Inside TikTok's latest arguments against a ban

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As House lawmakers weighed legislation earlier this month that could amount to a ban on TikTok, the conservative political powerhouse Club for Growth had a threat for members: Vote for the bill, and we could dock your score.

The Club for Growth, buoyed by funding from major TikTok parent-company investor Jeff Yass, has become a massively influential player in contested Republican primaries, scoring lawmakers based on how they vote on certain legislation. The group has also become a key player in the fight over the Chinese-owned social media platform and efforts by Republicans to force its parent company, ByteDance, to sell, as the bill threatens Yass’ investment, which is reportedly worth up to $21 billion.

The argument from Club for Growth, relayed by two Hill aides who were granted anonymity to discuss private messages, is one of several pleas from varying angles that TikTok or its advocates have quietly made with lawmakers or offices on the Hill. Someone aware of TikTok’s efforts on the Hill said that it has also argued that the move would actually hurt retirees: Major financial firms are invested in ByteDance, the logic goes, and pension funds have provided capital to those giants.

The sheer breadth of the arguments TikTok and Club for Growth are advancing on the Hill underscores how crucial the moment is for the survival of the app’s business.

After the bill passed the House overwhelmingly, TikTok’s fate lies with the Senate. The company is now focusing advocacy on states with key Senate races in 2024, with a new and extensive ad buy.

TikTok has contended that it supports 5 million small businesses and that its average U.S. user is not a young teen, but someone over 30. It has also maintained that a ban would violate the First Amendment and denied that the app is “owned or controlled by the Chinese government.”

“We continue advocating against the ban bill because it would trample the free speech rights of 170 million Americans and devastate small businesses across the country,” Alex Haurek, a TikTok spokesperson, said in a statement. Haurek added that “many of the arguments” relayed by the sources were “unfamiliar” or “sound like they have been deliberately distorted or taken out of context.”

A Club for Growth spokesperson maintained that a key vote was not issued for the legislation nor has Yass ever requested the group take a position or action on his behalf.

The legislation on TikTok, dubbed the Protecting Americans’ Data from Foreign Adversaries Act, would prohibit the sale or transfer of sensitive American data to companies headquartered in North Korea, Russia, China or Iran. In effect, it would force TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, to sell the Los Angeles- and Singapore-based TikTok or face a potential ban. While the House passed the bill in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, it has stalled in the Senate as Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) has raised constitutional concerns and says she plans a hearing before taking action. And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hasn’t committed to bringing it to the floor.

The company, which has cast the legislation as an outright ban, has also repeatedly sought to leverage its users to influence policymakers, sending them waves of push alerts encouraging them to urge their representatives to oppose the legislation.

In its latest tactic to create a grassroots movement in its favor, TikTok on Wednesday launched an advertisement in a number of states, including several with competitive 2024 Senate elections like Pennsylvania, Montana and Ohio. With clips of the company’s advocates demonstrating in front of the Capitol and the White House, TikTok creators gush about their love of the app. TikTok spent more than $2.1 million on the ad, which will run through the middle or the end of April, according to data from AdImpact. TikTok said it was spending “significantly” more on the ad, but declined to say more than that it was a seven-figure buy.

As TikTok fights for its existence, it has also sought to push the spotlight to other actors that could pop up in its place if Congress ensures its demise. One Democratic staffer said TikTok has argued another domestic company could still act nefariously with Americans’ user data, and a lobbyist with tech-related clients said that TikTok has argued the move would make Facebook more powerful. The case echoes one made in stronger language by former President Donald Trump, who said a TikTok ban would simply “double” the business of Facebook, which he called an enemy of the people.

TikTok has some time to prepare for a potential Senate vote, unlike the measure in the House, which caught the company largely flat-footed. It had little opportunity to rebut what was presented to lawmakers before the vote, given the speed with which the measure pressed ahead. TikTok had been offering to meet with offices of lawmakers who are willing to hear its case, according to someone aware of TikTok’s efforts, adding that only some had been willing to see additional information.

Former Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), a registered lobbyist for TikTok, served as an intermediary with TikTok, per a Hill staffer, who also noted that former Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.), whose firm represents TikTok, was forwarding information to the Hill. Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) said former Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), also now a lobbyist for TikTok, texted him to ask where he stood on the legislation the night before the House vote. Denham, Davis and Crowley did not respond to requests for comment.

The fight to stave off a potential ban dates back several years. TikTok has spent millions on lobbying and has flown influencers to the Hill to fight potential ban legislation. Not unlike competitors like Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, it has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.

“Like countless other companies, TikTok has donated to the CHCI and CBCF for years because they do important work,” Haurek said in his statement.

Before the current legislative fight, TikTok at least once also tried to differentiate itself from Meta by telling Hill staff that unlike that company, it would not censor Trump or Trump-related content, according to the Hill staffer.

Rebecca Kern contributed to this report.



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