On February 7, Vitus Spehar, the host of a popular TikTok newscast, was invited to the White House for a State of the Union watch party. After Joe Biden concluded his address to Congress, Spehar stuck in their earbuds, cinched their blue tie, and started to livestream to TikTok from their iPhone. “Oh my God. Hi, friends, we’re here,” Spehar said. “This is the real East Room of the real White House.” Soon, Jill Biden dropped by to take a selfie with Spehar and the other social-media personalities there for the party. With a mischievous eyebrow flex, Spehar slipped into a hallway to check out some presidential portraits at the foot of the stairway up to Biden’s private quarters. “If I never get invited back,” Spehar said, “I was here three times.”
Spehar, 40, is a politically idiosyncratic nonbinary ex-caterer with a pompadour hairstyle and statement eyeglasses. Through some combination of plainspoken charm and algorithmic magic, their bright, chatty takes on current events — usually delivered from a spot under a desk in their home office in Rochester — took off on TikTok. They now have nearly 3 million followers and an audience in the White House. Before the 2022 midterms, Spehar shot a get-out-the-vote spot with Barack Obama. On another occasion, they visited the Oval Office. They now refer to President Biden as “Joe” in casual conversation, and it’s easy to see why the president might want to be on friendly terms. For reelection, Biden, 80, will be depending on enthusiastic support from young voters, millions of whom avidly consume — and are influenced by — TikTok.
When Biden returned to the White House, Spehar and the rest of the group were waiting to greet him on his doorstep. He stepped out of his limousine and offered them a deep, exhausted bow. Biden’s political solicitude, though, was at odds with his national-security agenda. Even as he beckoned TikTok with one hand, he was considering whether to snatch it away with the other.
In his speech that night, Biden had warned that China, an increasingly aggressive geopolitical rival, “intends to be dominating” the technologies of the future. And though he didn’t explicitly mention it, his administration was focusing intense scrutiny on TikTok, an app developed by ByteDance, a private company of Chinese origin. TikTok may well be China’s most visibly successful software export. But American law enforcement and intelligence agencies were concerned it posed more than a competitive threat. For years, they had been warning that the app might be put to use for spying, spreading disinformation, or sowing discord. Chinese leaders have been open about their aim to strengthen what they call their nation’s “international discourse power,” rebalancing what they see as America’s advantage in defining cultural and political values. TikTok is capable of shifting the discourse with the flick of a thumb. As president, Donald Trump had tried to ban TikTok outright, only to be halted by a federal court.
For Vitus Spehar, who goes by “V,” it was easy to write off the idea of banning TikTok as xenophobic, conservative fearmongering. After Trump’s defeat, the issue had been picked up by his right-wing followers in states like Alabama and Texas, where governors have banned TikTok from government devices and public universities have kicked it off their Wi-Fi networks. Last year, at the instigation of the Missouri Republican senator Josh Hawley, the federal government enacted its own ban for its devices. But these largely symbolic attacks did little to slow TikTok’s growth as a business and cultural force. TikTok is now used by 150 million Americans, if you accept the company’s figures, and Spehar figured it was too big to ban. “It would be anti-democratic; it would be against the First Amendment,” Spehar told me on the phone in February, shortly after the State of the Union. “We are not a country that does that kind of stuff.” But then Biden and the Democrats started to surprise them by sending hawkish signals too.
For the better part of two years, the federal government had been engaged in a secretive negotiating process with TikTok’s corporate management. The public didn’t yet know it in February, but those talks were breaking down, leaving the Biden administration in the same place where Trump left off: trying to figure out if it could drive TikTok out of existence in the United States. In Congress, bills to restrict or outlaw TikTok were flying, garnering bipartisan support, with the two parties separated only by the degree of their suspicion. There was a showdown looming in March, when the platform’s Singapore-based chief executive was scheduled to stand alone before a Republican-controlled House committee for a hearing. The spectacle was sure to be punishing; one think-tank expert likened the dynamic to a “human sacrifice.”
You could trace the route to execution back to missteps by TikTok’s ownership, or to China’s confrontational foreign policy under President Xi Jinping, or to unresolved tensions in the relationship between the world’s two strongest nations. But if you were only paying attention on TikTok, it might look, in retrospect, like it had all started with the balloon. The weekend before the State of the Union, a Chinese surveillance craft blew over the U.S. After President Biden ordered the military to shoot the balloon down, he was asked if he might do the same to TikTok. “I’m not sure,” Biden replied. “I know I don’t have it on my phone.” Before long, the new Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee rammed through his own bill and called TikTok a “spy balloon in your phone.” The bipartisan agitation against China appeared, to Spehar, “outrageously cordial.” They were starting to rethink their comfortable assumptions.
“Now,” Spehar told me, “I’m in a position where I’m like, Fuck, they might ban this app.”
By March, the momentum for draconian restrictions was starting to look unstoppable and Spehar was moved to act. They started to defend TikTok in videos that received millions of views. When TikTok’s embattled chief executive testified, they sat right behind him, often popping into the camera frame over his right shoulder. Spehar would go from visiting the East Room to a place of cynical distance in the span of a few news cycles. “This whole idea of banning TikTok based on threats you can’t prove and information you won’t share, that doesn’t fly,” they told me. “That makes me feel like you think I’m not smart enough.” To them, the betrayal felt personal. They had just been over to the president’s house.
“You put all this effort into building trust,” Spehar said. “Tell me, Joe, why are you doing this?”
Biden has shown no eagerness to answer their question. The White House declined to offer any substantive comment about TikTok, though a spokesman denied there was any contradiction between embracing it as a communications medium while also attempting to suppress it. Since 2020, when a judge halted Trump’s sloppy effort to ban TikTok on procedural grounds, the issue has been in the hands of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a body made up of representatives of Cabinet departments including Treasury, Defense, and Justice as well as intelligence agencies. The committee — known to policy obscurantists as CFIUS — oversees transactions that are deemed to impact national security, making recommendations to the president, who possesses nearly unchecked power to disallow investments or unwind mergers. Most CFIUS reviews are quick and quiet, and they seldom rise to the level of a president’s attention. The case of TikTok, though, has placed Biden square in the middle of an irreconcilable dilemma.
To one side, the president has his national-security advisers, who are expressing concern about what China could do with a technology in the pockets of 150 million Americans. To the other, the president has his political advisers, who are looking ahead to yet another election where it looks like everything will be on the line. The White House and Democratic campaign organizations — including Biden’s own — are eager to use TikTok as a messaging vehicle, and some political operatives are reluctant to sacrifice such a potent tool. “From a purely political perspective, while it’s nice to sound tough on China, there’s a lot of ways to sound tough on China,” says a Democratic digital-media consultant with ties to the Biden campaign. “This is an app that every young person in America uses. We have to use it, or we will lose there.”
One spring afternoon, I met a social-media talent manager named Daniel Daks at a café on the Upper East Side. He painted TikTok’s potential impact on the democratic process in grandiose terms, telling me, “A world where campaigns are forced to directly partner with these individuals is a world where the political Establishment needs to meet the needs of people.” Daks is a preppy 32-year-old entrepreneur who started and sold one tech company before getting into the social-media-agency business. His firm, Palette Media, now represents more than 100 content creators and influencers, connecting them with advertisers like Wal-Mart for product-endorsement deals. Palette also has a marketing-consulting wing, which has carved out a niche in Democratic politics, with Daks acting as an emissary between TikTok and Washington. He represents Spehar, handling their brand relationships and public speaking, and served as a go-between when White House officials were putting together their State of the Union event with social-media influencers.
That event was part of a broader campaign to cultivate TikTokers, whom the White House has courted with Zoom briefings and access to the president at ceremonial and private events. Axios recently reported that Rob Flaherty, the White House director of digital strategy, is attempting to recruit what the publication described as an “army of influencers” as part of its effort to deliver Biden’s messages to young voters. Daks said his own professional involvement with Democratic politics went back to 2020, when he worked with Biden’s organization, which was innovative in creating a team solely devoted to engaging social-media influencers. As both the platform and his client list have grown, Daks says he has stayed in regular contact with White House staffers who handle the administration’s social-media relationships, which are poised to play an even larger role in the reelection campaign. In October, the Democratic National Committee paid $200,000 to Palette Media for its services during the midterms.
Daks helped to arrange for some of his clients to attend a series of Washington events, including meetings with top Democratic congressional-campaign staffers and an audience with Obama, at which Spehar filmed their TikTok. Daks says that none of his clients, including Spehar, were compensated by the DNC for the videos they made. The $200,000, he says, was for strategic consulting services. But social-media endorsement deals — sometimes for pay — are an increasingly important element of political advocacy. TikTok does not accept political advertisements. (They’re off-putting to viewers, its corporate leadership says.) “We don’t use TikTok at the White House,” a Biden spokesperson said, in response to questions posed for this article. But it hardly matters when TikTokers are already inside the building. Instead of posting to the platform via their own accounts, candidates tend to find content creators to spread their message, either via direct relationships or by hiring someone like Daks. “This is kind of the next wave of paid advertising,” says a second Democratic digital-media consultant. “It picked up steam last cycle, where a campaign, usually through an intermediary agency, will pay a certain amount of money to subcontract influential people on a social-media platform.” Spehar, for instance, has worked with Vocal Media, an agency founded by a former Hillary Clinton 2016 staffer, on campaigns to promote adult education and to raise awareness about the federal child-tax credit.
To TikTok viewers, it may not always be clear where heartfelt advocacy ends and shilling begins. Although sponsored content is supposed to be labeled as advertising on TikTok, the rules are not well enforced. But Daks says TikTok messaging is effective because it is authentic, involving real people speaking directly to audiences that trust them, and that none of his clients would jeopardize that bond by voicing political opinions they don’t genuinely believe.
Daks said if TikTok were banned, his clients could always move over to Instagram or YouTube, which have introduced knockoff products, but that would mean rebuilding their audience in a new place, with different tech, which might not reward their videos the same way. He said that his clients were, by nature, an anxious and superstitious lot. “Imagine if your entire livelihood was at the mercy of an algorithm,” he said. And now there was this added uncertainty blowing in on the geopolitical winds. The anxiety was starting to filter into the content creators were posting. “Explain to the people what you’re going to fucking do,” a TikTok creator named Alex Pearlman screamed in a viral rant, addressed to Biden, “or you’re going to end up with a lot more people looking angry as fuck, like me.”
At first, the backlash didn’t receive much notice in official circles in Washington. Only a handful of politicians use TikTok regularly. But many of their staffers do, and the political operatives most attuned to TikTok’s usefulness as an instrument of persuasion were in no rush to disarm unilaterally. “The next generation of politically active people,” says Teddy Goff, the digital director for Obama’s 2012 campaign and the co-founder of the firm Precision Strategies, “is going to need to understand that what it means to be politically engaged is to be involved in an information war that is not happening exclusively on TikTok but mostly on TikTok.”
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo — who has endorsed a bipartisan bill designed to empower her department to regulate TikTok — was unusually frank in expressing reservations about the downside. “The politician in me thinks you’re gonna literally lose every voter under 35, forever,” she told Bloomberg News in March. “However much I hate TikTok — and I do, because I see the addiction in the bad shit that it serves kids — you know, this is America.”
I have sympathy for the fact that we’ve got to meet people where they are,” says Senator Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee and who proposed the bill that would place Raimondo’s department in charge of regulating communications technology of nations designated as a foreign adversaries. “But you know, when you have the director of National Intelligence, when you have the secretary of Defense, when you have the director of the CIA, the NSA, when all of these people — and they’re all appointed by the president — are all saying there’s a national-security risk, I just simply say to my Democratic colleagues, are you saying that all of the folks who lead up our national-security infrastructure have got it all wrong?”
The national-security threats associated with TikTok are varied. Some experts are more concerned about user data that TikTok collects, which could be accessed by Chinese intelligence agencies. Some are more alert to the potential that its algorithm could spread mind-warping propaganda and misinformation. It would be naïve to dismiss warnings about the Chinese Communist Party’s influence over ByteDance as Red Scare rhetoric. Through their adept hacking, China’s intelligence agencies have shown that they want to amass information about Americans. TikTok is headquartered in Singapore and Los Angeles,* but its parent company was founded in Beijing and is still largely based in China, where businesses are legally required to assist intelligence agencies. Xi Jinping recently called for businesses to join in a “fight” against the U.S., which he claims has “contained and suppressed” China’s economy.
The multinational group of executives who manage TikTok in the U.S. have put much effort and capital investment into a plan that aims to reassure policy-makers and the public that it can maintain its independence from the Chinese government. The company has proposed to hive off its U.S. operations through a $1.5 billion initiative that they have given the name “Project Texas.” Under the plan, which the company is already in the process of implementing, TikTok would operate as a ByteDance subsidiary in the U.S., moving its U.S. data to servers owned by the cloud-computing arm of Oracle, the Austin-based tech company. Oracle would act as a third-party monitor, building systems designed to flag unauthorized intrusions, not just by hackers but by TikTok insiders, and monitoring the app’s source code, including the algorithm.
But skeptics — including lobbyists paid by TikTok’s competitors — argue that the company’s U.S. subsidiary is in no position to keep such promises. “The main problem all the Americans working for TikTok have is they do not know, and will probably never know, what the Chinese government is accessing,” says Adam Kovacevich, a former Google lobbyist who heads Chamber of Progress, an industry trade group funded by Silicon Valley. “In China, private companies are conscripted to advance the country’s security needs.”
TikTok’s claims of corporate autonomy have been undermined by a series of internal leaks. In June 2022, then–BuzzFeed News reporter Emily Baker-White gained access to tapes of 80 internal meetings where TikTok executives and consultants forthrightly discussed the difficulty of keeping its parent company from interfering with its security measures. Later, an anonymous whistleblower approached Hawley’s office, claiming that “TikTok and ByteDance are functionally the same company” and that Chinese engineers could poke into whatever they wanted. (A TikTok spokesperson contends that the tapes only captured the complex work of implementing Project Texas as it was in progress, and says the whistleblower “appears to be misinformed.”) In a wrongful-dismissal lawsuit filed in San Francisco in May, a Chinese-born executive who ran ByteDance’s engineering in the U.S. in 2017 and 2018 claimed that a special internal committee of Communist Party members within the company maintained “supreme access” to all its systems. (TikTok has called the claims in the ongoing lawsuit “baseless.”)
Baker-White, who now works at Forbes, subsequently broke the news that Beijing-based ByteDance employees had planned to use TikTok’s geolocation capabilities to track multiple American citizens — including her — in an effort to determine who was leaking. The surveillance operation, which was reportedly named Project Raven, is now the subject of a Justice Department criminal probe. A TikTok spokesperson claims that the “misguided” plumbing job was neither authorized nor called Project Raven, and ByteDance has disavowed the employees who were involved in the surveillance, four of whom resigned or were fired. But the scandal only served to prove that TikTok could be a tool of espionage, if the people in control chose to use it that way.
The surveillance scandal could not have happened at a worse time for TikTok. A warlike mood was descending in Washington. This year, the two nations have clashed over the war in Ukraine and Xi’s bellicose statements about unification with Taiwan. Chinese authorities have been raiding the offices of foreign companies on suspicion of spying. “We’re preparing to deter war on a peacetime footing,” a Democratic congressional staffer who is foreign-policy specialist told me over coffee earlier this year.
In mid-March, the Wall Street Journal broke the news that the Biden administration had rejected TikTok’s proposed Project Texas compromise. Instead, the federal negotiators were reportedly demanding that ByteDance sell TikTok to a trusted (presumably American) acquirer, which amounted to an almost impossible condition. Only a handful of companies could afford to purchase TikTok, and the obvious big-tech buyers would face antitrust issues, and China would likely have to assent because its laws designate TikTok’s algorithm as a trade secret that is subject to export controls. A few days later, a spokeswoman for the Chinese commerce ministry announced that her government would “firmly oppose” any forced divestment. The trash compactor was about to squeeze even tighter. The same day that China made its announcement, TikTok’s Singapore-based chief executive, Shou Zi Chew, headed to Capitol Hill for his climactic congressional committee hearing. It looked like TikTok might finally, truly, seriously be done for — unless its lobbyists could engineer an escape.
After the news of the breakdown in the CFIUS negotiations became public, many savvy people in Washington wondered why Shou would even bother showing up for his inevitable lashing. But TikTok pressed forward, spending lavishly on an advertising campaign targeted at policy-makers and mobilizing a horde of K Street lawyers and other well-compensated outside consultants. (Its roster of lobbyists and PR representatives reportedly has included former elected officials — including onetime Senate majority leader Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi — dozens of former staffers for current Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress, a former senior adviser to Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns, and SKDK, a Democratic communications and political consulting firm with close ties to the Biden administration via the D in its acronym, Anita Dunn, a firm co-founder who now works in the White House as one of the president’s closest counselors.) Digital advertising billboards at Union Station and inside the Washington Metro were lit up with messages touting TikTok’s corporate responsibility. Shou posted an upbeat TikTok video from the company’s D.C. office, which is in a WeWork, talking about how he was looking forward to telling Congress about “our mission to inspire creativity and to bring joy.”
“At the end of the day, you know, people love TikTok,” Michael Beckerman, the company’s head of government relations in Washington, told me. “You’re talking about the speech of 150 million Americans.”
To picture Beckerman, imagine what you might get if you asked OpenAI to draw you an idealized image of a tech-industry lobbyist: a handsome guy with a stubbled square jaw wearing a hoodie. A former Republican congressional-committee staffer, Beckerman worked as the head of a trade association financed by tech companies including Google and Facebook before he took charge of TikTok’s government relations in 2020, which brought him into conflict with his old friends. He joined right before the pandemic, the inflection point in the app’s astounding growth. It is an open secret in Washington that Silicon Valley tech companies—most notably Meta—have helped to orchestrate at least some of the government pressure on TikTok. “They’ve been trying to get us banned and lobbying against us and making up fake stories that have had real-world harm,” Beckerman says. During the Trump administration, Mark Zuckerberg publicly warned of Chinese domination of the internet and privately urged the president to focus on TikTok, rather than on Facebook’s own issues with antitrust, privacy, and content moderation. Meta reportedly engaged a Republican consulting firm called Targeted Victory to promote negative local news coverage of TikTok. Now, facing an existential threat, TikTok’s defenders turned to their most fearsome weapon: TikTok.
The company’s team put together a curated delegation of creators for an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington. Although Spehar felt conflicted about going on a lobbying expedition, they ultimately decided to accept an invitation to join. “I am no bones about it,” Spehar told me in Washington. “I’m here to fight for this platform.” They attended a banquet dinner with Shou and then a morning press event on a roof deck overlooking the Capitol. The creators split into groups and headed to the Hill like school kids with lobbyists and TikTok flaks acting as chaperones.
Spehar knew the territory of Capitol Hill well. They had once worked for a D.C. catering company, serving drinks to hungry, impatient politicians. Spehar grew up in a Republican family in a blue-collar part of Connecticut. They voted for John McCain in 2008 and helped to run the catering for the 2012 Republican National Convention. Spehar had fond memories of Mitt Romney, who was a gracious client. Spehar only became a Democrat because Obama supported gay marriage. When they joined TikTok in 2020 — around the time they were furloughed from a job at the James Beard Foundation and moved upstate to escape pandemic Brooklyn — they started by posting jokey home-cooking fails. They only stumbled into political commentary on January 6, 2021. As rioters stormed the Capitol, they crawled under their desk and filmed a whispered appeal to Mike Pence, explaining the provisions of the 25th Amendment. The bit became a brand: Under the Desk News.
On Capitol Hill, Spehar kept getting stopped by young staffers asking for selfies. But the reception from their bosses was chilly. Spehar had done TikToks there before and had always found members of Congress were eager to engage, but now that the subject was TikTok itself, no one was talkative. In the Senate Rotunda, Spehar was filming as Amy Klobuchar came out of a luncheon. They locked eyes for a moment. “That was a no,” Spehar said into the phone. As their group of creators lingered in a basement corridor near the Senate subway, Romney strode down the hall with a pair of aides, brushing right past the colorfully dressed TikTok contingent without a word.
“Remember when I used to work for you,” Spehar muttered, “and you weren’t such an asshole?”
The next morning, Spehar put on a turquoise suit with a Warhol-style banana pin in the lapel and followed Shou Chew into the Rayburn House Office Building, where they were met by a scrum of elbowing camera crews and shouting reporters. Inside the Energy and Commerce Committee hearing room, Spehar sat in the second row, right behind Beckerman and Shou. For four and a half brutal hours, Shou was questioned about colleagues who were members of the Chinese Communist Party. (“We don’t know the political affiliations of our employees,” he claimed.) He was asked about reports that TikTok censors videos on subjects sensitive to China. (“We do not remove that kind of content,” he replied.) He was repeatedly interrogated about surveillance of journalists. (“I don’t think ‘spying’ is the right way to describe it,” he said.) A Democrat who was a pediatrician decried the “endless mindless scrolling” that was keeping kids “awake well past their bedtimes.” A Republican pointed to the sobbing parents of TikTok user who died by suicide and said the platform had “destroyed their lives.”
“This is rough,” Spehar told me during a break in the proceedings.
The near-universal reaction in Washington held that Shou had bungled any chance TikTok might have had to save itself. “That was a catastrophe of a hearing,” Hawley told me afterward. Hawley had introduced a bill to outlaw TikTok, and his view was widely shared. A tech-industry lobbyist told me: “It’s not clear to me that I’ve watched a bigger debacle.” On TikTok, though, the discourse was shaped differently. Creators at home spliced up videos ridiculing the committee members’ more dunderheaded questions. Spehar’s coverage from the hearing received millions of views. Videos posted to Shou’s personal account, @shou.time, went viral. On March 29, the CEO’s account surpassed a million followers; six days later, he hit 3 million. Shou Chew stans made animated videos on Capcut — a popular video-editing app that is also owned by ByteDance — depicting the CEO as a handsome superhero.
Suddenly, TikTok was no longer so friendless. Lizzo issued a communiqué on her social platforms decrying Shou’s interrogation and likening proposals to ban TikTok to the revival of “Jim Crow era” laws in Mississippi and legislation to ban drag shows. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, arguably the most popular and skillful messenger on the left, released a TikTok soon after the hearing saying she opposed a ban without more evidence of wrongdoing. A counterreaction to TikTok regulation formed among some conservatives, who express paranoia about giving the government the power to deplatform. “This is not an effort to push back against China,” Tucker Carlson said on Fox News, shortly before he was fired. “It’s part of a strategy to make America much more like China with the government in charge of what you read and see and with terrifying punitive powers at their fingertips.” When Hawley attempted to press forward with his bill to ban TikTok on the Senate floor, another Republican, the libertarian Rand Paul, stood to oppose it on free-speech grounds. “If Republicans want to continuously lose elections for a generation,” Paul said, “they should pass this bill to ban TikTok.”
During their visit to Capitol Hill, Spehar and some other creators secured a closed-door meeting with some staffers who worked for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York Democrat. Spehar told an aide to the senator, who has supported restrictive legislation, that Democrats who angered TikTok could face primary challenges. “I saw a little light in her eyes,” they said afterward, “even to say the word primaried.” A few days later, the staff of Ocasio-Cortez got in touch with Spehar, and within weeks, Spehar and AOC crawled under the congresswoman’s desk, filming as they cheerfully talked up her agenda.
“I’m going to tell you what: I would fuckin’ ride for AOC,” Spehar said. Their feelings about Biden were more conflicted. In April, Spehar was in Washington again for parties surrounding the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. They told me that they had run into the reporter from Axios who wrote the story about Biden’s “army of influencers,” and related that the reporter told them that their name was on a list of TikTok personalities the White House felt they could “count on” to support the president. “I am not doing that,” Spehar said.
When I talked to the lobbyist who had called the hearing a debacle a couple of months later, he said he might have been wrong. “Maybe in a sort of jujitsu kind of way it helped them in the end,” he said. The Republicans had overreached, the Democrats had gotten nervous, and TikTok had danced away again.
If you happen to think — as many technologists and policy experts do — that the most worrisome thing about TikTok is its potency as an influence machine, then the overnight emergence of a mass movement to fend off a challenge to its survival offered a perverse proof of concept. “It was like TikTok and ByteDance, its owners, flipped a switch and spent a hundred million dollars,” said Mark Warner. He toiled during the early part of this year to gather support for his bill, the RESTRICT Act. By giving the executive branch explicit authority to regulate social media from adversary nations, the legislation is designed to remove any doubt about the legality of a TikTok ban while trying to avoid singling it out. That would potentially violate the Constitution, which prohibits laws that target individuals for punishment. Thirteen Republicans in the Senate signed on as co-sponsors to Warner’s bill, and the White House got behind it. Warner says things were almost “going too well.” The bill was then referred to a Senate committee chaired by Maria Cantwell, a Washington State Democrat who has reservations about its implications for civil liberties. American tech companies have reportedly raised objections, too, arguing that the bill was too broadly written. But Warner said he believed his colleagues were mainly reacting to TikTok’s pervasive influence campaign.
“I don’t think there is a lobbyist that I know that is not on TikTok’s payroll at this point,” he said.
For now, TikTok appears to have outlasted Congress, which has roughly the same attention span as a screen-addled teenager. That leaves the issue back where it started, with the White House and a divided Democratic Party. Meanwhile, the rest of the country could hardly be bothered to worry about the geopolitical dispute. Most Americans didn’t appear to care about international discourse power or the fate of Taiwan. They were just scrolling away on their Chinese-made iPhones.
During the months I worked on this story, I was often struck by a feeling that the conversation about TikTok was taking place in two separate nodes. Outside Washington, when I talked to TikTok users I know from everyday life, it seemed clear that they were perfectly aware of, and unperturbed by, the possibility that they were being watched. They often asked how TikTok’s data collection was functionally any different from what Google, Amazon, Meta, and every other big internet company did as a matter of routine business practice. Disinformation? American platforms spread it without penalty. People asked: “What makes TikTok so different?”
One simple answer, of course, is that it is from China. Skeptics say that no company can thrive in China without the favor of its government, the Communist Party, and ultimately Xi Jinping, who has shown his willingness to purge disobedient entrepreneurs. (The classic example is Alibaba’s Jack Ma, once the richest man in China, who was crushed, and disappeared for a time, after he criticized the government.) ByteDance’s founder, Zhang Yiming, was compelled to apologize for failing to uphold “core socialist values” after the content posted on ByteDance apps drew the ire of Chinese regulators. (One app was reportedly accused of spreading “pornographic and vulgar information” while another was said to cause “strong dislike among internet users.”) Zhang has since left his role as chief executive, and Chinese government representatives have taken seats on the board of an important ByteDance subsidiary in China.
There is little evidence that the Chinese government’s involvement in ByteDance’s management has so far had any effect on TikTok. Beckerman says that, as a corporate entity, ByteDance is just as American as it is Chinese, pointing out that its largest shareholders include several U.S.-based venture-capital firms. One of its earliest investors was Susquehanna International Group, a Pennsylvania fund whose co-founders include a pair of billionaire Republican megadonors. Even TikTok’s opponents acknowledge that much of the personal information about Americans that the app collects could be obtained from other sources, like private-sector data brokers.
At the hearing, Shou endorsed privacy legislation that would apply to all internet companies, a common-sense proposal that has been stalled for years in Congress. Other data-security concerns ought to be addressable by a technological approach along the lines of Project Texas, if ByteDance implements the plan as promised — a big if. But the unaddressable problem with TikTok, in the view of many policy experts, is the very thing that makes it so popular: its recommendation engine. “If a country that is adversarial to the United States can control what millions of Americans are looking at,” says Representative Mike Gallagher, the Republican chairman of the House Select Committee on China, “I have to believe that the government has a compelling interest in addressing that.” The senior Democrat on the China committee, Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, has joined Gallagher to co-sponsor yet another bill to ban TikTok.
This is where the movement to curtail TikTok runs into its most formidable obstacle: the First Amendment. A long line of Supreme Court decisions have held that the Constitution protects “the right to listen, and not just the right to speak,” says Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “And that right extends even to information that the government considers to be propaganda.” James Andrew Lewis, a technology expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who was in contact with both sides of the negotiation between the government and the company, told me, “We really don’t have the legal authority to ban TikTok.” Biden could invoke his executive powers to order ByteDance to divest, but if it refuses, the matter would go to court, leading to years of unpredictable litigation. Meanwhile, it would remain free to go about its business, acquiring more users, more influence, more data. That is why Lewis thinks there is still room for a deal. “The U.S. does not want to annoy 100 million Americans,” Lewis said. “The Chinese do not want to give up their crown jewel.” Perhaps, he suggested, some version of Project Texas could work under the control of an oversight board stocked with retired American generals and intelligence chiefs. On the other hand, this was Washington, so stasis was also an alternative. “The question now is,” Lewis said, “has this become so politicized that there is no solution that will work?”
Republicans will be happy to exploit the inaction, since TikTok offers them a perfect opportunity for demagoguery, allowing them to attack China and the Democrats while simultaneously pleasing screen-phobic parents. The governor of Montana recently signed a bill to banish the TikTok from the state entirely, over objections that a one-state ban would be technologically impossible. A group of litigants are now suing the state on First Amendment grounds. Gallagher concedes that the constitutional issues are “very complex.” But he argues that China is preparing for “cognitive warfare,” and TikTok’s algorithm is a technological instrument — a piece of code, not speech.
If anything, its opponents say, TikTok poses a danger to free expression. The Chinese government uses intimidation and censorship to silence dissent. (TikTok itself is unwelcome in China; ByteDance instead markets a similar app that directs users to wholesome subjects like science.) One of the most compelling pieces of evidence of manipulation is a study by the progressive organization Accelerate Change. It recruited two dozen creators to make TikTok videos urging Democrats to get out to vote in the 2022 elections. One set of videos included election-related hashtags and captions; the second set was identical, except the messages were delivered only on a handwritten sign. The handwritten ones received more than twice as much traffic, suggesting that the algorithm was turning down the volume on political hashtags and other detectable text. (TikTok questions the results of the study, claiming its authors “declined to provide the research and methodology” in detail.)
If the dial can go one way, though, it can also twist in the other direction. Earlier this year, the reporter Baker-White published a story reporting the existence of a “heating” system that allows humans at TikTok to manually amplify certain content on the platform. That does make you wonder about the popularity of the videos posted by @shou.time and raises questions about what else the people at TikTok’s controls might choose to serve its users in the future. “All these things, in my mind, conspire to create the potential for TikTok to have a massive impact on what information we see, our own sense of national identity, and potentially influence future elections,” Gallagher says. “We have to ask ourselves, do we want to give the Chinese Communist Party that amount of power?”
“I don’t care, and I think that the American people don’t care,” Spehar said one drizzly morning at their loft apartment in Rochester. They told me they were eager for the controversy to blow over so they could go back to talking to their audience about other things. “I think the world is too scary,” they said, as they tried to explain the appeal of their show. “We’re going to get under the desk and try to find a safe space, try to find a space where things can make sense.” But Biden’s contradictory attitude toward TikTok was something they couldn’t figure out. “I was there for you,” they said, addressing Biden, “and now I feel like you’re choosing the thoughts and feelings and opinions of people who aren’t on your side.”
We walked into their office, and both climbed down on the floor to film a TikTok. (A few days later, one of my neighbors would shout to me from his car as I walked my dog: “I saw you Under the Desk!”) When we were on our feet, Spehar pointed out that everything involved in the process of shooting the video — their iPhone, the cheap plastic stand that they mounted it in, the desk itself, a mid-century-modern knockoff purchased from Target — most likely was made in China. “It’s hard to care about China,” Spehar said, “because every single thing in my house right now is from China.” Maybe the only thing of note in their office that wasn’t was a framed letter from Biden, thanking Spehar for attending a big bill-signing ceremony in October. “I am grateful for all the ways you are using your platform,” they read aloud from the letter.
“When he’s saying ‘your platform,’” Spehar said, “that’s TikTok.”
*This article has been updated to reflect the locations of TikTok’s headquarters.