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Armed with influencers and lobbyists, TikTok goes on the offense on Capitol Hill

The social media application logo, TikTok is displayed on the screen of an iPhone on an American flag background. With the TikTok CEO set to testify on Capitol Hill on Thursday, influencers and lobbyists are pressing the government not to ban the app.
OLIVIER DOULIERY
/
AFP via Getty Images
The social media application logo, TikTok is displayed on the screen of an iPhone on an American flag background. With the TikTok CEO set to testify on Capitol Hill on Thursday, influencers and lobbyists are pressing the government not to ban the app.

Updated March 22, 2023 at 2:57 PM ET

TikTok is fighting to justify its existence in the U.S. And it's pulling out all the stops in Washington, D.C., this week in the hopes of proving the government shouldn't ban the app.

Dozens of TikTok creators and influencers will gather on Capitol Hill on Wednesday evening to talk about how the app is central to their livelihoods and communities. Creators of popular accounts like "Back in the Kitchen with Bae," "Sparks of Joy" and "Chem Teacher Phil" are expected to appear at the event, which is being organized by the Chinese-owned company.

"Lawmakers in Washington debating TikTok should hear firsthand from people whose lives would be directly affected by their decisions," said TikTok spokesperson Jamal Brown.

TikTok CEO Shou Chew is set to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday and talk about the company's privacy practices, the app's impact on children, and its relationship with China's government.

Two days ahead of his testimony, he posted a 1-minute video to TikTok's official account, which has more than 69 million followers. With the U.S. Capitol as his backdrop, Chew said TikTok now has more than 150 million users in the United States. He said that he plans to tell Congress everything the company is doing to "protect Americans using the app."

"Some politicians have started talking about banning TikTok," Chew added. "Now, this could take TikTok away from all 150 million of you."

The heat on TikTok is rising, and so is its spending on lobbyists

Bringing creators to the Capitol and speaking directly to TikTok users are all part of the company's larger lobbying efforts in the country.

The app is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance and has been battered by the U.S. government over the last few months.

Lawmakers from both parties have said they're worried about the app sharing Americans' data with its Chinese owners. Congress is scrutinizing its data and privacy practices, and several bills have been introduced to regulate the social media company.

The FBI and Department of Justice are reportedly investigating whether the app spied on U.S. citizens, including journalists, according to Forbes.

On top of all that, President Joe Biden is looking into possibly barring the app. His administration has demanded TikTok's Chinese owners sell their stakes in the app or face a nationwide ban. Former president Donald Trump also threatened to ban the app, in 2020.

As the heat on TikTok has rapidly risen over the past few years, so has TikTok's spending on lobbying.

In 2022 it spent more than $5.3 million on dispatching lobbyists to make its case, according to Open Secrets, a nonprofit that tracks lobbying spending.

That's nearly 20 times more than the $270,000 it spent in 2019 and puts it in the same league as major Washington players Facebook and Google.

"In 2019, they spent essentially pennies on lobbying activity. And now they have spent the fourth most of any tech company lobbying Congress," said Sarah Bryner, research director for Open Secrets.

"It's just monumental."

Tech companies trying to sway lawmakers tend to go from doing nothing to hiring big names, like former members of Congress who have a lot of connections, Bryner said.

For TikTok that meant bringing in former senators - including Trent Lott, R-Miss., and John Breaux Sr., D-La. - as well as 40 other lobbyists last year, according to Open Secrets.

"These kinds of new entrees [like TikTok] oftentimes like to skip the introductory stage and jump right to the big guns, which is why we see these really explosive increases in their spending," Bryner said. And, "nothing spurs lobbying activity like the threat of being regulated."

Looking to the app for a livelihood and personal connections

Meanwhile, many U.S. creators say they don't want to see the app go.

Ashley Capps, who has more than 200,000 followers on TikTok, said she believes lawmakers should be able to work with the company to create adequate safeguards for users.

Capps lives in Florida and has been on TikTok since 2019. She said her livelihood now depends on the app because it's how she gets new clients for her business. She creates videos that she said can help people "make the world a better place"—anything from gardening to document research to how to stay safe online.

But it has also helped her connect with others beyond business.

"TikTok saved my life, in a sense... It helped me to know that I wasn't alone," Capps said. "And I have learned more in the last few years being on TikTok about life and about other people's lives than I have ever learned anywhere else."

She has urged her followers to write letters to all of the House Energy and Commerce Committee members advocating to keep TikTok's lights on.

And, on Thursday, Capps will be closely watching the hearing.

"I will be live streaming it, funnily enough, on my TikTok," she said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 24, 2023 at 6:00 PM HST
An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified former Senator John Breaux Sr. as a Republican. He is a Democrat.
Dara Kerr
Dara Kerr is a tech reporter for NPR. She examines the choices tech companies make and the influence they wield over our lives and society.
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