WASHINGTON — For an app that boasts 150 million American users, TikTok has had virtually no allies on Capitol Hill to fight back against the growing movement to ban it. That appears to be changing.
The Chinese-owned platform has won over Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat, who is scheduled to host a press conference Wednesday at the Capitol alongside dozens of TikTok content creators to make the case for protecting the app in the U.S.
In an interview Tuesday, Bowman staunchly defended TikTok and denounced legislation to ban the app, rejecting arguments about its dangers as “fearmongering” and saying he hasn’t seen evidence that China is using it for espionage.
“This is a space where these creators have found a platform to share their ideas, their inspirations, their thoughts, their voices with the rest of the country and the rest of the world. And why do we want to take that away?” Bowman told NBC News. “Why do we need to ban a platform that 150 million Americans now use?”
“There are many apps on our phones right now that are Chinese apps. And so the idea that, ‘Oh, TikTok is the boogeyman’ — it’s just part of a political fearmongering that’s happening,” said Bowman, who posts frequently on the video-sharing app and has a substantial following himself. He compared criticism of TikTok to Republican “fearmongering” about an “open border” and the debt limit, as well as “xenophobia around China.”
“I haven’t seen any hard evidence that TikTok is committing some form of espionage,” he said. “What I’ve heard is speculation. And what I’ve heard is innuendo.”
The remarks make Bowman the most prominent ally of TikTok on Capitol Hill. And they come just days before TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is scheduled to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in what is likely to be a contentious hearing on Thursday morning. Chew will make his first appearance on Capitol Hill as the company has fallen behind the eight-ball in Washington and scrambles to stave off a potential ban.
Critics in both political parties say the app presents risks to national security and data privacy as it is effectively controlled by the Chinese government, at a time of rising global tensions between the U.S. and China.
Bowman and the TikTok users will be joined at the press conference by Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., whose office said he plans to attend.
“We appreciate the support of these members of Congress, and we will remain steadfast in our commitment to building a safe, secure, and innovative platform that our community of 1 billion strong have come to know us for,” TikTok spokesperson Jamal Brown said.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the chair of the Intelligence Committee, rejected the argument that Americans’ data on TikTok can be made safe from potential spying by China, saying it “doesn’t pass the smell test” due to a law in China that obligates companies first and foremost to the Chinese Communist Party.
Warner told reporters Monday at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor that he worries the app can be used for propaganda and manipulation. If it’s banned, he said, the market can produce a new product that isn’t controlled by an “authoritarian regime.”
Asked about Warner’s argument that a new app could replace TikTok, Bowman shot back, “I guess so. That could totally happen. Let’s shut down Facebook and force Mark Zuckerberg to create a new platform.”
“When we look at American companies like Facebook looking the other way in 2016 when Russia colluded to impact our election — Facebook is a national security risk. We’re not talking about a ban on Facebook,” Bowman said, calling it “ill-advised” to target TikTok.
Instead, Bowman called for broader regulations on social media companies that would “end big tech monopolies” and “give people a choice” immediately on a pop-up screen when they log on about whether or not their data can be shared.
In December, President Joe Biden signed a bipartisan bill to ban the app on government devices. More recently, he has endorsed a bill that would enable the administration to regulate or ban foreign-produced platforms. As NBC News reported last week, his administration is threatening to ban the app in the U.S., if the company’s Chinese owners won’t sell their stakes.
Bowman said that banning TikTok would present political dangers for Biden as he gears up for a re-election bid, too, citing the app’s popularity with young voters, a group Biden and Democrats “already struggle with,” he said.
“I think the more we learn, the more you’ll see people stand up and defend TikTok,” the New York congressman said. “Let me say this: If information comes out that clearly shows TikTok as a problem, I will say I was wrong. I have no problem saying that. I just haven’t seen that information as of yet.”