Inside the Influencer Campaign to Save TikTok in Washington
People gather for a press conference about their opposition to a TikTok ban on Capitol Hill in Washington, on March 22, 2023. Credit - Brendan Smialowski—AFP/ Getty Images
Before TikTok CEO Shou Chew’s congressional testimony Thursday in front of lawmakers concerned about his platform, he held a meeting in D.C. with a friendlier audience: a cohort of more than two dozen TikTokers who boast more than 60 million followers between them.
Washington is an unfamiliar zone for most of the diverse group of influencers, whose lodging and transportation costs were covered by TikTok. “I almost said no,” Claudine James, an English teacher who posts grammar lessons to TikTok for 5.9 million followers, says of the trip. “I didn’t want to be involved in the political arena.”
But as lawmakers become increasingly interested in banning or curbing TikTok in the U.S., James and others decided they needed to come to advocate for the platform.
The group that came to D.C. includes high-end car content creator Daniel Mac (13.7M followers), adoptive dad Jason Linton (12.9M followers), and married moms Ebony and Denise (6.7M followers). According to a half dozen TikTokers who spoke to TIME, creators spoke with Chew, had meetings with members of Congress and staffers, and took a tour of the Capitol after getting into town early this week. They also posted Washington and advocacy related content during the trip. In between explaining sodium hydroxide and attempting to become the first person to say “twink” in the Capitol rotunda, they spent Wednesday trying to meet with their representatives, talking with the press, and participating in at least one event during which congressional staffers could stop and speak with them during their lunch breaks.
Their goal: keep Congress from restricting access to the social media platform on which many of them make money and friends. Concerns about the app’s data collection practices, as well as its owner, the Chinese company ByteDance, have made it a target of members of Congress in both parties. Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia recently introduced a bill that would eventually allow the executive branch to keep companies with ties to certain foreign countries from operating in the U.S. in the name of national security. The legislation scored more than a dozen bipartisan supporters and President Joe Biden’s administration praised it.
“Mark Warner saying, ‘Well, I know you like TikTok, but you’ll get over it, you can just go to another platform.’ Man,” says Vitus “V” Spehar, who talks to her nearly 3 million followers about politics and civics. “Wow. What a burn. And also, how dismissive to say something like that. I would never say to you, like, ‘Well, Mark, I guess we could just pick another senator. Who cares who it is?’ He wouldn’t like that.”
On TikTok, this is a prominent group of people. But the true test of their influence may be if they can sway Congress IRL. “I think it’s smart of TikTok to be doing this,” says digital consulting firm Rufus And Mane president Madeline V. Twomey, who worked on the Biden campaign’s influencer program ahead of 2020. “But I don’t know if it’ll actually have an impact.”
‘Creators are frustrated’
The TikTokers did earn some support on Capitol Hill, but they also met resistance and silence from powerful politicians during their trip.
On Wednesday, they joined a packed press conference with three Democratic members of Congress: Reps. Jamaal Bowman of New York, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, and Robert Garcia of California. Standing alongside the content creators, the lawmakers denounced a possible TikTok ban, suggesting that the focus on TikTok overlooked the problems with other social media companies in favor of stoking fears about China for political reasons.
Responding to a question from TIME, Bowman told reporters that he prefers TikTok to his other social media platforms. As a user of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, Bowman said, “There’s much less vitriol, much less hate, much less racism, much less disinformation on my TikTok feed. When I go on the other platforms, it’s front and center, right in your face.”
“Today, the first time I sat down in conversation with content creators, they moved me because I see why TikTok is like that,” Bowman continued. “You have people who come from historically marginalized backgrounds who have found a community in which they could be themselves. That’s different than the other platforms.”
But when it came to winning over lawmakers who have been more skeptical about TikTok, creators didn’t see the same immediate results. Spehar says she talked to New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s staff and “got a couple eyebrow raises… no change, necessarily, no statements from them, certainly nothing like that.” (Gillibrand is a co-sponsor of Warner’s bill.) Alexandra Doten, who talks to her 2 million followers about the science of outer space, spoke with staff for her representative, Democratic Rep. Glenn Ivey of Maryland, and with staff for Democratic Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, a former astronaut. She said the staff members she talked to raised concerns about data privacy. Callie Goodwin, who owns a greeting card company and has more than 90,000 followers, was encouraged after meeting with her representative, Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina: “He loved it,” she says. “I gave him some of my cards.” But the meeting did not seem to alter his stance: “Congressman Clyburn meets regularly with constituents and stakeholders advocating a wide range of policies on a wide range of issues,” Clyburn spokesperson Brianna Frias wrote in a statement to TIME. “On this issue, he is supporting the Biden Administration’s policy.”
The other lawmakers the creators mentioned did not respond to TIME’s request for comment. As the TikTokers roamed the halls of the Capitol, some Republicans slammed TikTok’s lobbying effort, PR operation, and the Democrats coming to the platform’s defense. “TikTok is a national security threat, period,” tweeted Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn. “Any member of Congress defending this CCP-owned company is aiding the Chinese Communist Party.”
The influencers who came to the Capitol are particularly vexed by Biden’s refusal to stand up for TikTok. They point out that he and other Democrats have benefited politically from the app, including by using it to help get out the vote; during the Wednesday press conference, Bowman credited TikTok with helping to prevent a Red Wave in the midterms last year.
“I felt super blindsided by it, honestly,” says Spehar. “I have two letters on my desk handwritten from Joe Biden that say, ‘Your platform and the work you’re doing is so important.’ How is that true and you’re gonna let Marsha Blackburn call every TikToker a Chinese propagandist?”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
“Creators are frustrated,” says Aidan Kohn-Murphy, a creator with nearly 300,000 followers who helped start Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey’s TikTok in 2020 before launching an effort to help Biden through the app. That effort eventually became Gen-Z for Change, a coalition of young people using social media to push for progressive causes. “TikTok is one of the most effective organizing tools that Democrats have to mobilize young voters. But also it seems like, in the discussion of a potential TikTok ban, there’s been very little inclusion of young people… I think that banning TikTok would not exactly be a demonstration of how the White House is focusing on and including young people in conversations about policy that will affect them.”
For many of the content creators, TikTok isn’t just about connecting with fans: it’s where they make their living.
Doten, who was previously a contractor for the U.S. Space Force and NASA, says she quit her 9-to-5 job in November in order to become a full-time content creator. She makes most of her money through TikTok and she says she’s now earning roughly the same amount each month that she did working for the government.
Goodwin says 95% of the 30,000 greeting cards she’s sold over the last few years have been thanks to TikTok—she knows because of Shopify’s system, which lets her see the source of her traffic. The money has allowed her to hire a part-time assistant and to purchase supplies in bulk.
Spehar says she makes about $600 each month from TikTok’s creator fund, and exposure from her TikTok helps her make money from other ventures, like her podcast. Baker Baedri Nichole, who co-owns a confectionery company and has 17,600 TikTok followers, says that TikTok was instrumental in helping her make $11,000 selling cocoa bombs, meltable chocolate orbs filled with hot chocolate toppings, in three months during 2020’s holiday season.
“More than 150 million Americans, including 5 million U.S. businesses, rely on TikTok to innovate, find community, and support their livelihoods,” wrote TikTok spokesperson Jamal Brown in a statement to TIME. “A U.S. ban on TikTok could have a direct impact on the livelihoods of millions of Americans. Lawmakers in Washington debating TikTok should hear firsthand from people whose lives would be directly affected by their decisions.”
Although some creators say they would try to move to other platforms if they had to, they don’t think TikTok’s competitors could offer the same benefits—particularly the platform’s ability to get their content in front of people who don’t already follow them. If TikTok was banned tomorrow, creators said, they would “cry,” “immediately start applying to jobs,” and do everything in their power to get it back.