News & Politics

TikTokers Came to Capitol Hill to Speak Out Against a Possible App Ban

Representative Jamaal Bowman invited content creators to share how a ban on the popular app would hurt them.

Photography by Keely Bastow.

You may have seen some familiar faces from your For You page on the streets of DC yesterday—TikTokers were in town. During a press conference held by Representative Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat and newfound ally of TikTokers everywhere, content creators were given the chance to speak about a possible TikTok ban. 

One content creator in attendance, Jason Linton (@dadlifejason, 12.9 million followers), posts videos of his foster family. He said losing TikTok would take away “everything that we have all built together. The support networks, the allies, the friends, the safe space we have to express ourselves, and the people we turn to when we need advice. All of that, gone.”

Creator Jason Linton speaks about what his TikTok account, @dadlifejason, means to him. Photograph by Keely Bastow.

Other speakers stressed the importance of the platform to small businesses. Over five million operate on TikTok, according to Bowman. Callie Goodwin (@sparksofjoyco, 91K followers), owner of Sparks of Joy greeting card company, said the app has been a “gamechanger” for her and that 95% of her sales come from TikTok. 

The app, which has over 150 million users in the US, is hugely popular among young people. Anybody passing through Capitol grounds yesterday evening would have noticed the groups of young hill staffers who came to the press conference to sneak a peek at some of their favorite creators. Banning the app will alienate young voters, warned creator V Spehar (@underthedesknews, 2.8 million followers), who is known for giving people topical news from under their desk.

“This is a place where you build trust and community, this is a place where we’ve activated,” Spehar told Washingtonian while livestreaming on TikTok. “You see young people like Olivia Julianna who raised two million dollars for a woman’s right to choose–on TikTok. You see people getting folks to the polls to vote in Georgia–on TikTok … Getting Biden the White House is something that was done on TikTok.”

Following in the Trump administration’s footsteps, the Biden administration is attempting to force TikTok’s owner, the Chinese tech company ByteDance, to sell the app. The White House recently endorsed a bipartisan bill that would grant the Commerce Department more power to ban or limit apps rooted in foreign countries, and lawmakers from both parties increasingly are expressing concern about the Chinese government using TikTok for surveillance and propaganda purposes.

To address those concerns, TikTok has proposed hiring an American tech company, Oracle, to store American users’ data and safeguard against any Chinese influence over what videos Americans view on the app. TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is testifying before Congress today, and likely will face tough questions about American users’ privacy and safety.

Under Chinese laws, domestic and even foreign companies operating in China can be compelled to share data with the government. The data that TikTok collects is substantial and includes users’ ages and phone numbers as well as their online habits and IP addresses. At a Congressional hearing last November, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that “the Chinese government could use [TikTok] to control data collection on millions of users or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations if they so chose, or to control software on millions of devices, which gives it an opportunity to potentially technically compromise personal devices.” The Justice Department reportedly is investigating the surveillance of American journalists by ByteDance employees attempting to identify the source of leaks of company information.

In a “Myth vs. Fact” document provided to Washingtonian by TikTok, the company states that its app operations in the US are subject to US privacy and data security laws and that “all protected US data will be stored exclusively in the U.S. and under the control of the U.S.-led security team. This eliminates the concern that some have shared that TikTok U.S. user data could be subject to Chinese law.”

Wisconsin Representative Mark Pocan said yesterday that a ban on TikTok alone wouldn’t solve the privacy and security concerns present on all social media apps. He supports creating legislation that strengthens data protections across all platforms. “We are stronger than the Wednesday dance,” he joked.

In addition to rallying support for their preferred platform—and, in some cases, their income streams—the creators also planned to spend time outside of the Capitol. Spehar, who lived in DC from 2013 to 2019 while working for a catering company, said they were trying to land a table at Dauphine’s or the new Ghostburger

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to clarify US government concerns that TikTok can be compelled to share data by the Chinese government and to include TikTok’s response to those concerns.

More photos:

TikTokers gather with Representatives Mark Pocan, Jamaal Bowman, and Robert Garcia after the press conference. Photograph by Keely Bastow.
Representative Bowman rounded out the press conference by saying, “Republicans ain’t got no swag, that’s why they want to ban TikTok.” Photograph by Keely Bastow.
Kenny Jary, who served in the Navy from 1959-1965, uses his account @patriotickenny to help veterans get scooters. Photograph by Keely Bastow.
Representative Robert Garcia from California, who is queer, said, “For all the queer creators, thank you for what you do for our community, it’s an enormous step forward.” Photograph by Keely Bastow.

Editorial Fellow

Keely recently graduated with her master’s in journalism from American University and has reported on local DC, national politics, and business. She has previously written for The Capitol Forum.