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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Hamilton

Banning TikTok and the issue of cyber security in the US

There’s a new TikTok star on the rise, and it’s not because he posts himself dancing to trending songs or filming makeup tutorials. The app’s chief executive, Shou Zi Chew has picked up his following because of his defence of TikTok against Congress this week.

Chew was the subject of a congressional hearing over concerns from American lawmakers about the Chinese ownership of TikTok through the company of Bytedance, and how much involvement the Chinese government may have in the app.

Chew fiercely advocated for his company’s separation from government influence and reaffirmed his commitment to making TikTok a safe and positive space for all its 150 million American users.

The CEO has grown in popularity on the app following the hearing for his calm and respectful attitude towards questions from lawmakers that ranged from moderately concerning to highly disrespectful.

If one thing was made clear through the hearing, it was the average age of American politicians, with most highlighting their ignorance on the topic of social media and technology. Chew was questioned about the basic concept of Wi-Fi and why the app needs to know where your eyes are for a sunglasses filter. The CEO was patient with questions that were unrelated to his company and clearly below his pay grade. The most he gave back was a momentary look of shock when one congressman asked him if turning on aeroplane mode let TikTok talk to the plane.

Lines of questioning appeared to be underpinned by a large amount of fear against the Chinese government. All the issues being asked of Chew about TikTok’s data collection are universal for every social media and every app, yet when Chew mentioned the industry-wide importance of these issues, he was shut down with direct attacks. Chew, in one powerful response, challenged the idea that the app’s Chinese ownership was a threat to the American people and their data, reminding congress that American companies did not have a clear track record, using the example of Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

One TikTok user commented on a clip of Chew being questioned about his position on the Uyghur Muslim genocide, ‘This is like asking Mark Zuckerberg about America bombing the Middle East in a hearing about Facebook.’ Completely unrelated.

There is no doubt about the racial motivations behind some of these lines of questioning with Chew having to remind lawmakers of the fact that he was born and raised in Singapore, not China, and has no personal affiliations to the Chinese government.

Specific TikTok content was referenced in the hearing with one video of someone threatening the senate with an image of a gun being played for the floor. Lawmakers were alarmed that this kind of TikTok content was killing children. Some people think it's the TikTok and some people think it's the unregulated gun, you can make your own mind up about that one.

One conservative lawmaker referenced the kind of videos he gets on his for you page, saying he sees nothing but ‘dancing homosexuals, fluffers and drag queens’, following up the with question of how do algorithms work? Who’s going to tell him it’s based on what content he enjoys elsewhere?

Although the congressional hearing has been deemed highly embarrassing for some of the congressmen and women of America, and Chew is getting his 15 minutes, the future of TikTok in the US is still highly uncertain. The hearing, at times, felt more like a formality, with minds being made up beforehand.

The large amount of data social media platforms can collect about people without regulation is an important issue that needs to be scrutinised more extensively in the US, but this was an attack on TikTok, not Facebook or Meta. The position that TikTok is a tool for the Chinese Communist Party to move over into America is one that is strongly held by a lot of Congress, and the ban looming over TikTok in the US is a threat that remains ongoing.

For now, The American Data Privacy Act is working its way through the legislative process, which would address some of these market-wide concerns, but the fate of the app on American soil is still unknown.


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