Sen. Mark Warner shares TikTok concerns: 'They can manipulate the kind of videos you see'

Posted at 4:37 PM, Mar 27, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-27 16:37:30-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Senator Mark Warner (D - Virginia) said the U.S. government needed to do a better job explaining to the 150 million TikTok users in the U.S. the risks the app could pose to the country in terms of possible Chinese surveillance.

"First of all, there's a lot of really cool creative things going on TikTok and I think frankly, if they divest or if somehow there's a prohibition, I do believe there'll be another platform that's not controlled by the Communist Party of China, that will offer those social influencers, people who make money, people love that creativity," Warner said when CBS 6 asked about TikTok at an event the senator attended in Richmond. "Number two, one of the things about TikTok, the Chinese Communist Party has said they would rather have TikTok banned in America than give up the source code that's in Beijing. Well, why do they feel so concerned about that? Well, they feel concerned because they can manipulate the kind of videos you see, not just cat videos, but they can manipulate it for political purposes."

Warner said that kind of technology is something Americans should consider the next time they felt like TikTok knew what was on their mind.

"One of the cool things about TikTok, it almost knows what you like, more than maybe what you know, you like, and do you really want that information residing in an authoritarian government that could use that for whatever purposes, including blackmail, at some point," Warner said. "We got to do a better job, let me first acknowledge, explaining the risk. The Intelligence Committee, I'm chairman of the intelligence committee, needs to do a better job of declassifying so it's not just a 'trust us in the government.' But there's a reason why India abandoned it. There's a reason why Canada, the Brits, and many of the Europeans are saying getting off the government phones. Why the Dutch recently said if you're a person in the media, get off this because chances are you're being spied on, but we got to do a better job of making the case."

While some Lawmakers are raising red flags over TikTok, millions of app user just want to be able to keep making and watching short, fun videos offering makeup tutorials and cooking lessons, among other things.

The disconnect illustrates the uphill battle that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle face in trying to convince the public that China could use TikTok as a weapon against the American people. But many users on the platform are more concerned about the possibility of the government taking away their favorite app.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew said during a nearly six-hour congressional hearing Thursday that the platform has never turned over user data to the Chinese government, and wouldn’t do so if asked.

Nevertheless, lawmakers, the FBI, and officials at other agencies continue to raise alarms that Chinese law compels Chinese companies like TikTok's parent company ByteDance to fork over data to the government for whatever purposes it deems to involve national security. There’s also concern Beijing might try to push pro-China narratives or misinformation through the platform.

“I want to say this to all the teenagers out there, and TikTok influencers who think we’re just old and out of touch and don’t know what we’re talking about, trying to take your favorite app,” said Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw during the hearing. “You may not care that your data is being accessed now, but you will be one day.”

Many TikTok users reacted to the hearing by posting videos critical of lawmakers who grilled Chew and frequently cut him off from speaking.

Some called a potential TikTok ban, as some lawmakers and the Biden administration have reportedly threatened, the “biggest scam” of the year. And others blamed the surge of scrutiny on the platform on another tech rival, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

But few expressed fear of possible Chinese surveillance or security breaches that lawmakers continue to amplify as they look to rein in TikTok.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., whose district is in the heart of Silicon Valley, said he is mindful of the value that platforms like TikTok provide to young people as an outlet for creative expression and building community.

“But there’s absolutely no reason that an American technology company can’t do that,” said Khanna, the top Democrat on the cyber subcommittee on House Armed Service. “America has the most innovative technology companies in the world.”

He added that Congress should move forward with a proposal that would force platform’s sale to an American company for continued access for its millions of users while “ensuring that the platform isn’t subject to Chinese propaganda or compromises people’s privacy.”

According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of Americans aged 13 to 17 use TikTok, and 16% of all teens say they use it almost constantly.

It's because of TikTok's large user base that Lindsay Gorman, a former tech adviser for the Biden administration who now works as a senior fellow for emerging technologies at the German Marshall Fund, says the Biden administration will likely pursue every option short of a ban first.

That would include the option for the app's Chinese owners to divest, which the Biden administration is reportedly demanding from TikTok if it wants to avoid a nationwide ban.

TikTok itself has been trying to leverage its popularity.

Last Wednesday, it sent dozens of influencers to Congress to lobby against a ban. It has also ramped up a broader public relations campaign, plastering ads all over Washington that tout its promises of securing users’ data and privacy and creating a safe platform for its young users.

Some popular TikTokers who speak out against a ban are concerned — and angered — about how it might impact their personal lives. Many earn income from their videos and have inked brand partnerships to market products to their audiences — another stream of revenue that could be wiped away if the platform disappears. They would also lose the social capital that comes from having a large following on the trend-setting app.

Demetrius Fields, a standup comedian who amassed 2.8 million followers on TikTok from posting comedy sketches, said he spent a long time building his career and followership on the platform. He has one active deal with the fast fashion retailer Fashion Nova, which allows him to earn an income along with the videos he posts on TikTok.

If the app is taken away, he said building an audience on another platform would be challenging for him due to the competition to grab user attention.

“The financial implications for me would be pretty terrible,” Fields said. “I would probably have to go back to working a desk job.”

Sarah Pikhit, an 18-year-old student at Penn State University, said she used to use TikTok a lot, but started cutting back when she realized how much time she spent scrolling through videos on the app. She still uses it, but mostly to post her own content, which she says she can do on other platforms. She said she wouldn’t care if TikTok gets banned — but her friends would.

“They like the excessive scrolling,” Pikhit said.

Associated Press writer Haleluya Hadero and Farnoush Amiri in Washington contributed to this report.

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