TikTok launches full-court press against House bill that would force its sale

TikTok is using every tool available to try to stop Congress from passing legislation that would force a sale by its Chinese parent company to stay operational in the United States.

The popular short-form video app has been heavily scrutinized by Congress for years over its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party. It now faces a forced sale or a national ban after Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) introduced the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act last week.

The bill would force TikTok’s owner, the Beijing-based ByteDance, to sell the app to a domestic buyer or have it banned in the U.S. The House is expected to vote on Gallagher’s bill Wednesday, giving TikTok a shrinking window to change representatives’ minds. The platform is trying to sway lawmakers through a variety of means.

Presidential influence

TikTok has succeeded in getting aid from former President Donald Trump, who was a critic while in office. He said last week that he opposed Gallagher’s bill.

“If you get rid of TikTok, Facebook and Zuckerschmuck will double their business,” Trump said on his network, Truth Social. “I don’t want Facebook, who cheated in the last Election, to do better. They are a true Enemy of the People!”

Trump’s remarks contrast with President Joe Biden’s, who promised to sign Gallagher’s bill into law if it was passed by the House and Senate. It is unclear if Trump’s comments will sway Republicans, most of whom have been consistently critical of TikTok since his administration.

Trump’s opposition to TikTok declined after learning that banning the app would affect his standing with younger voters, a former Trump aide told the Washington Post. The former president also has several staff members with ties to the app. David Urban, a former campaign adviser, has worked as a lobbyist for TikTok in recent years. Senior aide Kellyanne Conway has also advocated TikTok in Congress on behalf of the Club for Growth.

Others have claimed that hedge fund manager Jeff Yass may have influenced Trump’s views. Yass, a major GOP donor who also holds a significant stake in TikTok, recently met with the former president, who denies that they discussed TikTok during that meeting.

App notifications and call campaigns

TikTok prompted users across the U.S. on Thursday around the same time the House Energy and Commerce Committee moved to approve Gallagher’s bill.

“Stop a TikTok shutdown,” the message on the app read. “Let Congress know what TikTok means to you and tell them to vote NO.”

Users were then prompted to provide their ZIP codes to get the phone numbers of their representatives.

This prompt led to hundreds of calls asking Congress to vote against a ban, aides told the press. Many of the users were unaware of how Gallagher’s bill worked. TikTok framed the legislation as a “total ban” of TikTok, a term that Gallagher challenges. The Wisconsin Republican accused TikTok of lying to users about the bill and claimed it was evidence of how the app could be used to mislead American voters.

Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., speaks during A House Republicans press conference on the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) speaks during a House GOP press conference on the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan. (CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

“Today, it’s about our bill, and it’s about intimidating members, but tomorrow, it could be misinformation or lies about an election,” Gallagher told reporters.

The flood of calls did not appear to win over members of the committee, who voted 50-0 in favor of Gallagher’s bill. Some young callers reportedly threatened to kill themselves if the app was banned, while others used crude fake names such as “Mr. Ben Dover.”

Heavy lobbying

TikTok staffers are planning to spend a lot of time on Capitol Hill this week, according to Axios. The app’s government affairs staffers will work with TikTok content creators to meet with House offices and influence their opinion on Gallagher’s bill. TikTok’s team does not believe it can affect the House’s Wednesday vote but hopes to hold up the legislation in the Senate. TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew also is scheduled to visit Washington this week for a previously planned trip.

Social media platform heads, from left, Discord CEO Jason Citron, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel, partially hidden, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, X CEO Linda Yaccarino, and Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, watch a video during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, on Capitol Hill in Washington to discuss child safety.

The short-form app has invested significant money into bolstering its lobbying efforts on the Hill. ByteDance spent $7.4 million on federal lobbying in the first three quarters of 2023, according to OpenSecrets, the largest amount spent by the company to date.

It has also won the support of some conservative advocacy groups. The Club for Growth, to which Yass is a major donor, has been lobbying for TikTok’s interests for some time. FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group, also has spoken against Gallagher’s bill.

“Requiring American ownership of any company or application, like TikTok, sets a dangerous precedent,” FreedomWorks president Adam Brandon said in a statement.


Advertising campaigns

TikTok regularly invests in extensive advertising campaigns to prove that its app is safe. It purchased multiple ads in the Washington Metro system, at Union Station, and in other Washington publications, including the Washington Examiner magazine, promoting its safety policies. These ads were purchased weeks before Chew was scheduled to testify before Congress on the app’s effects on youth mental health.

The platform attempted a similar campaign in 2023 when it plastered Washington with ads in March in preparation for Chew’s first appearance before Congress.

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