The gulf between TikTok users and lawmakers over a possible ban is growing

New York — On one side, dozens of lawmakers on Capitol Hill have issued dire warnings about security breaches and potential Chinese surveillance.

On the other hand, there are about 150 million TikTok users in the US who just want to be able to keep making and watching short, fun videos that offer makeup tutorials and cooking tutorials, among other things.

The breakup illustrates the uphill battle that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle face trying to convince the public that China could use TikTok as a weapon against the American people. But many users on the platform are more concerned about the possibility of the government pulling their favorite app.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew said during a nearly six-hour congressional hearing Thursday that the platform has never turned over user data to the Chinese government, and would not if asked.

Yet lawmakers, the FBI, and officials at other agencies continue to sound alarms that Chinese law compels Chinese companies like TikTok parent ByteDance to send data to the government for whatever purposes it deems to be relevant to national security. There is also concern that Beijing may try to push pro-China narratives or disinformation across the platform.

“I want to say this to all the teens out there, the TikTok influencers who think we’re old and out of touch and don’t know what we’re talking about, trying to use your favorite app,” the Republican said. Dan Crenshaw during the hearing. “You may not care that your data is being accessed now, but someday you will.”

Many TikTok users have reacted to the hearing by posting videos critical of lawmakers who have questioned Chew and often blocked him from speaking. A potential TikTok ban, as threatened by some lawmakers and the Biden administration, has been described by some as the “biggest scam” of the year. Others have blamed the platform’s increased scrutiny on another tech competitor, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

But few have expressed concerns about potential Chinese surveillance or security breaches that lawmakers continue to amplify as they look to rein in TikTok.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., whose district is in the heart of Silicon Valley, said he recognizes the value platforms like TikTok provide young people as an outlet for creative expression and community building. “But there is absolutely no reason why an American technology company shouldn’t do this,” said Khanna, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Cyber. “America has the most innovative technology companies in the world.”

He added that Congress should move forward with a proposal to force the sale of the platform to a US company to maintain access to millions of users while “ensuring that the platform is not subject to Chinese propaganda or compromising people’s privacy.”

According to a Pew Research Center survey, two-thirds of Americans ages 13 to 17 use TikTok, and 16% of all teens say they use it almost constantly. Because of TikTok’s large user base, Lindsey Gorman, a former tech advisor to the Biden administration who is now a senior fellow for emerging technologies at the German Marshall Fund, says the Biden administration will likely pursue every option short of a ban first. That would include an option for Chinese owners of the app to strip, which the Biden administration is said to be demanding from TikTok if it wants to avoid a nationwide ban.

TikTok itself is trying to capitalize on its popularity. On Wednesday, I sent dozens of influencers to Congress to lobby against the ban. It also ramped up a broader public relations campaign, coloring ads around Washington touting its promises to secure users’ data and privacy and create a safe platform for its young users.

Some of the popular TikTokers who are speaking out against the ban are worried — and angry — about how it will affect their personal lives. Many make income from their videos and have partnered with brands to market products to their audiences – another stream of revenue that could be wiped out if the platform disappeared. They will also miss out on the social capital that comes from having a large number of followers on a trend-finding app.

Demetrius Fields, a professional comedian who has amassed 2.8 million followers on TikTok from posting comedy sketches, said he has spent a great deal of time building his career and following on the platform. He has one active deal with fast fashion retailer Fashion Nova, which allows him to earn income alongside the videos he posts on TikTok.

If the app is taken down, he said building an audience on another platform would be a challenge for him because of the competition for user attention.

“The financial ramifications to me would be absolutely horrendous,” Fields said. “Maybe I’ll have to go back to working a desk job.”

Sarah Beckett, an 18-year-old student at Penn State University, said she used to use TikTok a lot, but started cutting back when she realized how much time she spent scrolling through videos on the app. She still uses it, but mostly to post her own content, which she says she can do on other platforms. She said she wouldn’t care if TikTok got banned — but her friends would.

“They like to pass excessively,” Bakhit said.

Associated Press writer Farnoosh Amiri in Washington contributed to this report.

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