How TikTok is cleverly evading calls to ban China-owned app

Threats in Washington to ban TikTok have grown quieter of late — and some insiders say the Chinese-owned app’s clever courting of conservatives is part of the reason.

After a dramatic spring in which calls to ban TikTok on US soil reached a fever pitch — made worse by a disastrous Congressional testimony from CEO Shou Zi Chew — the fervor died down this summer.

At the same time, TikTok has launched an ad campaign that portrays the video-sharing app as a platform that has helped US veterans and small business owners. 

One spot that aired during the GOP presidential debate features 81-year-old “Patriotic Kenny,” who has used TikTok to raise thousands of dollars for elderly vets to get new mobility scooters. 

The ad, entitled “Changing lives, one scooter at a time,” reportedly raised enough cash for 50 scooters in 24 hours. It ends with Kenny’s friend saying, “None of this would’ve happened without TikTok.”

One irritated Republican strategist admitted that “the ads have clearly been effective,” noting that they have rankled many lawmakers who’ve previously been critical of the app.

Capitol building in DC
Threats in Washington to ban TikTok have grown quieter of late — and some say the app’s clever courting of conservatives is part of the reason.
Paola Morrongiello

The GOP strategist said he believes a TikTok ban has stalled in Congress for several other reasons including spending fights and the looming 2024 election.

Congressional sources also note that multiple bills to ban TikTok were being floated, meaning there was no single bill for lawmakers to get behind  – and that Republicans have since gotten caught up with sexier political issues like investigating Joe Biden.

“If you can weather the storm, people get distracted,” a source close to the legislative process told On The Money. “It turns into a game of just running out the clock.” 

TikTok’s high-paid political advisors in the US — who presumably are behind the US veteran ads, among other tactics — include two former higher-ups in the Obama administration, David Plouffe and Jim Messina. 

TikTok also has tapped former Disney comms chief Zenia Mucha.

Former Trump administration official Tony Sayegh even briefly advised the company on strategy, according to a report. 

Another source said the spin doctors also have been making overtures to various journalists and media outlets about how the app is helping average Americans.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies in March.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew gave a disastrous testimony in March.

Meanwhile, some GOP insiders say they fear Republicans will be put at a disadvantage by attacking TikTok.

“At some point, Republicans are going to have to engage with the TikTok audience, or allow Democrats to have a political and messaging and outreach monopoly,” the GOP strategist opined.

Democrats have a TikTok advantage,” the strategist added. “The app is very popular and reached millions of Americans, especially young voters. There is not an elected Republican using TikTok right now, in part because of the national security risk with China.”

Among the latter is US Sen. Marco Rubio, who hasn’t changed his fierce stance against the app, despite admitting in the past his kids in the past have caught flak from schoolmates over his campaign.

“TikTok’s corporate image consultants are desperately trying to rebrand the Chinese-controlled app after a series of scandals that include spying on American journalists, storing Americans’ data in China, interfering in our elections, and lying to Congress,” Rubio told On The Money, asked about the app’s latest ad blitz. 

“But no amount of spin can hide the risks posed by the Chinese Communist Party controlling an app used by one-in-three Americans.”

TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Separately, TikTok’s parent company ByteDance has spent more than $13 million on its lobbying efforts since 2019 alone, according to an analysis by Open Secrets in February. 

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