As TikTok bill steams forward, online influencers put on their lobbying hats to visit Washington

As TikTok bill steams forward, online influencers put on their lobbying hats to visit Washington

12 Mar    AP, Finance News, PMN Business

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Lawmakers, meet your latest lobbyists: online influencers from TikTok.

The platform is once again bringing influencers to Washington, this time to lobby members of Congress to reject a fast-moving bill that would force TikTok’s Beijing-based parent company to sell or be banned in the United States. On Tuesday, some influencers began a two-day advocacy event in support of TikTok, which arranged their trip ahead of a House floor vote on the legislation on Wednesday.

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But unlike a similar lobbying event the company put together last March when talks of a TikTok ban reached a fever pitch, this year’s effort appeared more rushed as the company scrambles to counter the legislation, which advanced rapidly on Capitol Hill.

“If they ban it, I don’t know what it will do” to the business, Summer Lucille, a TikTok content creator with 1.4 million followers who is visiting Washington this week, said in an interview arranged by the platform. “It will be devastating.”

The legislation is drawing unusual support in Congress

In an unusual showing of bipartisanship, a House panel unanimously approved the measure last week. President Joe Biden has said he will sign the legislation if lawmakers pass it. But it’s unclear what will happen in the Senate, where several bills aimed at banning TikTok have stalled.

The legislation faces other roadblocks. Former president and current presidential candidate Donald Trump, who holds sway over both House and Senate Republicans, has voiced opposition to the bill, saying it would empower Meta-owned Facebook, which he continues to lambast over his 2020 election loss. The bill also faces pushback from some progressive lawmakers in the House as well as civil liberties groups who argue it infringes on the First Amendment.

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TikTok could be banned if ByteDance, the parent company, doesn’t sell its stakes in the platform and other applications it owns within six months of the bill’s enactment.

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The fight over the platform takes place as U.S.-China relations have shifted to that of strategic rivalry, especially in areas such as advanced technologies and data security, seen as essential to each country’s economic prowess and national security. The shift, which started during the Trump years and has continued under Biden, has placed restrictions on export of advanced technologies and outflow of U.S. monies to China, as well as access to the U.S. market by certain Chinese businesses.

The Biden administration also has cited human rights concerns in blacklisting a number of Chinese companies accused of assisting the state surveillance campaign against ethnic minorities.

TikTok isn’t short on lobbyists. Its Beijing-based parent company ByteDance has a strong lobbying apparatus in Washington that includes dozens of lobbyists from well-known consulting and legal firms as well as influential insiders, such as former members of Congress and ex-aides to powerful lawmakers, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew will also be in Washington this week and plans to meet with lawmakers, according to a company spokesperson who said Chew’s visit was previously scheduled.

Influencers descend on Washington

But influencers, who have big followings on social media and can share personal stories of how the platform boosted their businesses _ or simply gave them a voice — are still perhaps one of the most powerful tools the company has in its arsenal.

A TikTok spokesperson said dozens of influencers will attend the two-day event, including some who came last year. The spokesperson did not immediately respond to questions about how many new people would be attending this year’s lobbying blitz. The company is briefing them ahead of meetings with their representatives and media interviews.

Lucille runs a plus-sized boutique in Charlotte, North Carolina, that she says has seen a substantial surge in revenue because of her TikTok page. The 34-year-old began making TikTok content focusing on plus-sized fashion in March 2022, more than a decade after she started her business. She quickly amassed thousands of followers after posting a nine-second video about her boutique.

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Because of her popularity on the platform, her business has more online exposure and customers, some of whom have visited from as far as Europe. She says she also routinely hears from followers who are finding support through her content about fashion and confidence.

JT Laybourne, an influencer who also came to Washington, said he joined TikTok in early 2019 after getting some negative comments on videos he posted on Instagram while singing in the car with his children.

Laybourne, who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, said he was attracted to the short-form video platform because it was easy to create videos that contained music. Like Lucille, he quickly gained traction on the app. He says he also received more support from TikTok users, who reacted positively to content he produced on love and positivity.

Laybourne says the community he built on the platform rallied around his family when he had to undergo heart surgery in 2020. Following the surgery, he said he used the platform to help raise $1 million for the American Heart Association in less than two years. His family now run an apparel company that gets most of its traffic from TikTok.

“I will fight tooth-and-nail for this app,” he said.

But whether the opposition the company is mounting through lobbyists or influencers will be enough to derail the bill is yet to be seen. On Tuesday, House lawmakers received a briefing on national security concerns regarding TikTok from the FBI, Justice Department and intelligence officials.

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AP Journalist Didi Tang contributed to this report.

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