Four big questions for Washington on TikTok

Author: Editors Desk, MALLORY CULHANE Source: Politico
March 11, 2024 at 13:07
Trump claimed the bill would only empower Facebook — potentially splitting Republican supporters and raising big questions about what’s next. | Kiichiro Sato/AP
Trump claimed the bill would only empower Facebook — potentially splitting Republican supporters and raising big questions about what’s next. | Kiichiro Sato/AP
A new bill would force Beijing-based ByteDance to sell TikTok or face a ban on U.S. app stores.

Suddenly, the most pressing question in the policy world is an issue barely on the radar a week ago: What happens to TikTok?

A forced sale or ban of the popular social media app is suddenly a serious agenda item as the House rushes to a fast-tracked vote expected on Wednesday this week.

The idea once seemed like a pipe dream for China hawks and rival American tech platforms. It gained sudden life with a new bill that passed through committee 50-0 on Thursday after the bill triggered a surprise protest tactic from TikTok itself, when the app tried to mobilize its users en masse.

This bill would force Beijing-based ByteDance to sell TikTok or face a ban on U.S. app stores. It looked like it was on rails, fast-tracked right into the floor. Then came a big complication in the form of a Truth Social post from former President Donald Trump.

Trump claimed the bill would only empower Facebook — potentially splitting Republican supporters and raising big questions about what’s next. Trump doubled down Monday morning, telling CNBC “I consider Facebook to be an enemy of the people,” and that a TikTok ban would help it.

TikTok calls the bill a “defacto ban,” and has said it dumped $1.5 billion into efforts to secure U.S. user data from the Chinese government to appease its critics. A major investor with strong conservative ties, Jeff Yass, has also been mobilizing support for TikTok, as has the Club for Growth, which has been a rare conservative voice against the TikTok ban for a year.

Enthusiasm from GOP leadership appears undimmed: Majority Leader Steve Scalise led his weekly planning email last night with a strongly worded attack on TikTok as a “national security threat.”

Here’s a look at the biggest questions that are likely to be gripping Congress ahead of the vote.

How serious is Trump? Trump’s opposition to the bill could be a litmus test of his sway on a party that he’s largely recast in his image, if supporters begin to peel off and force a showdown with the Republicans driving the bill.

The former president used to be a TikTok hawk. In August 2020, Trump issued an executive order that prohibited any transactions between U.S. citizens and TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, which would have effectively banned the app ( it was halted by the courts).

But Trump last Thursday suddenly came out in defense of TikTok, saying on Truth Social that getting rid of the app would give “Facebook and Zuckerschmuck” more business.

Trump’s Truth Social post followed a meeting with investor Yass, who has a 15 percent stake in TikTok parent company ByteDance, and is a donor to the Club for Growth (which is paying former Trump aide Kellyanne Conway to advocate for TikTok on the Hill). The New York Post even reported that Yass has threatened to cut off donations to Republican lawmakers who support the bill, so the timing has led some people to suggest that Trump’s sudden defense could be for cash.

Trump has already proven he has the political gravitas to kill a bill, even though he’s not in office. Last month the former president successfully prevented Congress’ border security bill from passing, with just four Republicans voting for the measure following Trump’s criticism of the deal. Even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who helped write the bill and called on his GOP colleagues to vote for it, backtracked and voted against the measure.

Does TikTok have other defenders?

Some prominent voices in GOP circles are holding firm on the bill.

Former Vice President Mike Pence penned a thread on Friday calling on Congress to pass the legislation “as soon as possible,” arguing TikTok poses national security risks. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon appeared to suggest that Trump’s shifting stance was due to Yass’s money.

The bill is also co-sponsored by some Trump allies, including Reps. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and Kat Cammack (R-Fla.). Stefanik on Saturday again voiced support for the bill in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

But Trump also has an unusual set of allies on the left: Members of the Squad, who are usually opposed to almost everything he does. Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.), Summer Lee (Pa.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.) and Cori Bush (Mo.) have all raised serious concerns about banning TikTok in the past.

A spokesperson for Bush said she was leaning toward voting no on the bill this week, and that her opposition is rooted in “a need to meaningfully safeguard people’s livelihoods and allow for the organic promotion of social movements and our ability to stay connected with our loved ones and communities,” adding that Bush believes Congress should focus on passing a comprehensive data privacy law.

The members have cited slightly varying reasons why they were against attempts to ban the app, with Ocasio-Cortez using a TikTok video to say a ban would not protect Americans from “egregious data harvesting,” a theme Omar echoed. Last March, Bowman hosted a press conference with TikTok creators and said that those who are focused on TikTok “seem to look the other way when Facebook enables right-wing and Russian disinformation to undermine our democracy.”

Lee called the app “an incredible organizing tactic.” Starting last April, TikTok lobbyist Michael Hacker, a former senior Democratic leadership staffer who used to work for Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), has made three separate donations to Bowman, totaling $2,000 and also donated $250 to the Squad’s joint fundraising committee, Squad Victory Fund, according to Federal Election Commission records. Hacker declined to comment about the donation, while spokespeople for Bowman didn’t respond a to request for comment.

Former presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy ( whose super PAC received donations from Yass) and Elon Musk (who recently met with Trump) have also publicly supported Trump’s position.

TikTok has also enlisted former Obama advisers as consultants, though Biden himself — who recently joined TikTok — says he’d sign the bill.

What about the Senate? There’s no companion measure in the Senate, which will be the next big hurdle if the bill passes the House this week.

Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), top lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee, on Sunday seemed to support the bill, saying there are national security concerns with TikTok’s alleged ties to China.

Warner previously led efforts to give the administration the power to ban TikTok through his RESTRICT Act. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), though, said on Sunday that he wasn’t sure how he’d vote, saying he’s more focused on broader regulation of social media companies.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement on Sunday that he was “talking with my chairs and caucus about the legislation. I will listen to their views on the bill and determine the best path.”

Will this fire up young voters? TikTok has roughly 170 million U.S. users, and its cult-like following has prompted politicians to use the app themselves to spread their messages and connect with younger voters (even politicians who believe TikTok is a national security threat).

TikTok issued a call to action to its users on Thursday, and there’s a reason to believe it backfired. It certainly didn’t slow Congress down, despite flooding offices with hundreds, possibly thousands of calls opposing the bill.

But TikTok users have lots of ways to make their feelings known, including by voting.

Trump’s opposition, conceivably, could give him an in with this bloc of voters at a time when both candidates have been criticized for struggling to get traction with young people.

Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.

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