- Both Congress and the Biden administration are increasingly sounding the alarm about TikTok.
- But Rep. Jamaal Bowman — among the most prolific TikTokers in Congress — is pushing back.
- Bowman says that banning the Chinese-owned app would be “xenophobic.”
Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman is among the most TikTok-savvy members of Congress. And amid growing bipartisan calls in Washington for a nationwide ban on the popular video-sharing app, he’s decided to speak up.
“This is xenophobic,” Bowman told Insider on Tuesday. “And it’s part of another Red Scare.”
The New York congressman and progressive “Squad” member is hosting a press conference on Wednesday outside the Capitol with a slew of TikTok creators — the company has reportedly paid for their travel costs — to forcefully make the case against an all-out ban amid concerns about the app’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance.
Bowman, who himself maintains both an official and campaign account on the platform, says his advocacy against a ban is a matter of free speech, highlighting the role that content creators play in disseminating information on the platform and the livelihoods they’re able to make by doing so.
“I mean, the content creators on TikTok are truth-tellers, they are journalists, and they’re sharing information with the general public — particularly younger people — that they really can’t get anywhere else in a similar format,” said Bowman.
And Bowman said that TikTok is being unfairly singled out, pointing to Facebook’s role as a vector for Russian disinformation during the 2016 presidential election, an amplifier of hateful rhetoric ahead of the 2017 Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, and as a platform for rioters to coordinate ahead of the January 6 assault on the Capitol.
Boasting an audience of over 150,000 followers on the app, Bowman posts breezy day-in-the-life videos from the Capitol, his own spins on the latest TikTok trend, and reactions to the latest political news of the day — all in the meme-heavy format to which the platform predominantly-young users are accustomed.
“Bye Felicia,” the congressman declared in one video after Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona left the Democratic Party.
Bowman says he was convinced to start posting consistently on the app by his 23-year-old press secretary, Emma Simon, and that he does so to engage with constituents and the broader public. “It has proven to be an incredible platform,” he said.
But the congressman’s enjoyment of the app puts him at odds with a Washington that’s grown increasingly skeptical of TikTok, which now claims to have 150 million active users in the United States.
“How are you going to take that away from the American people?” said Bowman. “It’s just not well thought out.”
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers increasingly speak of TikTok as a potential vector for malign influence from the Chinese Communist Party. Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, the chairman of a new select House committee on China, has referred to the platform as “digital fentanyl.”
On Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is set to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where he’s likely to face a panel of lawmakers ranging from skeptical to outright antagonistic.
Critics of TikTok argue that ByteDance, the app’s Chinese parent company, could be compelled by China’s National Intelligence Law to cooperate with foreign intelligence activities. Additionally, the Department of Justice is investigating ByteDance for its surveillance of journalists.
Bowman was broadly dismissive of concerns stemming from TikTok’s foreign ownership, claiming that “a lot” of other apps are owned by Chinese companies and that comprehensive regulations for social media platforms and Big Tech are needed, including preventing monopolistic behavior and strengthening protections against the use of users’ data.
“I mean look, our data is mined every time we go on the internet,” said Bowman. “Me being against a ban of TikTok is not about thinking TikTok is the greatest thing ever, and that there aren’t regulations and reforms needed.”
But after Congress moved to ban the app from federal government devices in December, lawmakers introduced several bills aimed at banning the app from the United States entirely, including one bill that’s endorsed by the White House.
The Biden administration, meanwhile, is threatening to ban TikTok if ByteDance doesn’t sell its stake in the company.
Bowman told Insider that he disagrees with the administration’s stance, arguing that it’s a response to “fear-mongering that has come from the Republican Party over China.”
“The targeting of TikTok feels to me, and reeks to me, as part of this overall culture war thing we see coming from the Republican Party,” said Bowman. “Unfortunately, some Democratic lawmakers are buying into it as well.”