WASHINGTON - With his hands folded on his lap and a black tumbler with a TikTok logo in front of him, TikTok chief executive Chew Shou Zi was a picture of calm facing a sea of photojournalists snapping his picture in the 10 minutes before the start of Thursday’s House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing.
But as impassive as he was under fire, Mr Chew – whom the Washington Post described as “soft-spoken, earnest and temperate” during a heated hearing that lasted five hours – could not convince the congressmen that the social media app did not pose a national security threat to the United States.
The minds of the more than 50 congressmen who grilled the Singaporean CEO appeared mostly made up from the start. Many were vocally sceptical that TikTok was truly not beholden to Beijing, given its ownership by Chinese parent company ByteDance.
The app, used by more than 150 million Americans, has been accused of being anything from a Chinese espionage tool to a method of indoctrinating children amid soaring US-China tensions, though lawmakers have not presented evidence of such occurrences.
“We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values,” committee chairman Cathy Rodgers said in her opening statement, which she read out before posing questions to Mr Chew. “TikTok has repeatedly chosen the path for more control, more surveillance and more manipulation. Your platform should be banned.”
Mr Frank Pallone Jr, the committee’s top Democrat, was dismissive of Mr Chew’s characterisation of TikTok as performing a public service.
“I am not convinced that the benefits outweigh the risks that it poses to Americans in its present form,” he said.
Several Republican congressmen came armed with montages of problematic TikTok clips, as well as poster displays which aides held up behind them for the cameras.
Republican Gus Bilirakis of Florida, who grilled Mr Chew on his content moderation policies, aired several TikTok videos that encouraged suicide, adding that such videos drove Long Island teen Chase Nasca to take his own life in 2022.
His parents Dean and Michelle Nasca, who were in the audience, sobbed as Mr Bilirakis told Mr Chew that his company had destroyed their lives.
“His ‘For You’ page was sadly a window to discover suicide,” said the lawmaker, referring to TikTok’s feed of algorithmically recommended videos. “It’s unacceptable, sir!”
His party colleague Kat Cammack, also of Florida, showed a video of a gun with a caption threatening the committee with violence, and asked Mr Chew why it had been allowed to remain up for 41 days.
He was not given a chance to respond, though the clip was taken down shortly afterwards.
With five minutes each, the lawmakers hurried through their prepared lines of questioning, pressing Mr Chew for “yes” or “no” replies and dismissing his caveats on technical questions. He was also repeatedly talked over or dismissed mid-sentence.
“You have not given straightforward answers. We do not find you credible on these things,” said Republican Neal Dunn of Florida, who said TikTok would censor content on behalf of the Communist Party of China.
Mr Chew replied: “Congressman, you have given me no time to answer your questions. I reject the characterisations.”
He was evasive particularly on ByteDance’s current access to TikTok’s US user data and repeatedly dodged questions on the Chinese government’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, which elicited audible sighs from several lawmakers.
Republican Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota, referring to the Communist Party of China, said: “You have absolutely tied yourself in knots to avoid criticising the CCP’s treatment of the Uighur population, and I think it begs the question… if the CCP demanded that ByteDance hand over all the data that they had on US users and ByteDance refused, I wonder what would happen?”
Mr Chew at times stressed his Singaporean roots as he tried to distance himself and TikTok from China, recounting in his opening remarks how he had met his wife while studying in America.
He also told Congress that his two children, who live in Singapore, were not on TikTok because the platform is not available there for children under 13 years old.
The New York Times wrote that the hearing had been “harsher in tone than previous congressional hearings featuring American executives of social media companies”, a point that Mr Chew also alluded to throughout his testimony.
When Democrat Darren Soto of Florida said that TikTok should be “an American company with American values”, Mr Chew hit back – a rare instance in the hearing – as he argued that American ownership did not guarantee data standards.
“With a lot of respect, American social (media) companies do not have a good track record with data privacy and user security. Look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica,” he said, in a jibe at its data misuse scandal.
It is not clear how lawmakers will proceed after the hearing, or how quickly they might pass legislation to strengthen the Biden administration’s legal powers to ban TikTok.
Mr Brandon Clark, a member of the public who attended the hearing, told The Straits Times that he found the insistence on “yes” or “no” answers “harsh, typical American s***”.
“You just want to get a simplified answer when the response requires a bit more clarity and detail,” said Mr Clark, whose gummy company BDE Gummy advertises on TikTok.
He said that Mr Chew appeared “frustrated, like he was constantly hitting a brick wall” with the congressmen.
“It’s like he’s being led into these questions where there is no win,” said Mr Clark. “He’s scared, but rightfully so. You can have all the money in the world, but this is influence and power. This is regulation, a very different domain.”
Musician Greg Spero, one of the dozen or so TikTok content creators in the audience, told ST that Mr Chew and the congressmen appeared to be talking past each other.
“In this hearing, it seems that nobody wants to know the benefits of TikTok and what’s actually being done, but they want to create a public spectacle,” he said.
On the flip side, Mr Spero said, Democrat Jamaal Bowman, a congressman who spoke against a TikTok ban at a Wednesday press conference, focused on the app’s upsides without addressing the concerns around it.
“I wish I could witness something where people are sitting down and having a discussion that clearly outlines the positives and negatives of what we’re dealing with,” Mr Spero said.