The biggest loser of TikTok's congressional hearing? Meta.
It was a bad, bad day for all involved.
On Thursday, March 23, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before the U.S. Congress’s House Committee on Energy and Commerce about the app’s data security, alleged ties to China, and teen use and mental health. In short, the hearings were a disaster for all involved. But as I watched, listen, groaned, and then got on TikTok that evening to see user response, I realized the biggest loser of the day wasn’t TikTok or Congress (who both had a spectacularly bad day), but Meta.
But first, let’s chat about why the day was bad for everyone before we get to Meta.
The U.S. Congress
As I’ve written about before, every time tech and social media CEOs wind up in front of Congress, politicians from both parties show just how ill-equipped they are to handle the most pressing digital issues of our time. Committee members remain more committed to screaming over witnesses and demanding they answer non-yes/no questions with yes/ no answers. While that’s common for all congressional hearings, tech-related or not, tech hearings provide another unbelievable angle - just how little congress understands about anything technological works. I’m not even talking about algorithms or firewalls - which are topics Congress also clearly doesn’t understand. For instance, the following exchange between Congressman Richard Hudson (R-NC) and Shou Zi Chew is now going viral:
Mr. Hudson: “Does TikTok access the home Wi-Fi network of the user?”
Mr. Chew: “Only if the user turns on the WiFi, I am sorry, I may not understand the question.”
Mr. Hudson: “If I have the TikTok app on my phone, and my phone is on my home WiFi network, does TikTok have access to that network?”
Mr. Chew: “It will have to access the network to get connection to the Internet, if that’s the question.”
If Congress members don’t understand how basic internet access works, and how apps access the internet through the network one is connected to, then we have a long, long way to go in reckoning. Combined with questions like, “Does TikTok use one’s phone camera to check for pupil dilation of users?” and “Are you aware your app violated the GDPR?” (Europe’s data protection law) Congress showed that they are the last people who should be legislating technology, given how little they understand it.
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The committee’s own biases were on full display. Members routinely cited The Wall Street Journal’s reporting on TikTok, but their reporting has had spotty sources, at best. What’s worth noting here, however, is that The Wall Street Journal is owned by Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News. The committee frequently played and referenced a video showcasing a gun while the narrator talked about assassinating the committee chairwoman. While absolutely repugnant, it is also immensely hypocritical given one, Republican lawmakers’ refusal to enact meaningful gun control legislation, and two, the role social media played in the Jan. 6 insurrection, spearheaded largely by President Trump and other prominent Trump-Republicans.
And TikTok users noticed. Barely hours after the hearings concluded, creators took to the app to express their frustration at lawmakers, and also engage in vicious mockery. The sentiment on the app was that of disbelief, as creators from all “sides” of TikTok seemed to wonder how such technologically-illiterate people could have the power to make such an impactful decision regarding one of the biggest pieces of technology in the United States and the world.
With all of this, it would be easy to think Congress lost the day. But as a communications researcher, I’m trained to take a step back and examine things from multiple sides, and within relevant contexts. And here’s where - and why - it was bad a day for TikTok.
The fact of the matter was, Shou Zi Chew and TikTok were never going to win these hearings. They just had to not lose too badly. This is the case because as I wrote in my last Substack post, this hearing, and all of the noise about a potential TikTok ban, isn’t actually about TikTok. It’s about a backlash to globalization that is rearing its head as nationalism-first rhetoric, in which all the connections that were made during globalization are now being severed. It’s not about data, it’s not about security, it’s not even about teen mental health. It never was, and never will be. It’s about anger that the most popular social media app in the world is not a U.S. one, coupled with xenophobia. So TikTok came to Capitol Hill thinking they would be playing chess, but politicians wanted to play, “smash the board and make a lot of noise.”
And the noise is what everyone remembers about the hearings. As I just discussed, news coverage of the hearings and creator response largely has focused on how laughable questions were. But we have to take a step back and think about the hearings, not from the perspectives of people who think about, write about, and engage with media all of the time. We have to think about how these things look to non-media people, and this is where TikTok lost.
Despite the absurdity of the questions and pieces of media submitted into evidence, the terms that were shouted the loudest and most frequently are the ones that are going to hit home - “China,” “Communism,” “Suicide,” “Mental Health,” “Drugs,” and “Guns.” All news outlets like Fox and CNN have to do is play those clips with those words over and over again. As I mentioned in my last post, TikTok is already losing the public opinion game. The soundbites from yesterday won’t help.
I saw a lot of journalists and pundits saying yesterday was a win for TikTok, and that the committee asked so many stupid questions no one could ever take a ban seriously. In the circles they operate in, absolutely. But outside of this media world, it’s an entirely different story, and it’s crucial to remember that our positions don’t always reflect broader sentiment.
But why on earth, then, does this mean it was a bad day for Meta?
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg may not have been in the hearing room yesterday, but mentions of his company’s biggest failings were on full display. In a sharp rebuttal at one point, Mr. Chew referenced Cambridge Analytica, the 2016 scandal in which Facebook allowed the unauthorized access to non-public data for millions of Facebook users, that were ultimately used in tailoring Republic political campaigns. Mr. Chew frequently defended his company, noting they adhere - and often exceed - all industry data security policies that are also used by companies like Meta. Congress didn’t want to hear it. While we have no proof Meta is presently lobbying the U.S. government to ban TikTok, we know the company has gone to extensive lengths in the past to malign its biggest competitor.
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Amongst TikTok users, there seemed to be a rising sentiment of unfairness. They’ve begun asking the questions many internet experts and pundits have long asked, “Why does the government not stop Meta from frequently engaging in data abuse?” “Why are they only going after TikTok?” In other words, scapegoating has entered the chat - TikTok users are now keenly aware that the U.S. government is biased and not technologically savvy enough to understand the real issues at stake here.
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Meta has long viewed TikTok as a threat. It launched Reels as a direct competitor, but its own short-form video segment has never been able to keep up with TikTok and is often mocked by TikTokkers as merely being a place where TikToks wind up weeks later - long after the viral trends are over. In terms of interface, over the last several years it has made many changes to make it difficult to link or import native TikTok videos on Instagram or Facebook (such as utilizing an aspect ratio that would crop off a TikTok watermark, not boosting external links, etc.). Interestingly, last week Meta quietly announced they would stop paying creators for Reels. This is a baffling decision, and to me the biggest evidence they’ve been lobbying for a TikTok ban behind the scenes. Why pay creators if you think you’re about to be their only option?
But Meta, for whatever reason that decision was orchestrated, has made a grave miscalculation. In TikTok speak, creators would rather sit naked on a hot grill than turn to Meta if TikTok gets banned. As TikTokkers discussed the hearing, they lobbied criticism as Meta over and over again. Creators are not dumb, and even though platforms may often treat them as such, they are not pawns in the power games of tech giants. I’ve talked to hundreds of creators and influencers in my career, and they all understand an app is more than its features - its culture and community is the most important thing. Meta can institute Reels, and YouTube can promote Shorts, but replicating the culture and community of an app is next to impossible. The latter is what creators will flock to, time and time again. User experience isn’t always about infrastructure, even though that’s what gets the most focus. It’s about other users.
If Meta thinks all TikTok creators will run to them if a ban is put in place, they are sorely mistaken. If the company continues as is, they will never be a hub for creators in the way YouTube, Twitch, and TikTok are.
In sum, the battle for whether or not TikTok will be banned in the U.S. is playing out on two fronts - first, in internet/tech/media/creator circles, where the absurdity of it all is on full display. But second, among politicians, parents, casual users, or non-users, those gunning for a ban have tailored ideologies such as tech anxiety and xenophobia solely to TikTok, making the issue seem like it should have long ago been settled against the short-form video app. Sitting somewhere in the middle of it all is Meta, hoping to bring creators to it, but continuously misunderstanding the best way to do so.