Y., shouts praise to President Joe Biden after the State of the Union address in the House Chamber of the US Capitol on Tuesday, February 7, 2023.
Tom Williams | Cq-roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images
Although many lawmakers are advocating a ban or sweeping changes to the popular video-sharing app TikTok, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, DN.Y., the app, which has garnered nearly 160,000 followers and 2 million likes posting about his thoughts and the work of Congress.
On Wednesday, Bowman will host a news conference with more than 30 TikTok creators whose platforms are threatened by the US government’s push for greater restrictions on the app. The event stands in stark contrast to the deep skepticism that TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is sure to experience from many of Bowman’s colleagues when he testifies Thursday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee about how to protect the company protects US users from tracking and other harm.
Fears about how the Chinese government could access US user data through TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance have inspired. prohibitions of various degrees across the US, including a federal ban on the app on government-owned devices.
TikTok said last week that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US had threatened a broader ban on the app if ByteDance did not sell its stake. The interagency group is examining potential national security risks stemming from ByteDance’s 2017 acquisition of TikTok precursor Musical.ly. TikTok, in turn, has offered an extensive plan to make its processes more transparent and to be removed from the parent company in an effort to quell concerns.
But Bowman believes fears of potential dangers associated with the app are out of proportion to the available evidence about its vulnerabilities.
“Now, if I get more information based on the DOJ investigation or something like that, I will stand up and say I was wrong and go the other way,” Bowman said in an interview with CNBC, apparently referring to recently reported Justice Department investigation on allegations that former ByteDance employees spied on journalists. “But right now what I’m hearing is a lot of fear and speculation and not as much actual evidence.”
That has led to TikTok being unfairly characterized, both as a social media company and a business with a Chinese owner, according to Bowman. The US has many long-standing business relationships with China, he said, and there are many other China-based apps on American phones.
Bowman supports new regulations for the tech industry but believes they should apply to all major platforms to protect consumers.
“TikTok or not, we haven’t done enough in terms of making sure social media is safe, not addictive, doesn’t push misinformation and can be used in the safest possible way,” Bowman said.
Wednesday’s news conference will highlight creators with more than 60 million combined followers who will share the app’s impact on their lives. TikTok has leaned on the strategy of highlighting users in its appeal to lawmakers. On Tuesday, Chew appeared in a video on TikTok’s official account pointing to the company’s 150 million monthly active users in the US and asking those users to share in the comments what they like about the app.
While TikTok helped bring creators to Washington, Bowman’s office primarily worked with creators to organize the event, according to Emma Simon, Bowman’s digital director and press secretary. Bowman’s office had already planned to meet with the creators. Simon said he learned that TikTokers were hoping to gather a news conference and worked with them to make it happen.
Bowman’s experiences with TikTok have informed his thinking about the app, where he says he encounters less misinformation and hate than other platforms. He said banning the app would effectively push some creators back to platforms where they might encounter more negativity or at least a different environment than the one that exists on TikTok.
He found that TikTok helped him reach new constituencies, especially younger ones, that he hadn’t engaged with before through other means of communication.
Unlike Bowman, many of the lawmakers who will question Chew on Thursday don’t have TikTok accounts (or even public-facing ones). The lack of familiarity with the app may be part of what pushed lawmakers toward a ban, Bowman said.
“When you don’t understand something, you often fear it. And when you fear it and you don’t understand it, you look to get rid of it,” Bowman said. “I think that’s what a lot of members of Congress are looking for right now.”
Bowman became more personally involved with TikTok at Simon’s urging. Simon, 23, is in TikTok’s core demographic and said he pushed Bowman to engage more directly with the app to reach constituents, moving it from an avenue he once used in the office to simply repost the media hits.
“Everything started to change” once he got her to vlog the daily House election speaker earlier this year, Simon said. The videos helped Bowman, 46, quickly grow his following and set a new tone for the congressman on the platform.
What Simon told his boss was to show him how many children are using TikTok, especially on other platforms. He said he loves interacting with young people and is passionate about education. Fears of Chinese influence were not really part of the discussion.
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