When TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies before Congress on Thursday, he plans to unveil new internal data that suggests the popular video-sharing app is far more enmeshed in Americans' daily lives than anyone realizes.
TikTok currently says about 100 million people in the U.S. are regular users of the app. But when Chew testifies before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, he will say that number has now reached 150 million, according to a senior Democratic strategist advising TikTok.
That 50% jump in the number of monthly active users in the U.S. suggests the app has become even more entrenched in the U.S. over the nearly three years that Washington — under two presidential administrations — has grappled with how to rein it in.
Lawmakers from both parties, and the White House, argue that TikTok, owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, poses a threat to national security because Beijing could use it to influence U.S. public opinion or gain access to Americans’ data for nefarious purposes, such as spying.
In December, President Joe Biden signed a spending bill that banned TikTok from U.S. government devices. The Justice Department and the FBI are currently investigating TikTok and ByteDance, including allegations that company employees spied on journalists.
Chew’s testimony comes as efforts in Washington to potentially ban TikTok in the U.S. have reached a fever pitch. Biden now supports a bipartisan bill that could do just that, and his administration recently told TikTok that either its Chinese owners sell their stakes in the company or the app could face a U.S. ban.
His first appearance before Congress will mark TikTok’s most high-profile showdown with lawmakers to date — and the app plans to lean on users, deemed “creators,” to counter efforts to ban it as well as criticism that it’s a national security threat.
Several dozen TikTok creators, including small business owners, entertainers and activists who see the app as key to their livelihoods, are planning to be in Washington Wednesday ahead of Chew’s testimony to hold a news conference and meet with lawmakers, according to a person familiar with the planning.
The lobbying effort, first reported by The Information, will primarily showcase an economic argument: that banning TikTok could bring financial hardship to Americans who rely on it to help generate income.
“TikTok creators are small business owners trying to make a living and put food on their tables, teachers educating the next generation of leaders, and everyday innovators who represent the breadth of America,” TikTok spokesperson Jamal Brown said in a statement. “Lawmakers in Washington debating TikTok should hear firsthand from people whose lives would be directly affected by their decisions.”
The potential political fallout for a TikTok ban is difficult to predict. But the prospect of a ban comes as Biden is expected to mount a 2024 re-election campaign, and the sheer number of TikTok users in the U.S. suggests he could pay a price if he runs — which he’s said he intends to do.
Underscoring how Biden’s governing and political strategies collide when it comes to TikTok, the president on Friday appeared in a video on the app with Irish singer Niall Horan at the White House’s St. Patrick’s Day party.
Yet last month when asked if the U.S. should ban TikTok, Biden said, “I’m not sure,” adding: “I know I don’t have it on my phone.”
The 150 million regular users in America that Chew will cite in his congressional testimony Thursday does not include children under the age of 13, according to the senior Democratic strategist advising TikTok.
But of those 150 million, roughly 12 million are under the age of 18 — about 8% — meaning some 138 million who are of voting age are regular TikTok users, the strategist said, adding that the average age of a regular TikTok user is 31. (Some of the 12 million regular TikTok users who are under the age of 18 will also be of voting age in 2024.)
A recent Quinnipiac poll showed that 49% of Americans supported a TikTok ban in the U.S., while 42% opposed one.
Opposition to a nationwide ban is significantly larger among Americans 18 to 34 years old, according to the poll, with 63% opposing a ban and 33% supporting one. Voters under the age of 35 tend to favor Democrats by wide margins.
A breakdown in the poll among the political parties suggests a ban could hurt Democrats more: 64% of Republicans and 50% of independents support a ban, while 51% of Democrats oppose a ban.
TikTok is one of several high-stakes flash points in strained U.S.-China relations.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a news conference this past week that “the U.S. has yet to prove with evidence that TikTok threatens its national security.”
While TikTok has been a target for the U.S. government for several years, with former President Donald Trump’s effort to ban the app in 2020 blocked in court, only recently has the idea gained widespread momentum in Washington.
China passed a law in 2020, after Trump’s attempt to ban TikTok, that added to the government’s list of technologies that can’t be exported, meaning the algorithms TikTok uses could be considered off-limits and Beijing could reject any sale.
TikTok has sought to address the U.S. government’s national security concerns by proposing it hire an American company to store the data of people in the U.S. who use the app.
Chew said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal last week that the Biden administration’s demand that Chinese stakeholders in TikTok divest wouldn’t address the concerns U.S. officials have raised.