Updated Mar 7, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Furious Congress plows forward with TikTok bill after user revolt

Illustration of the US Capitol with TikTok's logo.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Members of Congress are being flooded with calls from angry constituents after TikTok launched a new campaign warning its users that the Chinese-owned app was at risk of being shut down in the U.S.

Why it matters: A key House committee voted unanimously Thursday afternoon to advance bipartisan legislation that would force ByteDance — TikTok's Chinese parent company — to divest its ownership of the app within 165 days.

State of play: The highly unusual 50-0 vote in the House Energy and Commerce Committee — which unveiled the bill two days ago alongside the China Select Committee — reflected the level of anger among some members about TikTok's pressure campaign.

  • House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) announced Thursday he would bring the "critical national security bill" to the House floor for a vote next week.
  • The White House has indicated that President Biden would sign the bill, injecting new urgency — and aggression — into TikTok's campaign to counter the yearslong efforts to address the app's national security risks.

Zoom in: The flood of calls to congressional offices, which began Wednesday night, was triggered by a notice on the TikTok app warning users of a "total ban" that would "damage millions of businesses, destroy the livelihoods of countless creators across the country, and deny artists an audience."

  • After asking users to enter their ZIP code, TikTok then directed them to call their representative in Congress to let them "know what TikTok means to you and tell them to vote NO."
  • "Phones are completely bogged down hearing from students, young adults, adults, and business owners who are all concerned at the option of losing their access to the platform," a senior GOP aide told Axios' Juliegrace Brufke.
TikTok push alert
Screenshot via TikTok

Zoom out: The authors of the bill responded furiously to what they called a "massive propaganda campaign," emphasizing that TikTok would not be banned if Bytedance divests its ownership.

  • "TikTok is characterizing it as an outright ban, which is of course an outright lie," House China Select Committee Chair Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) told reporters.
  • "I guess if you've got a bajillion dollars, you can come up with some crazy public affairs strategies," a senior GOP aide told Axios' Andrew Solender. "But it's backfiring as members are livid about all the calls and misinformation."
  • "So bad we turned phones off … Which means we could miss calls from constituents who actually need urgent help with something," a senior Democratic aide added.

The intrigue: TikTok is banned on federal devices and Biden administration officials helped with the bill's technical language — but the Biden campaign joined the app last month in an effort to reach young voters.

  • The White House also briefed around 70 digital content creators and influencers — many who are prominent on TikTok — ahead of Biden's State of the Union speech on Thursday, WIRED first reported.
  • Multiple polls have found TikTok to be the top source of news for Gen Z, and an increasingly popular source for Americans overall.

What they're saying: "We are going to try to meet the American people where they are," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters when asked if the campaign's embrace of TikTok sent a conflicting message.

  • "It doesn't mean that we're not going to try to figure out how to protect our national security," she added.

The big picture: The bill marks the latest effort in what has become one of Washington's longest-running tech dramas, which began in August 2020 when then-President Trump ordered ByteDance to sell TikTok.

  • That effort was held up in court, and for most of the Biden administration the company's fate in the U.S. has hinged on a long-awaited and still-pending decision from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S.
  • Last year, the White House National Security Council threw its support behind the RESTRICT Act, a different bill aimed at TikTok that has languished in the Senate.

What to watch: Gallagher called on Biden to address the threat posed by TikTok's Chinese ownership in his State of the Union address.

  • "It's incumbent upon him to talk about our foremost national security threat, which is the Chinese Communist Party. And this is part of that threat," Gallagher said.
  • "I think the president would be wise to focus squarely on what we can do together — as Republicans, as Democrats, as Americans — to stand up to increasing Communist aggression."

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that TikTok asked users to manually enter their ZIP code (it did not use geolocation) before directing them to call their representative.

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