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WASHINGTON — Flanked by TikTok influencers, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., used a Wednesday afternoon news conference outside the U.S. Capitol to launch a defense of the popular social media platform, whose ownership by a Chinese company could result in a sweeping and unprecedented ban in the United States.
“Let’s not marginalize and target TikTok,” he said, accusing Republicans of fostering a Cold War-style “Red Scare around China.”
Bowman’s defense came the day before TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew was expected to testify before Congress in an effort to assure legislators that the app — now used by some 150 million Americans — was neither spying on Americans nor feeding them harmful or deceptive content.
Intelligence assessments have concluded that TikTok is doing just that, but Bowman pronounced himself unconvinced.
“I haven’t seen any hard evidence that TikTok is committing some form of espionage. What I’ve heard is speculation. And what I’ve heard is innuendo,” he said earlier this week.
Influencers spoke at Bowman’s rally about how TikTok had helped them find community or customers for their small businesses. Supporters of the platform say it is a refuge for marginalized groups that feel unwelcome on Twitter and Facebook.
“A ban on TikTok would be devastating,” said popular TikToker Jason Linton, who uses the app to share his parenting experience.
Wednesday’s news conference had a polished, carefully managed feel. TikTok recently hired the high-powered public relations firm SKDK, an expert at staging such events.
In recent weeks, TikTok has launched a public relations and lobbying counteroffensive, intended to keep the Biden administration and Congress from forcing either a sale or an outright ban of TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance.
A similar push by the Trump administration proved unsuccessful, but concern about TikTok has grown alongside its popularity, which rose sharply during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.
Half of all states have banned TikTok from government phones and computers. President Biden ordered that TikTok be purged from federal devices late last year, even though his administration has also courted TikTok influencers to promote its agenda.
“Republicans ain’t got no swag. That’s why they want to ban TikTok,” Bowman said, explaining that he was using the popular term to reference “engaging young people in the democratic process.”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, also a Democrat, defended TikTok in a television interview in February.
“We use TikTok on one device that has nothing else on it,” she told Jake Tapper of CNN. “It is a communication tool. We don’t do it because it’s fun, although some people think what I put out there can be fun on occasion. My kids disagree.”
TikTok could prove invaluable in next year’s elections — if it is still possible to access the social media platform on American devices by then. Despite the app’s popularity, 40% of Americans support a ban.
“I don’t use TikTok, and I would not advise anyone to do so,” U.S. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said recently in a speech in London.
Competition with China has emerged as a top policy of the Biden administration. Last year’s CHIPS Act, a $52 billion federal investment intended to stimulate the American semiconductor industry, was seen by Beijing as a direct affront, especially since the measure also included bans on chips manufactured in China (that ban has recently been loosened). Biden has also kept some Trump-era tariffs in place.
The sale of nuclear submarine technology to Australia was widely understood by China as a U.S. effort to boost a key regional ally ahead of an expected Chinese invasion of Taiwan, which could take place within the next three or four years.
Since his election to Congress in 2020, Bowman has aligned himself with the progressive group of House members known as “the Squad,” but none of its most prominent members joined him at the pro-TikTok rally or publicly voiced their support.
Instead, Bowman was joined by two members of the House Progressive Caucus, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Robert Garcia of California.
“TikTok is a lot of things to a lot of different people. First and foremost, it is entertainment,” Garcia said. “It is fun.”
Bowman said that TikTok contributes to mental health and is a valuable educational tool. There is little evidence for either assertion.
The three congressmen argued that banning TikTok would infringe on Americans’ free speech rights, an argument rooted in a common misunderstanding of First Amendment protections (Republicans have marshaled similar arguments), which do not prevent the government from regulating corporations.
And they argued that while there are broader problems with social media, TikTok should not be singled out simply because it is owned by a Chinese company.
“I am personally not feeding into the xenophobia, the hysteria and the fear. Take a breath, take a step back, have a larger conversation,” Bowman said, arguing that focusing on TikTok is “myopic.”
The progressive congressman’s fiery rhetoric clashed with bipartisan agreement that TikTok presents a national security concern, in large part because the parent company, ByteDance, abides by a Chinese law mandating that it share data with Beijing. (TikTok has denied such allegations.)
Bowman’s defense of TikTok received some harsh reviews from fellow Democrats. “Anyone defending TikTok is either too caught up in being a social media celebrity or they’ve been brainwashed by the Chinese government’s propaganda,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey told the New York Times.
Republicans were even less kind, with Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas alluding to an insulting term for Western supporters of the USSR who insisted on denying the cruelties of the Soviet system.
Bowman’s defense of TikTok appeared to clash with progressive scrutiny of corporate influence on American life. And it put him at odds with the White House, which has maintained its anti-TikTok stance.
“We’ve been very clear about the national security risks that we think it poses,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at a Wednesday news briefing.
Cover thumbnail photo: Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images