The TikTok Teens Go To Washington
TikTok videos underscore the gap in expertise between those who seek to regulate technology and those who use it.
If you were wondering if the teens of TikTok saw Congress’s hearing about the platform last week: They did. They saw it through TikTok Lives, with their favorite creators talking about it. They saw snippets of the hearing through news channels on TikTok (even CSPAN). They saw it via memes and edits of members of Congress asking if TikTok could “turn on their wifi” and if the app collected data about their “pupil dilation” to know what to “amplify.” Within an hour, those snippets had become so prevalent on the app that one set of creators made a video in which they repeated the silliest questions from Congress in the format of a military recitation. In a softer aesthetic, one creator made a song that played over a video of her standing below a mountain; it began “TikTok don’t want your pupils” and ended “Are we going to lose our app because peepaw thinks China wants to steal his face?” The contrast between the early news coverage of the hearing by “traditional” media and the response to it from TikTok users could not be starker. While The New York Times ran with the headline “TikTok’s CEO Struggles to Make His Case in Washington,” TikTok users were taking to the app to express their disappointment about the performance of Congress in the hearing, drawing attention to the widening gap between the expertise of the governors and the governed — particularly when it comes to technology policy.
In many cases, Tik Tok users do not trust their representatives — neither their motivations for the ban, nor their fundamental knowledge of technology.
I am a social media researcher with a PhD; I’m in my mid-to-late thirties and live in NYC. My TikTok feed is probably quite influenced by those conditions. I cannot be certain that my feed looks like everyone else’s feed, especially because I began liking and bookmarking videos as I saw them, which impacted the types of videos I saw next. But I suspect that what I saw on my feed demonstrates how many American TikTok users are interpreting the logical inconsistencies of a proposed TikTok ban in relation to what they know about how data flows work online (which actually seems to be a lot). The videos I saw demonstrate that while TikTok users don’t necessarily trust TikTok, they don’t trust Facebook (Meta) or Google (Alphabet) either. And in many cases, they do not trust their representatives — neither their motivations for the ban, nor their fundamental knowledge of technology.
The reasons for that lack of trust are obvious and abundant. In one set of extremely popular videos, TikTok users looped and edited particularly egregious instances of gerontocratic members of Congress revealing their ignorance about how TikTok, or social media in general, worked. They made edits of Rep. Richard Hudson, a North Carolina Republican, when he asked “Mr. Chew, does TikTok access the home wifi network?” and poked fun at Rep. Buddy Cartier (R-Georgia) when Chew had to explain that the app only collects data about “pupils” when trying to determine where to place sunglasses on your face using a filter. In some of these videos, TikTokers affected deep Southern drawls, satirizing what they saw as a lack of expertise about technology among their representatives, stretching and blurring the boundaries between what was being asked in Congress and what they, perhaps, hear from their own relatives. A typical user comment was, “I can’t tell if this is a joke or not, and that’s scary.” Others seemed to cringe at how the hearing reflected on their country’s reputation, noting “we’re an international embarrassment as always.” And they pointed out the ways the arguments of members of Congress were inconsistent or hypocritical: “As if they don’t use facial recognition software to unlock their own phones.”
In other videos, TikTokers created their own news analyses of the hearings. Some were particularly detailed. In one video, an entrepreneur named Nick Drom used Capitol Trades to look up the stock holdings of members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to see who held Meta or Alphabet stock. He also looked up representatives’ voting records on gun control, juxtaposing their comments about “protecting young people” from harm due to things they “saw” on TikTok with the existential threat that guns pose to young people in the United States (in fact, the latest in an unending stream of school shootings happened while the hearing was taking place). In a simpler variation of the same idea, a video featured the popular meme of actor Pedro Pascal eating a sandwich, juxtaposed with a matrix that distinguishes what the American government “will protect us from” (TikTok) from what it won’t (“cancer-causing ingredients in food, school shootings, income inequality, vinyl chloride train derailments, recession, starvation, lead poisoning in water”). In another video, a man stares into the camera and promises to tell the viewer “why Congress was right about TikTok” and why these hearings are taking place — and then proceeds to list data security and privacy concerns that are actually attributable to Meta (such as being fined over a data leak involving more than 533 million users, and giving data access to a Chinese company that was flagged by US intelligence). In the comments on that video, users blame Mark Zuckerberg in particular for the prospect of a TikTok ban, saying “Zuckerberg is the problem” and “Mark Zuckerberg has congress in his pocket” and “Mark Zuckerberg is losing money that’s why this is happening.”
“Does anyone believe we have secrets anymore, FB sends me ads for things I think about lol.”
Across the videos I saw, this lack of trust in the data and technology sector writ large was the most common reaction. In one set of videos, TikTokers seemed to express the absolute futility of controlling their data flows, reframing the idea that “if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product” as a good, something they are willing to exchange for access to TikTok. One user asked, “Does anyone have an email for the Chinese government? I’m just going to send them my data.” This video in particular demonstrates the amount of awareness users have about the variety and types of data that is being collected about them: “I’ll just add them to my FindMyiPhone and they can track me like my mom does….do they want to know what’s on my Amazon Subscribe & Save? It’s just toilet paper.” In the comments, a user wondered: “Does anyone believe we have secrets anymore, FB sends me ads for things I think about lol.” Said another, “One thing I learned working at a bank — if someone wants your data, they are going to get it.” Another commenter argued, “I’m less concerned with the Chinese government having my data and more concerned with Zuckerberg having it.”
As I watch them, these videos seem to demonstrate a form of learned helplessness that users have come to have in relation to their data privacy. It’s not that they display a lack of concern — they actually seem to be quite concerned about a variety of companies and actors — but rather a sense of futility, an awareness that banning TikTok, without federal privacy legislation, would do very little to solve the very real problems of data privacy and security. Even a forced sale of TikTok, if the Chinese government allowed it, would do little to assuage privacy and security concerns. As The Washington Post demonstrated in a recent article (and in a TikTok), after the US forced the sale of the Chinese company Grindr, a group of conservative Colorado Catholics was able to buy mobile app tracking data to identify (and out) priests who used the app. This sense of futility appeared to be deepened by the performance of members of Congress asking yes or no questions (and sometimes preventing Chew from responding at all), on issues that required nuance. In effect, the performance, which was combined with what TikTok users saw as clear xenophobia, had the impact of creating more sympathy for the app and Chew himself.
It’s not as if TikTok users don’t have their own questions about the app and its practices that they want answered, including those put forth by representatives like Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY), who asked about how potential racial bias in moderation impacted monetization (along with highlighting her questions, some users also praised how she asked them). In one particularly powerful video, an astute user, wearing a Sailor Moon t-shirt, looked into the video and asked a version of the questions they she wished Congress had asked: “What types of data do you collect on your platform? Are you collecting any passive data from the back end of the phones even if the person isn’t logged in? How long are you storing this data for? Where is this data physically stored? Where are your servers located? What data is being passed through to advertisers? If a user would like to have their data expunged from their systems, is there a process in place to easily and fairly quickly have that done? Have you ever willingly or unwillingly relinquished your data to the government of China or any other country?”
We need representatives who understand (or at least have used) the technology they are trying to regulate.
When it comes to issues of technology policy, it’s clear that the public (and particularly young people) are eager to discuss the vast power technology companies hold, and the need for privacy protection and legislation, as well as opportunities for users to delete data, reset algorithms, and have more control over their digital footprints. To do that, we need representatives who understand (or at least have used) the technology they are trying to regulate. Regardless, young people are ahead of the game: As research has repeatedly shown (particularly that by D&S founder danah boyd), young people are often experts at navigating online spaces. As one user said, “When I was 12 years old, I was coding in HTML on MySpace because I wanted my background to have clouds on it. I didn’t care about coding, but I still figured it out, because I wanted my background to look like a sky.” She figured it out then, and she and her peers will figure it out again: “I don’t think the US government understands that if they ban TikTok, we are still going to find a way to use it.”
Thank you to Michelle Caplan-Zaple for sending me many, many TikToks for this blog post.