To woo US legislators, TikTok brings its influencers

TikTok is ramping up a public relations campaign to fend off the possibility of a nationwide ban by United States President Joe Biden’s administration, and it is bringing some unconventional advocates to help: online influencers.

Dozens of TikTok creators – some with millions of followers on the video-sharing app – came to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to lobby in favour of the platform, one day before legislators are slated to grill the company’s chief executive about concerns over user data falling into the hands of the Chinese government.

Shou Zi Chew plans to tell US Congress on Thursday that TikTok, which was founded by Chinese entrepreneurs and has 150 million American users, is committed to user safety, data protection and security as well as keeping the platform free from Chinese government influence.

He will also answer questions from US legislators worried about the social media platform’s effects on its young user base.

At the heart of TikTok’s trouble is a Chinese national intelligence law that would compel Chinese companies to fork over data to the government for whatever purposes it deems to involve national security. There is also concern Beijing might try to push pro-China narratives or misinformation through the platform.

At a media event coordinated by TikTok on Wednesday, some content creators acknowledged that concerns about data security are legitimate but pointed to precautions the company is taking. This includes a $1.5bn plan – dubbed Project Texas – to route all US data to domestic servers owned and maintained by the software giant Oracle.

TikTok has been attempting to sell that proposal to the Biden administration but sceptics have argued it does not go far enough. The administration is reportedly demanding the company’s Chinese owners sell their stakes or face a nationwide ban.

Janette Ok, a fashion and beauty influencer on TikTok, said in an interview on Wednesday that TikTok invited her to the lobbying event a few weeks ago and paid for her trip to Washington, DC.

She has been able to make a full-time career from her videos, earning income from partnerships with brands looking to capture the eyes of her 1.7 million followers. She said her popularity on TikTok has also allowed her to have other opportunities, like TV and commercial acting roles.

“I don’t know much about politics but I know a lot about fashion and I know a lot about people,” Ok said. “And just to be here and share my story is what TikTok has invited me to do.”