As the sun began to set over the grassy corner of the Capitol’s East Front where supporters of Washington’s important cause of the week gather to speak to the media, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) attempted to put the great TikTok/national security debate in perspective by giving a gaggle of reporters a glimpse into his own scrolling experiences.
“I have watched dogs jump over couches and destroy tables,” the congressman said. “I have watched people do magic tricks. I’ve watched people do interviews. I’ve watched food being made.”
“None of that is a threat to this country,” Pocan said. “We are stronger than the ‘Wednesday’ dance.”
A group of some 30 TikTok creators standing behind him chuckled enthusiastically. They’d arrived in Washington earlier in the week to dive headfirst into a mission that quickly turned existential: to rescue TikTok from politicians who are worried about China using the social media platform to collected data on Americans.
TikTok had plucked the creators from different corners of the country to speak with lawmakers about what they fear losing if the government imposes restrictions on the app: income they have generated from selling products to their followers, an outlet for their creativity and the communities they’ve found on the platform. (Creators said that the company paid for their flights and lodging but did not directly compensate them for their time.) They included individuals from diverse walks of life: an 81-year-old Navy veteran in a red scooter, a chemistry teacher, a greeting-card business owner who derives 95 percent of her income from TikTok sales; a disability rights advocate, two chefs and a 19-year-old who yelled “twink” in the Capitol Rotunda.
This month, the Senate unveiled a bill that would grant the government broad powers to investigate, disrupt and block transactions by entities based in China — and other named “foreign adversaries” such as Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela. The bill, called the RESTRICT Act, even got the coveted endorsement of President Biden, whose White House last year recruited creators to take his message to young voters. Some of these creators now see their livelihoods as being endangered by their own lawmakers, who say the Chinese-owned app poses a national security threat because it opens Americans’ data to espionage from Beijing. (Critics of government intervention have argued that the spying threat is overblown and based on thin evidence.)
Take Grace Amaku, for example. The 27-year-old said she’d been trying to jump-start a career in entertainment, attending comedy clubs at night after grueling, 12-hour shifts as a nurse. When the pandemic hit, she found herself filming her own jokes and impressions on her account, which has since amassed 1.5 million followers. Without TikTok, she said, she’d be unable to afford her place in Los Angeles or help her family.
“My parents don’t have money,” she added. “They literally moved here from Nigeria, like, 30 years ago, so they rely on me as well for money.”
Despite the sympathies of lawmakers such as Pocan and Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who organized the news conference, the vibes on the Hill weren’t exactly immaculate. Several creators said they attempted to meet with lawmakers only to be turned away or offered a meeting with office staff. Even if they did get past the front doors of various congressional offices, members weren’t necessarily moved by their stories. So it goes in Washington, where constituents frequently travel to explain how proposed legislation would upend their lives only to be thwarted by a lawmaker’s busy schedule or the abstract, conversation-ending shapelessness of the national-security concern.
“They’re clinging on so tightly to the national security side … [that] they’re so detached from the individuals using the platform,” said Jorge Alvarez, a 24-year-old creator who uses TikTok to try to destigmatize mental health challenges. He was a panelist alongside first lady Jill Biden during the Mental Health Youth Action Forum last June at the White House, where he met the president.
Unlike many advocates who visit Capitol Hill in hopes of drumming up support and press attention, the TikTok creators have the benefit of being their own media machines. V Spehar, who hosts a TikTok news channel with 2.8 million followers, trotted around the Hill holding a skinny black tripod with their phone inches away from their face. It wasn’t their first time in the District, either: Spehar visited the White House last October as part of a trip organized by the Democratic National Committee designed to court the content creator class and engage youth voters.
That was a less tense time. In a video posted to their account Wednesday night, Spehar compared the Senate bill to the infamously invasive Patriot Act, telling their followers that the RESTRICT Act “wouldn’t just ban TikTok. It gives the government the ability to shut down any platform that they deem is ‘unsafe.’”
Spehar’s video, which has been viewed more than 312,000 times, includes a disclaimer in the caption: “for legal purposes this is a joke a question a quandry [sic] and not a proven fact — all this allegedly.”
Other creators posted photos posing with Shou Zi Chew, TikTok’s CEO, at a private dinner on Tuesday. Some made the classic D.C. tourist rounds, such as going out on a boat on the Potomac River. Alvarez grabbed books at Politics and Prose. The Navy veteran, Kenny Jary, toured the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin. (Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported that Silicon Valley types dined on seared branzino Wednesday evening with lawmakers and Washington elites on Capitol Hill.)
After Thursday’s hearing was done, Amaku just had to make some content. She laid on a thick Southern accent in a caricature of a lawmaker intent on cutting off the TikTok CEO during his testimony.
“You’re taking the WiFi, and using it to control our minds and make us into zombies. Yep, absolutely,” Amaku told the camera dressed in a white button-down and a skinny black tie, mimicking the adversarial Congress. “And, and you’re determining the age of your users by allowing users to put in their age when they sign up for their profile. That’s creepy. I can’t believe that.”
“No, no, no, no. Sorry, my time is up. You can’t speak — you cannot speak.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Grace Amaku as Akara in two instances. The article has been corrected.