House Passes TikTok Bill; Moves to Senate Where Issues Lie

House Vote

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the “Protecting Americans From Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act” on March 13th. The bill’s aim is to force the Chinese company, ByteDance, to divest its U.S.-based app, TikiTok, within 165 days or be banned from application stores and from cloud service companies from providing services to the company.

In response to the House passing the bill, TikTok began a disinformation campaign that misconstrued the bill in various ways. For example, TikTok began to send users in the United States various notifications that the United States is attempting to ban TikTok in the country and “your creativity, community, and even your income are at risk.” Furthermore, the notifications would also include another notification that gives the user the option to call their House representative to voice their opposition to the bill.

TikTok popup notification urging user to call Representative Andy Barr (Ky-R) to “tell them to stop a TikTok shutdown” (Photo: X, formally, X/@RepAndyBarr)

TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, also arrived in the United States and plans to visit Capitol Hill on Wednesday, March 13th, to discuss the bill. However, several sources say Chew is having issues setting up meetings with lawmakers. Lobbyists that continue to lobby for the company also sent several memos outlining the app’s “support among women and minority business owners.” Furthermore, several free speech and Internet freedom groups also came out against the bill with a letter saying that the bill would “violate the First Amendment rights of Americans across the country who rely on TikTok for information, communication, advocacy, and entertainment.”

Letter to TikTok CEO

On March 11th, Chariman for Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Representative Mike Gallagher (Wi-R) and Ranking Member Raja Krishnamoorthi sent a letter to Chew. The letter demanded that “TikTok stop spreading false claims in its campaign to manipulate and mobilize American citizens on behalf” of the CCP. The letter specifically highlighted the popup notification urging users to “speak up now—before your government strips 170 million Americans of their Constitutional right to free expression.” The representatives then pointed out that the messages are deceptive, explained the bill’s aim, and said that TikTok would be solely to blame if they chose not to divest from ByteDance. The letter then highlighted how the campaign fit a pattern of “the CCP exerting malign influence over the application.”

Letter from Representatives Mike Gallagher (Wi-R) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (Il-D) to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew demanding the company to stop “spreading false claims” about the bill (Photo: X, formally Twitter/@jseldin)

This threat is also exemplified in the letter by the Head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Director of National Intelligence saying that TikTok is a “threat to U.S. national security and everyday Americans” if it is still left under the control of ByteDance. Both representatives said that the company’s use of the app “to deceive the American people about bipartisan U.S. legislation underscores” the necessity of the bill. The letter then ends with reminding Chew that the committee has the authority to “investigate and submit policy recommendations on the CCP’s economic, technological, and security progress and its competition with the United States.”

China’s Disinformation Campaign

China began its own separate disinformation campaign directed at spreading false perceptions about the bill to an international audience. However, the disinformation campaign utilized different angles than TikTok, such as national security threat, “robber mentality,” and evidence that free speech in the United States is dead. For example, one Global Times article from March 9th outlined how the United States is attempting to “rob” TikTok through the passage of the bill, regardless of the political party in power or part of government.

The author argues that these attempts reflect the “high degree of consensus and collusion among some American political elite on this issue.” Another aspect of the robbery angle is that the bill is only active now because it is an election year, so it would be an “inducement and cover for Washington to carry out political robbery.” They also highlighted the “McCarthy-style” questioning when Chew appeared in front of Congress in March 2023 and February 2024 as evidence that “the image of free speech and rule of law in the US is in tatters,” and the bill is further evidence of this.

Two pictures posted to Global Times’ X account that shows two disinformation narratives used by China to prevent the “Protecting Americans From Adversary Controlled Applications Act” (X, formally Twitter/@globaltimesnews)

Former Global Times editor and “Chinese media professional, Hu Xijin, wrote an opinion article on March 10th about a March 9th Wall Street Journal article that said a U.S.-based video game company will partner with other companies to buy ByteDance. The opinion piece echoed some of the same narratives found in the March 9th article. For example, Hu mentioned how “everyone understands that the ‘national security’ concerns surrounding TikTok have been greatly exaggerated” and that this is commercial plunder. The reason for this commercial plunder, Hu argues, is that the app “cannot stand” TikTok’s global popularity since it is not under the control of the American capital, so they want to “take it over.”

He also pointed out that the “political and business circles” in the United States are working with U.S. media outlets to conduct an “unprecedented shameless hunting” of TikTok. However, Hu argued that the company should “play its cards right and mobilize” a significant amount of TikTok users to exert greater pressure on Congress and the Biden administration. Hu also explained how ByteDance does not wholly own TikTok and gave a breakdown of the company’s ownership. Global institutions own approximately 60 percent, 20 percent is owned by company founders, and company employees own the last 20 percent, which includes 7,000 Americans.

Screenshot of former Global Times editor and “Chinese media professional,” Hu Xijin discusses his recent opinion article (Photo: X, formally Twitter/@globaltimesnews/@HuXijin_GT)

He then explained how the Biden administration is now demanding that “Chinese investors completely withdraw from TikTok,” which is both legally and morally baseless. Hu then says that ByteDance can delay the need to divest from TikTok until after the 2024 U.S. elections, just like it did with the Trump administration in 2020. His solution calls for ByteDance to not sell its shares of TikTok, use U.S. laws and regulations to force a repeal of the “ban” (banned from app stores), and “fully mobilize global investors and TikTok users.”

Another aspect of China’s disinformation strategy is to use China-based western influencers who espouse pro-China narratives or “tell China’s story well.” One example is Andy Boreham, a New Zealand citizen who works for the Chinese state news outlet Shanghai Daily and is a content creator for Green-Eyed Andy Studio. Boreham either made posts or reposted content containing disinformation, such as the United States attempting to ban TikTok with the bill.

He also made one post that misconstrued the reason why FaceBook, Twitter, and YouTube were banned in China on March 9th. The post consisted of Boreham saying that the companies “left China WILLINGLY after refusing to follow local laws,” such as storing Chinese users’ private data in China and not in foreign countries. He then said that they refused and left China; however, it should be noted that the Chinese government banned the foreign social media companies due to the 2009 Xinjiang riots as well as the government’s censorship.

Two posts from Shanghai Daily reporter Andy Boreham’s X account, showing bias towards reporting (L) and recent post about the bill that will force TikTok to divest from ByteDance (Photo: X, formally Twitter/@AndyBxxx)

China also uses Chinese nationalists to voice their disapproval against the current TikTok bill and to help spread the disinformation about the bill to a domestic audience. For example, Zhan Xiake, a WeChat blog that specializes in writing nationalistic perspectives on China’s foreign affairs, said the bill echoed the same sentiment that the bill is meant to rob China of TikTok. Furthermore, the blog said that China’s Commerce Ministry would be unlikely to approve of the selloff since it “fiercely opposed” the previous attempt in 2023.

The post then explained why it is impossible for the United States to ban the app, pointing out that there are over 150 million U.S. users, and they would still access the app even if it were banned from app stores. Other blogs also made posts with similar takes, such as saying the bill goes against the First Amendment and that it forces people to only speak about the points the United States created. Another example is that some blogs will say that former U.S. President Donald Trump will not sign or support the bill if he is re-elected.

Potential U.S.-based Obstacles 

However, there are several domestic political obstacles that may prevent the bill from passing in the Senate. The most significant is that some senators from both the Democratic and Republican parties are skeptical of the act for several reasons. The most prominent of these reasons is the backlash they receive from young voters, which would increase during an election year, as well as First Amendment concerns.

Regarding First Amendment concerns, Republican Senator Rand Paul (Ky-R) and Democrat Senator Dick Durbin (Il-D) voiced concerns about the act. Senator Paul also went further and said that if the bill is signed into law, then Congress “will be acting just like the Chinese communists who have also banned TikTok.” While these issues are important to both parties, the Republican senators also have to contend with going against the former U.S. President and assumed 2024 presidential candidate, Donald Trump.

Another potential obstacle is the potential for Republican Senators to be caught between donors who are either for or against the bill. On March 12th, venture capitalist and Republican megadonor Keith Rabois said he would cut off funding from “any Republican candidates or leadership PACs if they vote against the bill on X, formally known as Twitter. Rabois’ threat is significant since Federal Election Commission filings show he donates significant amounts to Republican Party candidates or associated PACs.

However, another significant donor to the Republican Party, Jeff Yass, came out against the recently passed bill. Yass provided approximately $131 million USD to PACs and to right-leaning think tanks, which sent the money to both Republican and Libertarian politicians. Several sources indicate that Yass called several House candidates in the leadup of the vote, telling them that he will pull funding if they vote in favor of the bill. Other sources also said that Yass was responsible for killing previous efforts at preventing any bills that called for the divestment of TikTok from ByteDance. For example, sources say that Yass’ donations caused Senator Paul to defend the app against a 2023 bill.

Analysis

While the “Protecting Americans From Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act” passed the House with relative ease, it will likely face significant hurdles in the U.S. Senate. For example, the senators would have to decide between passing the bill and angering Republican donors such as Yass and Donald Trump. This obstacle will likely have the most effect on whether the bill passes or not since they have an enormous degree of influence in the Republican Party.

The senators understand that if they do vote in favor of the legislation, then it will likely be the end of their political careers, even if other donors’ step in to replace the money lost. Another hurdle that Democratic Senators have to contend with is the potential backlash they will receive from young voters if they vote for the bill. TikTok’s earlier campaign gave the senators an indication of the type of backlash they would receive if the bill were signed into law. Furthermore, they also know that the Democratic Party is risking the youth vote since 2024 is the presidential election. However, another obstacle is the potential for Chinese agents of influence to petition the senators to vote against the bill. These agents would consist of both American and Chinese businessmen and influential individuals who have ties to various Chinese organizations that are fronts for the United Front Work Department.

Both TikTok and China’s disinformation campaigns give some insight regarding how the CCP and their connected parties conduct these operations. For example, TikTok knows that the information it sends out in the notifications is wrong and is designed to cause people to react emotionally to the bill. The notifications are also designed to illicit a reaction from popular TikTok influencers due to the potential for them to lose their livelihoods or a large segment of their income. The Global Times articles, posts from westerner pro-Beijing actors, and Chinese nationalists also show how China is using social media to push their disinformation campaign to prevent the bill from passing in the Senate.

This campaign differs from TikTok’s campaign in that it is designed to engage audiences who do have background information about the bill beyond what is found on social media. Another aspect of the campaign is how it uses various narratives, such as national security, robbery, and double standards, to paint the United States in a negative light. While these narratives are ‘well-known narratives’ previously used by China to spread disinformation about the United States and cast doubt on U.S.-led efforts, it does illustrate how the country will recycle the narratives to fit their agenda. Furthermore, it also shows how China will employ double standards in its narrative, with the most significant example being Andy Boreham’s March 9th post misconstruing why U.S. social media companies left China.

The campaigns also illustrate China’s worry that the bill will pass and potentially force ByteDance to divest from TikTok in the United States. The reason China is so worried is because the bill would potentially force the divestment or removal of other Chinese apps such as WeChat, Weibo, and Temu. The removal would cause Chinese companies, such as Sina Corporation (Weibo), Tencent (WeChat), and PinDuoDuo Holdings Inc. (Temu), to not only lose a significant amount of income but also a large pool of private data. Furthermore, the bill could potentially force companies with links to foreign adversaries, such as Russia, to divest themselves from their U.S.-based applications, such as Telegram. This aspect is highlighted in a previous Atlas News article from March 5th that discussed the bill at length.

 

Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin the panda began Sino Talk in 2022 primarily to give an objective, unbiased view on China related topics as well as other issues related to the Indo-Pacific region. He spent several years studying and traveling throughout China and many countries in the Indo-Pacific region. In another life, the panda was also a U.S. Marine intelligence analyst who enjoyed bamboo MREs and drinking bourbon and soju. Indo-Pacific Division Desk Chief for Atlas News.

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