“Gross spectacle”: TikTok hearing on Capitol Hill goes off the rails into bizarre GOP racism

Sure, TikTok is problematic — but social media delivers a withering verdict on GOP’s racist scare-mongering

By Rae Hodge

Staff Reporter

Published March 26, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee speaks during the hearing with TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill on March 23, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee speaks during the hearing with TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill on March 23, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Facebook collects about as much data from underage users as TikTok does, and federal law enforcement agencies have almost limitless access to that data. Members of the Republican-led House Energy and Commerce Committee already know this — and evidently so does most of the Gen Z audience who watched those largely clueless legislators grill TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew in a marathon hearing on Thursday. 

When leading Republicans on the committee veered the discussion away from U.S. data privacy policies into unfounded accusations against Chew based on his Chinese heritage and incoherent fears about Chinese surveillance, the mockery from online denizens was swift and severe. 

Along with all other major social media platforms, TikTok faces serious criticism for its reported impact on teen mental health by way of its persuasive algorithms, content moderation issues and data collection practices. But during Thursday's grueling five-hour hearing, GOP members sought to accuse TikTok of a baffling and effectively impossible list of misdeeds, engaging in hostile questioning that often betrayed the members' lack of basic technical understanding. In some cases, members barked questions at Chew and wouldn't let him answer. At other times, Chew was asked to personally account for the surveillance policies of foreign governments, where he does not plausibly hold any influence.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, even accused Chew himself of being obligated to cooperate with Chinese intelligence agency data collection. Chinese citizens, Crenshaw said, "must cooperate with Chinese intelligence whenever they are called upon, and if they are called upon they're bound to secrecy. That would include you."

"Congressman," Chew responded. "First, I'm Singaporean."

TikTok has two headquarters, Chew said, one in the U.S. and one in Singapore. Its parent company, ByteDance, is headquartered in China. TikTok has continued to face accusations that it is being used for Chinese espionage. 

Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., was blasted with criticism for her repeatedly interrupting Chew with hostile and largely rhetorical questions — and for demanding that Chew literally repeat the answers she gave him. Even so, he repeatedly corrected Cammack's overwrought assumptions. 

"As pointed out, you have regular contact with Chinese Communist Party secretary Mr. Zhang Fuping, who is your boss at Bytedance, correct?," Cammack asked at one point.

"No. He's neither my boss nor do we have frequent contact," Chew responded. 

Cammack's extended derision of TikTok's content moderation became the most circulated segment of the recorded hearings online. And the moment she concluded her speech was one that summed up the whole show. 

"Can I respond, Chair?," Chew asked Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the committee chairwoman. 

There was an awkward, silent pause. 

"No," she said. "We're going to move on."

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Some even accused TikTok of facilitating genocide against the Uyghur people, a persecuted Muslim minority within China.

Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., was among them. In a later committee meeting, Banks questioned Nury Turkel, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, about whether calling out anti-Asian racism in the TikTok debates was a tactic used by the Chinese Communist Party to deflect from China's detainment of Uyghur people in labor camps. 

"This company is one of the biggest facilitators and enablers of the ongoing genocide," Turkel said. 

Banks again linked genocide to TikTok in a later tweet. 

"The CCP and TikTok are accusing critics of 'racism' to deflect from their espionage. And some US politicians are using their same cheap tactics instead of holding the CCP accountable for its Uyghur genocide. Shameful!" 

It was Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C., who triggered the biggest eruption of mockery online when, in the middle of a hostile line of questions about user data privacy, he asked whether the TikTok website used wi-fi. It's a nonsensical question: To access any website on a mobile phone, a user requires an internet connection, whether through wi-fi or mobile cellular data. 

Visibly befuddled, Chew answered, "Only if the user turns on the wi-fi. I am sorry, I may not understand the question."

Hudson pressed onward: "If I have the TikTok app on my phone, and my phone is on my home wi-fi network, does TikTok have access to that network?"

Although many online reactions were straight-up mockery of congressional cluelessness, the gravity of sinophobia and anti-Asian sentiment also drove the discussion.

Some Republicans suggested that TikTok was responsible for the deaths of children who have participated in dangerous trends that have appeared across multiple websites. Seven children who used TikTok died from one such trend, called the "Blackout Challenge" — content which TikTok says it took steps to remove. Those kinds of "challenges" have plagued social platforms for several years and TikTok isn't unique or unusual in its attempts to block their spread. 

Chew rarely pushed back during his hours of testimony, but when he did his tone was sharp. On several occasions he reiterated that TikTok's data privacy policies largely reflect those of its industry peers. He repeatedly expressed support for wider industry regulation efforts. When asked if he'd be willing to divest TikTok from ByteDance, its Chinese parent company, he responded: 

"American social media companies don't have a good track record with data privacy and user security. I mean, look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica."

He also detailed TikTok's plan for addressing congressional concerns, including the company's strategy to move all its U.S. data to a U.S.-headquartered subsidiary company under a U.S.-led data security team. Other proposed measures included safety policies for teen users, implementing a firewall for U.S. user data, a clear policy of refusing to cooperate with foreign governments and voluntarily opening TikTok's security to third-party independent review. 

All of that was specified again in Chew's post-hearing response. 

Al Jazeera's Sana Saeed was among several prominent voices to criticize the double-standard that marked TikTok's treatment on Capitol Hill, particularly compared to Facebook. 

"These TikTok hearings are a gross spectacle. It's an incredible display of not only soft-war mongering but unabashed racism, with accusations of 'unAmericanism' (of the app & CEO). I guess surveillance, data mining & child harm of Meta's Instagram is acceptably American," Saeed tweeted.

Data privacy experts likewise spoke out, including Eva Galperin, cybersecurity director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

"If you think the US needs a TikTok ban and not a comprehensive privacy law regulating data brokers, you don't care about privacy, you just hate that a Chinese company has built a dominant social media platform," she wrote. 

"Banning TikTok for privacy reasons is absurd when Meta can collect the same data and sell it to governments and foreign companies. Surveillance is apparently not an issue if it's done for profit. The fundamental problem is that the US has no meaningful data privacy laws," wrote Alejandra Caraballo, an instructor at Harvard Law's Cyberlaw Clinic.

TikTok users — with their reputation for turning even the grimmest moments into comedy — brought their A-game to the online debate, quickly turning Chew into a thirst-trap hero.

Other users punched upward at committee members who accused Chew of endangering kids while voting down other child safety measures. 

Some took on the evident lack of technical savvy among those who aim to regulate the tech industry. 

Facebook caught major heat from users for its own problems with data privacy.

At the height of the frenzy, an especially devoted user contingent even created full-on re-enactments, turning Congress' hostile interrogations into increasingly ridiculous parody.

Despite these hearings, extended criticism from both Democrats and Republicans, and mounting concerns from executive agencies, TikTok — for now — remains unbanned, and in practical terms is likely to remain so.

By Rae Hodge

Rae Hodge is a science reporter for Salon. Her data-driven, investigative coverage spans more than a decade, including prior roles with CNET, the AP, NPR, the BBC and others. She can be found on Mastodon at @raehodge@newsie.social. 


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Dan Crenshaw Kat Cammack Racism Reporting Republicans Shou Zi Chew Social Media Tiktok