As TikTok becomes flooded with reactions mocking lawmakers’ questions for TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew on Thursday, beauty influencers are bracing for the worst.
“Before [Thursday’s] testimony, I actually was not worried at all,” said skin-care influencer Roger Wh0 (real name Roger Ma, @rogerwh0), who has over 600,000 TikTok followers and says roughly 90% of his income comes from his TikTok content. “This past week, I had not been so concerned. But seeing the TikTok CEO in the hearing being questioned by Congress really then puts it into perspective where you kind of register, ‘Oh, this might be a possibility.’”
Influencer commentary around a possible U.S. TikTok ban has picked up since Shou’s five-hour testimony yesterday, which saw a group of TikTok influencers head to Capitol Hill to hold a rally against banning the app. Beauty, fashion and lifestyle influencers attending included Janette Ok (@inmyseams), Grace Amaku (@grace_africa), Kristine Thompson (@trendycurvy) and Naomi Hearts (@naomihearts). At stake for many influencers is their current livelihood.
“There are so many creators that rely on TikTok,” said Dr. Muneeb Shah, a dermatologist with nearly 18 million TikTok followers who said it “encroaches on our freedom” to ban apps. Shah will address the possible ban on his podcast next week.
“This is a bit of an unnerving time for us,” said Ma. “It’s a tough situation because I can also understand why these conversations are going on, in relation to data security. But if the ban were to go through, it’s impacting not just creators, but employees [of TikTok] and small businesses that are on the app.”
Posts about the testimony have proliferated on TikTok, criticizing the lawmakers for ignorant questions. Beauty influencer James Charles was among the creators posting parodies of the hearing.
“The thing that struck me today is honestly you have a bunch of out-of-touch, condescending, arrogant old men and women who have no idea about technology and social media today grandstanding as a way to basically shut down a company that is used by nearly half of Americans,” said plastic surgeon Dr. Anthony Youn (@doctoryoun), who has 8.3 million TikTok followers. This week, Youn created a change.org petition against a TikTok ban. His post about it four days ago has received over 786,000 views, and the petition currently has over 44,000 signatures.
“Some of the questions they asked were absolutely embarrassing,” said Youn.
Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC), for example, asked, “Does TikTok access the home wifi network?” a question that has appeared in many TikTok videos making fun of the lawmakers’ cluelessness.
Influencer and Sephora Squad member Koosha Nouri, meanwhile, posted his reaction to the hearing as part of a “Get Ready With Me” makeup video, criticizing the lawmakers for their lack of knowledge about the app. He also appeared on CNN on the day of the hearing to voice his opposition to the ban.
“I feel like the congressional committee doesn’t necessarily represent our community or just the younger generation. I read one out of 52 of those congressional members actually have a TikTok presence and understands it from a user perspective,” said Nouri.
One major line of questioning related to the company’s Chinese ownership, which is reportedly the sole reason for the Biden administration’s ban threat. The threat of a ban if the company is not sold to a U.S. owner was confirmed by TikTok itself, but the Biden administration has yet to comment. Beijing-based ByteDance is required by Chinese law to provide data to the Chinese government if requested. American companies active in China, such as Apple, also abide by this law. The company’s Project Texas firewall program is intended to prevent the Chinese government from having any access to the data, but a report by BuzzFeed in 2022 revealed leaked audio by TikTok employees stating that China-based employees still had access to the U.S. data.
Shou confirmed in the testimony that U.S. data can still be accessed by ByteDance in China, stating, “Today, there is still some data that we need to delete.”
“The highlights really are not making Congress look very informed about how social media works, in general. And I think that they’re really being unfair to TikTok, compared to the other platforms, which have already proven to be security risks for our country,” said Shah. Many TikTok users have brought up Meta’s past issues with Russian misinformation campaigns and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, for example.
“It was really hard to sit there, because I feel that a lot of these lawmakers don’t understand the platform.” said Christine Doan, a nailfluencer with over 87,000 followers on TikTok (@glosshouse). While Instagram is her top platform, she estimates that around 40% of her income comes from TikTok content. “It almost feels like they haven’t even looked into the app. It’s very childish, to say the least.” As a U.S. Navy veteran, she said, “I understand national security and the importance of data protection, too.”
“A ban like this is not the America that I know. This is what happens in North Korea. This is what happens in Russia. This is what happens in China. The fact that this is happening in the United States of America is absolutely horrifying,” said Youn.
For TikTok creators now, work is “business as usual,” said Ma. He said he is “still working on briefs” for clients and “still continuing to build content and push out content normally, while feeling this looming anxiety overhead.” At the same time, he has been focusing on building up his audience on YouTube Shorts. “There has recently been a lot of pressure from my management to start focusing attention on other platforms,” he said.
Many influencers, meanwhile, are not paying much attention to the possibility of a ban after the 2020 threat. It was mitigated by the deal in which Walmart and Oracle took a stake in the app and Project Texas was established.
Without an update from the White House or the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, it remains unclear how serious this ban threat actually is or what the timeline will be for reaching a decision. That leaves influencers’ futures up in the air.
“We aren’t currently counseling our brand clients or creators to pivot away from TikTok. But we do encourage clients to diversify across platforms, which is always a good business strategy as things can change so quickly in the social media world,” said Permele Doyle, president and co-founder of influencer agency Billion Dollar Boy. “This position could, of course, change if things do escalate to the point of a ban, but for now, it’s wait and see.”
The testimony is causing some agencies to change course, however. PR firm Golin reportedly advised some of its clients to hold off on TikTok creator brand deals as a result of the hearing, according to The Information.
Doyle added, “we wouldn’t be surprised to see some brands and creators becoming increasingly skittish about the platform.”
“There is a lack of attention among certain groups of creators. I don’t think it’s getting as much awareness now as it did when it was the Trump ban,” said Doan.
“There are creators out there with audiences that are 5-10 times bigger than mine. And I was surprised that they weren’t doing anything,” said Youn. “I’m absolutely perplexed at how so many creators with these massive audiences have their heads in the sand and are not doing anything. And they’re monetizing like crazy, much more than I am.”
But others are aware and choosing not to participate in the politics of the issue.
“I haven’t posted anything yet. I think that’s part of me trying not to jinx it or manifest it. It’s like ‘Titanic.’ Just continue playing the violin music and pretend the boat is not sinking,” said Ma.