Nearly six months after TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew faced a barrage of bipartisan criticism in a heated House hearing, calls from lawmakers to rein in TikTok have become relatively muffled.
Lawmakers have largely shifted their focus to the potential dangers and opportunities of AI — holding the first in a series of high-profile forums this week — and put TikTok regulation on the back burner.
Since Chew’s March testimony, TikTok has poured millions of dollars into lobbying and an ad campaign highlighting stories of people who have found the video platform useful.
In one ad, a veteran who says his motorized scooter was vandalized praises the app for spreading his story, saying he raised enough in donations to replace his scooter and create a fund for others in need.
In another, a soap maker explains how her business reached all-new heights after she began making TikTok videos.
The ads, combined with the lobbying blitz, have sought to provide a more personal veneer of the company against any potential U.S. regulation. TikTok declined to say how much it is spending on the ads.
“There’s this amazing community, these amazing stories that are on TikTok, but if you’re not on then you just don’t know about it,” Michael Hacker, a TikTok spokesman, told The Hill. “That’s the goal of this campaign.”
An OpenSecrets analysis of lobbying disclosures found TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance spent nearly $4.3 million on federal lobbying during the first half of the year — more than half of that in the months after lawmakers grilled Chew for five hours. It’s a significant bump for the company, which spent $5.3 million on lobbying in all of 2022.
A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill this year giving the president more power to regulate or ultimately ban companies such as TikTok, but the bill hasn’t moved since being introduced in March.
Anton Dahbura, executive director of the Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute, noted that concerns around TikTok haven’t gone away for many, even if the issue isn’t at the forefront.
“I believe that Tiktok has created a security risk for many Americans,” Dahbura said, adding so far it’s mostly played out as “political theater.”
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who was among the group to propose the legislation earlier this year, lamented after this week’s AI forum that lawmakers have “come up short” on addressing social media concerns.
“We can’t make the same mistakes when it comes to AI,” he posted.