In his weekly newsletter, Coastal Georgia Rep. Buddy Carter describes last Thursday as “one of the most intense days” he’s ever experienced in Washington.
That’s saying something for the congressman from Pooler, who during his five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives has witnessed plenty of political dramas, not least two impeachments, an attempted insurrection and most recently, in January, an agonizing 15 rounds of voting to elect a new speaker of the House.
The occasion for the Thursday’s dramatics was a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, during which Carter and other members of the panel, both Republican and Democrat, grilled the CEO of TikTok, the video app that the company estimates is used by 150 million Americans.
In his questioning of TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, Carter accused the Chinese Communist Party of using the app to wage psychological warfare against American children.
He also demanded to know how many children had died from TikTok “challenges,” in which users are urged to create videos that the app’s creators hope will encourage them to join a discussion or interact with their contacts. Behind Carter as he questioned Chew was a poster bearing the caption, “Deadly TikTok Challenges.”
But the congressman didn’t succeed in persuading Chew to disclose how many U.S. children purportedly have died because of TikTok challenges. Nor did he offer an estimate himself.
Asked by Carter if TikTok was taking steps to curb harmful videos, Chew said pernicious uses of the internet were an industry-wide challenge (read: Meta, Apple, Google, Microsoft), one not solely limited to his company.
By the end of the often melodramatic, five-hour hearing, there appeared to be no new evidence to support lawmakers’ unsupported claims that the Chinese government has used TikTok to access Americans’ user data or promote government propaganda, though that hardly allays suspicions that Beijing is using the app to spy.
Still, the video of Carter’s sometimes brusque, intentionally melodramatic questioning of Chew went viral. So did critiques of it.
A young woman whose photo appeared on Carter’s poster and whom the congressman described as a victim of TikTok manipulation called him out for misusing her photo and misrepresenting facts. Elsewhere, he was mocked for repeatedly suggesting during his questioning of Chew that TikTok uses the cameras in mobile phones to collect users’ biometric data — in particular, how users’ eyes dilate while viewing a video. TikTok doesn’t collect such data, Chew said.
On Monday, the Georgia General Assembly passed a measure banning TikTok on all state-owned devices. But legislating a federal nationwide ban on the app won’t be easy.
There are First Amendment issues. There are political issues and risks inherent in alienating what TikTok officials say are the 150 million U.S. users of the app, most of them young. The Biden administration has urged TikTok’s Chinese owners to sell their stakes in the company. But the company has refused to divest, and senior U.S. officials reportedly don’t think they have the legal authority to ban TikTok without an act of Congress.
There’s also a contradiction at the core of the demand by Carter and other conservative Republican lawmakers who condemn Washington overreach yet want the federal government to step in to protect children from the alleged harm caused by TikTok and perform a role that parents cannot — or will not — do.
But at least for Carter, curbing TikTok may not be the entire point of last week’s hearing and his often brusque exchange with the company’s CEO, during which he appeared more interested in making declarations than eliciting information.
Carter knows his core constituency, and how well calling attention to China and the alleged threats it poses to the U.S. now go down. At recent meetings of local GOP groups, including the annual convention of the county GOP, anti-China declarations have drawn the most enthusiastic applause.
The Tide brings regular notes and observations on news and events by The Current staff.