Congress is kinda lame, TikTok-verse decides

TikTok’s CEO endured a half-day of non-stop hammering from Republicans and Democrats on Thursday, and the Washington consensus was pretty clear: as one Congressional reporter put it, “an abject disaster for TikTok.”

But this is not exactly the view of the very wide swath of Americans who care personally about TikTok, or watched it from the tech-industry side rather than the politics side.

For a lot of those watching — and live-tweeting, or replying on TikTok itself – the spectacle looked like a CEO being hectored by out-of-touch legislators over issues that plenty of companies face.

It’s a common theme that Congress can look out of touch on technology in social media hearings — it’s a critique that comes up whenever tech executives get hauled in front of committees. The questioners themselves make easy targets for tech-savvy watchers.

There are reasonable arguments, of course, that lawmakers don’t need to be tech experts to make effective laws. But a key twist, this time, was China.

Behind all the questions about kids’ safety and misinformation, a central thread of the hearing was that TikTok is owned by a Chinese parent company, and its data might — might — end up in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. Or might be there right now.

Politically, this feels like a winning issue in Washington. But it also struck a lot of TikTok users and tech insiders as pretty alienating — even xenophobic:

Even the founder of Parler chimed in:

Does it matter what TikTok users think of Congress? It might, if Congress cracks down and the app’s loyal users get mad.

It probably won’t in the near term: the House has little authority and less willpower to do something right now, and on the one Senate bill that might make a difference to social-media regulation, House members haven’t even even picked up the pen to write their own draft.

And in the bigger war of political theater versus real public opinion, aggressive questioning of the TikTok CEO won them very few fans anywhere else. Across the political spectrum, those watching — from a Bernie supporter to a MAGA supporter — pointed out how little Shou Zi Chew was actually allowed to say without being cut off (even when the question was relevant to TikTok). A prominent influencer made a TikTok about it. Rep. Maxwell Frost and a Gen Z activist both called out the performative nature of the hearing.

Call it, at best, a generational draw. Chew’s performance did not sway the House Energy and Commerce Committee — but they didn’t come across well to their digital audience either.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the name of the hearing committee.