Mar 20, 2023
TikTok Plasters DC With Ads Before Skeptical Lawmakers Confront CEO
(Bloomberg) -- TikTok is intensifying its public-relations blitz days before its chief executive officer testifies on Capitol Hill this week, but congressional aides say there’s little he can say that will convince lawmakers the app can be insulated from Chinese influence.
The company bought ads in the Washington Metro system, at Union Station and in the Washington Post, and sponsored Politico’s Playbook newsletter as well as Axios’s tech-focused Login newsletter.
A four-page color ad in the New York Times on Monday included a QR code linking to TikTok’s US Data Security website, which features a cartoon video explaining how the company that operates the popular short-video app has invested $1.5 billion in security.
“Safety. Privacy Control. Your priority. Our commitment,” proclaimed one advertisement at Union Station. “We’re protecting your personal data and the integrity of the platform, while still allowing you to have the global TikTok experience you know and love,” says another.
The ad campaign was rolled out before CEO Shou Chew’s appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday. Committee staff who briefed reporters before the hearing said lawmakers don’t believe the platform’s $1.5 billion investment in data security can protect the app ,owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd., from Chinese influence.
The aides, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity before the testimony, picked apart elements of the plan, known as Project Texas, dismissing the proposal to house US data in domestic Oracle Corp. servers and allow auditing of TikTok’s recommendation algorithm.
The Biden administration has already rejected that plan, the aides said, leaving Chew with a losing argument for Thursday’s public hearing.
One of the aides on Monday described Project Texas as nothing more than marketing. Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington State Republican, has long advocated for stricter rules online, especially regarding protections for children.
Rodgers has heard from grieving parents who lost children to suicide, overdoses from fentanyl pills bought online and dangerous stunts that young TikTok users challenge each other to do, according to the aides.
They said Chew should expect to hear some of those stories on Thursday.
That skepticism underscores just how much of a struggle Chew and TikTok will face in trying to win officials and lawmakers to its side, particularly during a time when anti-China rhetoric is running high in the US. Lawmakers have proposed numerous bills that would seek a US ban of the app.
Last week, people familiar with the matter said US officials rejected TikTok’s security plan, telling ByteDance to sell its shares or risk a ban of the app in the US. The company says its plan goes well beyond what other apps do to protect user security.
It’s not for lack of trying. The ad campaign is part of a broader push by TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance Ltd. to lobby against a ban. ByteDance spent nearly $5 million last year on federal lobbying, according to disclosures. That effort has continued this year with Chew and other TikTok executives meeting with lawmakers in private to answer any questions about Project Texas and assure them that it is Chew, not the Chinese Communist Party, who is in charge.
A TikTok spokeswoman, Maureen Shanahan, said the public debate about TikTok doesn’t reflect the facts and the company’s investments in security measures, adding that the platform is sharing information about those efforts more widely.
“For some time, TikTok’s status has been debated in public in a way that is divorced from the facts and the significant advances we’ve made in implementing Project Texas,” Shanahan said. “We’re working to make sure that the facts are included in conversations about TikTok by sharing our efforts more widely.”
Earlier this month, TikTok said it would automatically impose a 60-minute limit for users under age 18, an attempt to address concerns about its effect on teenagers.
Energy and Commerce members will address their concerns about other online platforms as well, the aides said, touting last year’s effort to pass comprehensive data privacy legislation that received bipartisan support in the committee but failed to advance.
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