Torn on TikTok

The proposed ban on TikTok, the app that seemingly shows every young person in the world in at least one dancing video or activist rant, is a lesson in paradox and lobbying.

Sure, it’s about free speech and national security, too, as legislators like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) have pointed out, the former criticizing a potential ban on free speech grounds, the latter warning of spying, data collection, and propaganda perpetrated by the app at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

And therein lies the paradox.

When a House Committee introduced legislation last week (a Gallagher co-sponsored, bipartisan effort) that offered ByteDance — the parent company with a literal staff of embedded CCP members — the choice of divesting from TikTok (presumably so a freedom-loving billionaire can buy it) or facing a ban, thought leaders began thinking aloud and former TikTok foes switched sides and became TikTok defenders. The app is, after all, an extremely powerful propaganda tool as evidenced by President Joe Biden’s recent decision on liquified natural gas policy change after the issue went viral among environmental activists on TikTok. I’ll let you decide which was the tail and which was the dog in that scenario.

TikTok also has the potential to upend the fundraising game. As one writer noted in The Daily Nebraskan, “TikTok has changed the world of activism.”

“No matter where you land on TikTok, everyone has experienced some form of activism as they scroll. Whether that be community leaders encouraging viewers to attend local protests, Taylor Swift asking people to vote or just a general call to action, no one is immune to the pull of these attention-grabbing videos that call for the reform of the future,” the piece mention.

It has all been very confusing. But, like most things in Washington, the flip-flops, defensiveness, and aggressiveness likely have a lot to do with money.

And therein lies the lobbying.

Last summer, after Congress grilled the TikTok CEO over hot coals in a series of hearings, OpenSecrets crunched the numbers: TikTok spent a LOT on lobbying, using “’revolving door’ lobbyists who previously held federal government positions working for prominent members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, as well as several powerhouse lobbying firms with government connections in their arsenal.”

“In total,” OpenSecrets reported, “ByteDance poured more than $17.7 million into lobbying since the Chinese-owned social media company first reported payments to federal lobbyists in 2019.”

The app, after news of the bill went live, even tapped their users to engage in a bit of free lobbying on its behalf, leading one Republican legislator to allege the app was targeting children “to be the primary agents of lobbying Congress on behalf of a foreign power.”

Which brings us to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a much-discussed piece of legislation that’s been the subject of reform discussion of late.

FARA doesn’t prevent lobbying, but it does require that lobbyists for foreign interests register as such (which might be awkward for those revolving door lobbyists mentioned up top and presents an absolute hot mess of a situation when considering how TikTok tapped users to speak up and defend it against the proposed ban).

The House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, led by Chairman James Comer (R-KY), sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland last month asking why TikTok had not yet been required to register under FARA.

“The growing public evidence that TikTok is used as a tool to advance a global pro-CCP agenda is troubling,” the letter stated. “Researchers are increasingly worried that TikTok could be ‘one of China’s most effective weapons in the global information war,’ using Chinese-style censorship and transforming how users intake and understand real-world events. For example, the questionable scarcity of content related to the Hong Kong protests and other political criticisms of the CCP suggests that the CCP is using the app to influence Americans, constituting ‘political activities’ under FARA, and possibly doing so at the behest of another foreign principal, the CCP.”

Comer and company are likely right. TikTok has, after all, been preparing for a pushback since 2018, which is more than a little suspicious and lends credence to the belief that its end goals were more than just to give the kids a place to show off their new dance skills.

So, will TikTok be saved?

Given the federal government absolutely has the authority to ban TikTok if it’s deemed a national security concern but has offered ByteDance the option to divest (something the Trump administration had come close to negotiating toward the end of his term), it would appear the intent is to save it from having to go through FARA hoops and a protracted debate over the First Amendment.

If all goes well, and a buyer is identified, the question of whether it should be banned might become less of a concern in the coming months.

This article first appeared on on March 12, 2024.

Sarah Lee

Sarah Lee was born and raised in Atlanta, Ga., but found herself drawn to Washington, DC, the birthplace of her mother, after completing a master’s degree in public administration from…
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