The embattled social media company brought out the checkbook to ensure at least 30 of its biggest assets creators were in DC to help fend off critics.
AHEAD OF TIKTOK CEO Shou Zi Chew’s much-anticipated testimony in the United States House of Representatives today, the embattled tech firm conducted a full-court press on Capitol Hill. This included paying to bring TikTok influencers face-to-face with their home state lawmakers, staffers, and journalists, as well as sharing their journey with their collective audience of some 60 million followers.
TikTok covered travel, hotels, meals, and shuttle rides to and from the Capitol for dozens of influencers, according to the creators and the company itself. Each social media star was also invited to bring a plus one—whether they flew in from Oklahoma, hopped the Acela from New York, or drove in from their suburban Washington home. TikTok spokesperson Jamal Brown confirms that “TikTok covered travel expenses for all creators and a guest.”
“Any barriers to getting here they helped cover,” says Tiffany Yu, a Los Angeles-based influencer and disability advocate tapped to speak yesterday at a highly orchestrated press conference under the Capitol’s majestic dome.
While some influencers report paying their own airfare to Washington, everyone we talked to took the free hotel. It’s unclear precisely what folks were offered as part of the trip to Washington, but seemingly everyone got one perk or another. Beyond the more than 30 influencers in attendance, along with their travel buddies, WIRED counted 10 other people who were, in one way or another, at the Capitol on behalf of TikTok.
"More than 150 million Americans, including 5 million US businesses, rely on TikTok to innovate, find community, and support their livelihoods,” spokesperson Brown says. “A US ban on TikTok could have a direct impact on the livelihoods of millions of Americans. Lawmakers in Washington debating TikTok should hear firsthand from people whose lives would be directly affected by their decisions.”
The nearly dozen influencers WIRED spoke with did not hide the fact that TikTok brought them to Washington to support the company. (The plan was first reported by Politico and The Information.) “They took us here, but we’re not being paid,” says Jorge Alverez, a mental health advocate from New Jersey. TikTok “paid for transportation—that’s also public information.”
Alexandra Doten, an expert in space communications who goes by @astro_alexandra on the app, is based near Washington, DC. But she says she also received support from the company. “I got the hotel too!” she says. “I don’t know. They just shuttle me there.”
While Doten was able to meet with her congressman, Maryland’s Glenn Ivey, this week, the highlight for her was meeting astronaut-turned-senator Mark Kelly of Arizona. She also got a true taste of life at the Capitol when the state’s other senator, Kirsten Synema, sent a staffer to meet with the influencers on her behalf. It’s unclear if their goodwill tour will sway any of TikTok’s countless congressional critics, who claim the app poses a threat to US national security.
Chew is the latest in a line of Big Tech executives who’ve had to face hostile (if often uninformed) lawmakers. But unlike Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg or Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai, Chew is the only CEO who has had technology banned on US government devices or been accused of being a puppet for the Chinese Communist Party.
Bowman also correctly pointed out that “there are still data brokers who sell our data to other countries and businesses. In other countries, they sell to the highest bidder.” He concluded: “Let’s not be racist toward China and express our xenophobia when it comes to TikTok because American companies have done tremendous harm to American people.”
As for the influencers, they say it’s hard even to have a dialog with many members of Congress because fear of China has blinded them to what the influencers see as the beauty of TikTok’s social platform. In her remarks, influencer and Ohio native Nichole Baedri (aka @Backinthekitchenwithbae) invited the nation’s political class to join the wild ride that is TiKTok. “Connect with us on another level,” she said. Baedri further implored lawmakers to recognize the value of the app, like how it has helped marginalized individuals connect and share their stories in an impactful way. “Use the app as intended.”
When House Energy and Commerce Committee member Marc Veasey, a Texas Democrat, learned that TikTok had footed the bill for more than 30 influencers and hired a PR firm to polish its image, he says he was “not surprised”—even if his reaction suggested otherwise.
“I did not know that,” he said. “Wow. Wow.”
During the hearing, Veasey pressed Chew on all the voter disinformation on the platform, but he says the CEO’s response was guarded and off-putting. As you might expect, Veasey’s takeaway is the opposite of what TikTok influencers and staffers were selling to lawmakers on Capitol Hill all week.
“He came here today to be very careful, instead of transparent,” Veasey says. “He came to be careful and evasive. He did not come to be forthcoming.”