TikTok tries a radical new tactic against Congress

TikTok dropped a public hammer on Washington on Thursday, sending a direly worded alert to users urging them to call Congress and stop a bill designed to cut China’s ties to the app.

It signaled how seriously the video-sharing giant is taking Congress’ latest effort to rein in a platform that has long been under fire from Washington with little regulation to show so far.

The move recruited TikTok’s vast user base as a new kind of influence weapon — a maneuver that some tech companies have tried before, this time boosted by the power of immediate alerts, precision targeting and millions of hyper-enthusiastic fans.

The alert was sent to the phones of TikTok users whose House members were on the Energy and Commerce Committee, according to a person familiar with the campaign. The committee was voting on the bill Thursday. Users got a pop-up alert saying, “TikTok is at risk of being shut down in the US. Call your representative now.” They also got a link to a website describing the law as “the TikTok ban.”

The measure would force Beijing-based ByteDance to sell TikTok or face a ban on U.S. app stores.

TikTok users flooded some congressional offices with dozens of calls. Results were mixed: Some staffers dismissed the callers as uninformed, or as pranksters, or as “teenagers and old people saying they spend their whole day on the app.” Some predicted it could cause a backlash.

House Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) said if anything, TikTok’s orchestrated calling campaign “only exposed the degree in which TikTok can manipulate and target a message.”

But others reported sincere feedback: “We’re bombarded. We’re hearing everything from kids saying, 'This is my life, don’t ban TikTok,' to people saying, 'I am a content creator, I really would like my representative to know the impacts this is having on me,'” said a Democratic staffer for a ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The calls didn’t work on the committee: It voted 50-0 to advance the bill on Thursday.

In a statement to POLITICO, TikTok said it served the messages to only users 18 and over.

The unusual move recalls successful campaigns a decade ago, when Google and Wikipedia rallied their users against copyright-protection bills by staging online blackouts and urging protests. The bills died.

The TikTok bill’s Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), quickly mustered a press conference on Thursday and said the company was lying about his bill by calling it a ban: “If you actually read the bill, it's not a ban. It's a divestiture,” he said.

He said his bill puts the decision “squarely in the hands of TikTok to sever its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.” If ByteDance divests, then “TikTok will continue to survive,” he said.

TikTok, a video-sharing app with an estimated 170 million users in America, has been in Washington’s crosshairs for years as a potential national security threat. Its connections to China have raised worries about both its influence on public discourse and China’s access to American data.

The company argues that it is not a security threat: Its headquarters are in Los Angeles and Singapore; the app itself is not available in China; its parent company is not controlled by the Chinese Communist Party; and it has cabined off its U.S.-based data in cloud servers owned by Oracle.

“They’re trying to use these scare tactics to have a bill that gives the government unprecedented access to remove apps from people's phones,” said Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s head of public policy for the Americas. “This is targeting TikTok, but it could go beyond it in an unconstitutional way."

Despite bipartisan concern, Washington has struggled to mount a coherent response, in part because of legal and constitutional protections around any kind of online platform that serves up speech.

Now, however, lawmakers are redoubling their efforts to separate TikTok from its owner. The bill introduced this week, H.R. 7521, targets the video app as a potential vehicle for Chinese national security threats. This time, its sponsors say they are trying to make sure they can get past legal hurdles that have doomed past efforts to ban the technology.

The bill is moving at warp speed by Capitol Hill standards, after lawmakers’ attempts to ban the app failed last year. After Thursday’s vote, it will move to the House floor, where House Speaker Mike Johnson has endorsed the bill.

The bill has 20 bipartisan cosponsors as well as White House support — more backers than any previous legislative effort to date.

However, it could still be difficult for the bill, known as Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, to gain traction, given the partisan politics of the House and no current supporters in the Senate.

It also faces legal and practical hurdles, if passed. China has said it “firmly opposes” any forced sale of TikTok. And it is likely no company could afford to buy it, given its recent valuation of at least$268 billion.

Michael Sobolik, senior fellow for Indo-Pacific studies at the right-of-center American Foreign Policy Council, called the “magnitude” of TikTok’s call-bombing campaign unusual. But he said it’s largely in line with the sweeping influence campaign that TikTok has pursued in Washington.

“The scope of it is impressive, because of how many Americans have the app on their phone,” Sobolik said. “But that’s also easy for TikTok to do. They have a lot more moves up their sleeves coming up that they haven’t played yet.”

The latest TikTok bill also puts the President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign — which recently joined TikTok — at odds with his own National Security Council, which called the bill “an important and welcome step” to address the risks that ByteDance’s ownership poses to Americans’ sensitive data and national security.

The White House is not backing down on its work with TikTok influencers — and in fact, it’s invited a number of them to a State of the Union watch party at 1600 Pennsylvania Thursday.

Olivia Beavers, Hailey Fuchs and Brendan Bordelon of the POLITICO staff contributed to this report.