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‘Don’t take away the community that we’ve built’: Creators protest potential TikTok ban in D.C.

The rally came one day before TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is scheduled to testify in Congress about the app.
Photo illustration of phone screen shapes overlapping with a photo of the Capitol in Washington with blue sky and clouds.
Several creators who spoke to NBC News ahead of the rally said they felt motivated to spread awareness to lawmakers about how TikTok affects their livelihoods and communities.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

WASHINGTON — A group of about 30 content creators gathered outside the nation’s Capitol on Wednesday, holding signs that echoed their plea to lawmakers: “Keep TikTok.”

The TikTokers — who have a collective following of over 60 million people — joined Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., and Rep. Robert Garcia, D-Calif., for a rally to discuss their opposition to a potential ban. 

"I use TikTok to share a love of my family and our journey through foster care and adoption, and through that I've been able to create a community of people from all over the world," TikTok creator Jason Linton, known as @dadlifejason, said while addressing the crowd. "I’m asking our politicians: Don’t take away the community that we’ve built."

Supporters of TikTok hold signs during a rally to defend the app at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 22, 2023. The House holds a hearing Thursday, with TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew about the platform's consumer privacy and data security practices and impact on kids.
Supporters of TikTok hold signs during a rally to defend the app at the Capitol in Washington, on Wednesday.Jose Luis Magana / AP

The creator gathering in D.C. comes one day before TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is scheduled to testify in Congress about the app.

NBC News confirmed last week that the Biden administration is considering a ban of TikTok in the U.S. if the app’s Chinese owners refuse to sell their stakes. Critics of the app argue TikTok is a national security threat given its ability to collect data on its users, with some noting much of the user base is teens and young adults. That is countered by security experts who argue the app is no more a security threat than the many other apps that collect data and point to the lack of any broad U.S. data privacy regulations. 

"My question is: Why the hysteria and the panic and the targeting of TikTok?" said Bowman, who has staunchly defended TikTok and denounced legislation to ban the app. "As we know, Republicans in particular have been sounding the alarm, creating a red scare around China."

TikTok, he said, has "created a community and space for free speech for 150 million Americans and counting." He also described the platform as an "educational tool" and a place where "5 million small businesses are selling their products and making a living."

Pocan, who also addressed the crowd, said, "We have a real problem that exists, that's happening with social media in general, with data, with disinformation."

"That's what we should be addressing," he told the crowd, made up of mostly creators and press. "But ... instead, the debate has gone to whether or not we should ban a single platform, and it's getting lost on that rather than the very real issues that Congress should take on."

Several creators who spoke to NBC News ahead of the rally said they felt motivated to spread awareness to lawmakers about the impact TikTok has on their livelihoods and communities. Many said that TikTok flew them to D.C. to participate in the press conference.  

“I want to stop the misconception that it’s just an app. It’s so much more than that,” said Duncan Joseph, who has more than 4.5 million followers on his account, @duncanyounot. “If it were to be removed, these communities can’t just go to another spot. This is the home … and you just can’t rip that social fabric away from so many people.”

I want to stop the misconception that it’s just an app. It’s so much more than that.

— Creator Duncan Joseph , on tikTok

Some creators pointed out that the administration itself has utilized the platform to help spread awareness to Gen Z users on various major policy initiatives. The administration, including Anthony Fauci, the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, worked with top TikTok stars to encourage vaccination against Covid-19. More recently, the White House also briefed a handful of influencers about the United States’ strategic goals in Ukraine, The Washington Post reported last year.

V Spehar, known as @underthedesknews on TikTok, was among the roughly 20 creators invited to the White House in September 2022 as part of the Biden administration’s celebration of the Inflation Reduction Act. Spehar said the U.S. government changing its stance on TikTok has been frustrating for the creators, particularly those who were tapped by the administration to help disseminate information about various issues.

“I think the White House certainly recognizes the importance and the reach this platform has, or I wouldn’t have two letters sitting at home on my desk right now signed by Joe Biden saying how important my platform is and how proud he is of the work I do,” said Spehar, who has become known for delivering the news in a short, digestible way.

Others, like Naomi Hearts, known as @naomiheartsxo on TikTok, said she wanted to let politicians know how the app has helped give a voice to marginalized groups.

“I feel like, as a trans woman, being on this platform, I’ve had opportunities I never would have had if I had not been for TikTok,” she said. “It’s very disheartening to see people try to take that away." 

Hearts initially planned to use her platform for entertainment, but said she soon realized how important it was for her followers to see a trans woman who is thriving on the platform. 

“I do this because I want to be the representation I wish I saw growing up,” she said. “I feel like the app is … a place where people come to feel a sense of humanity and a sense of togetherness and so it really is disheartening to see [a possible ban] but I hope our stories help to change their [politicians’] minds a bit.”

Hearts said TikTok has also given her the ability to be a full-time content creator, making $50,000 in her first year on the platform and $100,000 in her second year through brand deals.  

On Tuesday, Chew directly appealed to TikTok users himself, posting a video to the platform.

“Some politicians have started talking about banning TikTok,” he said in the video. “Now this could take TikTok away from all 150 million of you.” 

He is expected to share a similar message in his appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday morning, according to his prepared remarks. He also plans to argue that the social media platform is safe and secure for teenagers and other users and that it won’t be accessed or influenced by the Chinese government.

The Biden administration’s possible ban isn’t the first time the app has been threatened by a U.S. president. In 2020, then-President Donald Trump announced he would ban TikTok. That ban never came to fruition. 

Content creator Aidan Kohn-Murphy, known to his almost 300,000 TikTok followers as @aidanpleasestoptalking, said a ban could have political ramifications for the Biden administration. 

“When Trump threatened to ban TikTok, young people mobilized. It was one of the big factors of youth turnout in 2020,” Kohn-Murphy, who is also the founder of youth political group @GenZforChange, said. “I think young people are already disaffected with politics in a lot of ways, and I think this is going to build on that.” 

Currently, TikTok is banned from federal devices and some states have followed suit. Several public universities in the U.S. have also banned the app from their devices and Wi-Fi. Some governors have also banned TikTok on state computer networks, while the Justice Department and the FBI are investigating TikTok and its parent company ByteDance, including allegations that company employees spied on journalists

The platform has ramped up its public relations offensive in response to the blowback. As NBC News reported in January, senior executives at the popular video app and their lobbyists have been briefing members of Congress, academic researchers, think tank writers and others about a $1.5 billion effort that they call Project Texas, laying out details of how TikTok believes it can address the concerns of people who see it as a security threat, according to people who said they had been briefed and media reports about the lobbying. 

Before the rally kicked off Wednesday, Spehar said they and several other TikTokers attempted to meet with members of Congress to make their plea directly to those who could ban the app.

TikTok spokesperson Jamal Brown said in an email statement that he believes Wednesday’s rally will give lawmakers debating a ban on the platform a chance to “hear firsthand from people whose lives would be directly affected by their decisions.”