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What led to TikTok's Washington fumble

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Apr 29, 2024
Animated illustration of the TikTok logo glitching and turning into a no symbol.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

TikTok's D.C. playbook flopped last week when its tactics — better suited to the tech policy debates of a decade ago — failed to keep lawmakers from passing a bill that threatens its very existence.

The big picture: Fighting off business-threatening legislation is why Washington offices of tech companies and their troves of lobbyists and consultants exist.

  • But all the well-paid lobbyists in Washington couldn't help TikTok last week.

What they're saying: "It's shocking to me that they lost their eye on what was going on," said Nathan Leamer, a former FCC adviser and Republican political consultant who was pushing for the bill to pass.

  • "There are things they could have done to mitigate the situation.… There was a lot of bravado and hubris and brushing off of the China connection, only relying on a First Amendment argument."
  • Leamer said TikTok's tactics of encouraging users to contact lawmakers' offices was "clicktivist activism … instead of doing the multilevel approach of engaging on the Hill, doing digital advocacy and telling your story."

Those types of activism tactics that were more popular and appropriate over a decade ago, such as when Internet users coordinated to protest piracy and intellectual property laws SOPA/PIPPA. They don't work in 2024, one former internet industry lobbyist told me.

  • "Back then the companies were able to make assertions like 'You will break the internet, you will kill online expression,'" which doesn't fly with lawmakers now, the source said.

Flashback: TikTok first ramped up Washington operations in 2020 as the app was taking off in the U.S. and politicians were starting to grow wary of its China connections.

  • The company eventually tapped Michael Beckerman, the pugnacious former head of the now-defunct Internet Association, to lead government relations.
  • Lawmakers were already familiar with Beckerman as the face of past Capitol Hill tech fights; he would tout tech's importance to the economy and small business while fighting to keep Section 230 intact.

Friction point: He carried a lot of that same messaging to TikTok. That didn't land as well with lawmakers.

  • Although there was a recognition TikTok had the same kids' privacy and content issues as its competitors, above all, they wanted answers about any China connection, a number of sources told me.
  • "There's been a little bit of failure [on TikTok's part] to identify how the fundamentals for them are different than those of a large U.S. tech company, which was obviously what the company was advocating for," one former Internet Association employee told Axios.

The other side: TikTok has vigorously defended the security of its app and touted its popularity and economic importance in the U.S.

  • "Congress was getting bad information from the Biden administration," Beckerman told me. "It's a difficult geopolitical moment we're in, and we're against the full weight of our competitors, along with people in the president's inner circle fighting for something."
  • "We'll head to court and we're optimistic we're going to be victorious in the end," he said.
  • Although TikTok had been previously able to fight off bills, being attached to a must-pass foreign aid package put TikTok in a hopeless situation, he said.

Follow the money: DC insiders tell me that even though TikTok fumbled in the final days before this bill passed, it was always at a disadvantage to other big tech companies in Washington.

  • These companies have deeply entrenched networks of lobbyists and consultants, along with think tanks they donate to which help spread their messaging.
  • TikTok didn't belong to key major tech associations, spent less on lobbying and ultimately stood alone in their national security issues — providing a useful foil to companies like Meta, which always pointed to TikTok as competition when being accused of being a monopolist.

The bottom line: Washington is very slow until it isn't. TikTok learned that the hard way this spring.

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