In the Capitol rotunda—a dome in the middle of the building that houses statues, eclectic decorations, and a storied history—the 19-year-old TikTok creator Aidan Kohn-Murphy shouted “twink.”
It was an apparent attempt at humor, or satire or something in between. He wrote in a caption, “Becoming the first person to say twink in the Capitol rotunda.” The word is slang, often utilized within the LGBTQ+ community, to reference some gay men. (Kohn-Murphy, who founded the progressive group Gen Z For Change, later told The Daily Beast it was just “a silly video” he made in the moment.)
Kohn-Murphy and a gaggle of TikTok creators came to D.C. this week to lobby Congress against a proposed ban on the app. TikTok paid for the travel expenses of creators that participated in this week’s activism, who used “#keeptiktok” and #savetiktok hashtags to raise awareness for their cause.
There’s already a ban on the app for government devices. But some lawmakers are pushing to ban it in the U.S. altogether unless ByteDance, which is partially owned by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, sells its stake in the platform. President Joe Biden already signed off on a bipartisan bill that would give the president authority to ban the app nationwide.
In a building usually defined by drab suits and perfectly staged appearances, the TikTokers made sure things got a bit weird.
Prominent TikTok influencers danced, posed, and lamented wearing high heels in a building with unforgiving marble floors. Some seemed to really love posting videos with the song “Mother” by Meghan Trainor in the background. Another, Grace Africa, played off a popular TikTok trend wherein people run in a fantastical motion to the song “Ceilings” by Lizzy McAlpine, as she strode and spun in circles throughout halls and the rotunda as if it were a scene in a romance movie.
Chef Baedri, a food creator, posted a number of videos throughout the visit, including one where she posed with her phone next to the caption, “Calling Congress to remind them that they won’t be re-elected if TikTok is banned!”
The creator Janette Ok stood with TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, smiling and asking if he’s on TikTok every day, which he said he is.
To be sure, many TikTokers on the Hill took a more earnest approach. They visited member offices, posted videos trying to rally viewers against the ban, and encouraged their fans to call their representatives to express their opposition. They talked about being able to promote small businesses on the app, or to create community with content, or increasing their own incomes.
“I’m here outside of Lindsay Graham’s office here in the United State Senate,” said creator Callie Goodwin, who owns a small stationery business that she advertises on TikTok. “Got a chance to stop by, leave my name in the guest book, and I’m gonna be in contact to tell them the impact TikTok has had on my life and my business and share the concerns that you guys have shared in the comments.”
At a press conference Wednesday, the group of online icons—some who boast millions of followers—stood with Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), Mark Pocan (D-WI) and freshman Robert Garcia (D-CA). They took selfie videos, chanted about loving TikTok, and spoke about how the app has impacted their lives.
Bowman, who led the presser, argued prejudice toward China was driving lawmakers’ decision to single TikTok out for regulation, as compared to other American social media companies like Facebook or Instagram.
“Let’s not be racist towards China and express our xenophobia when it comes to TikTok, because American companies have done tremendous harm to American people,” the progressive congressman said.
The lingering question was whether TikTok’s gambit of bringing some of its biggest stars to the Capitol swayed Congress at all. As TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified to the House Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday morning, the answer many suspected became clear: probably not.
Members of both parties bashed the platform, suggested they didn’t trust Chew’s answers, and pointed to misinformation on the app.
“To the American people watching today, hear this: TikTok is a weapon by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on you, manipulate what you see, and exploit for future generations,” said committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA).
“I find that actually preposterous,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) in response to a suggestion from Chew that he’s seen no evidence of China’s government having access to user data.Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL) presented a video posted more than a month ago on TikTok that showed a gun shooting repeated rounds next to the caption “me asf at the House Energy and Commerce Committee on 3/23/2023.” (The term “asf” is slang for “as fuck.”)
Cammack claims the video was posted on the same day that the date of the hearing was made public. Chew asked for a chance to respond, but his request was denied and the questioning continued. (The video was removed from the app shortly after Cammack presented it.)
Chew dodged a number of questions—sometimes saying he’d get back to members later and repeatedly emphasizing TikTok’s privilege as a private company to not publicly share financial information. But he did emphasize parental controls on the app, said he’s not had any conversations with Chinese government officials, and repeatedly insisted TikTok is committed to transparency.
One answer from Chew seemed to especially stand out to viewers: when Chew was asked whether ByteDance has spied on Americans at the direction of the Chinese government.
Chew’s answer: “I don’t think ‘spying’ is the right way to describe it.”
Some of the TikTokers invited to the Hill were seated behind Chew as he went to bat for the app. After Chew’s testimony concluded, TikTok in a press release said that while “Shou came prepared to answer questions” the hearing “was dominated by political grandstanding that failed to acknowledge the real solutions already underway.”
Members gave no indication Chew’s answers or the charm offensive from creators has left them ready to let up on the app. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) mid-hearing Thursday even called for all members of Congress to stop using TikTok. A number of members do—including Reps. Bowman, Pocan, Garcia, Maxwell Frost (D-FL), Jeff Jackson (D-NC), and more.
But Chew, over four-plus hours of testimony, seemed equally unswayed.
“TikTok, he said, “is a place for freedom of expression.”