The US wants to ban TikTok – and the European Union may fall in line soon. But TikTok is investing heavily in preventing this from happening, even since before the recent hostilities began. Indeed, according to a recent report by Politico, TikTok would have hired a real “Team of Avengers”, among experts from Washington to avert a ban – but it seems that the lobbies cannot oppose geopolitical interests. However much it spends on convincing the US to avoid a ban, fears of Chinese espionage would seem to prevail. And the last hope is not the lobbyists, but creators and influencers.
Can TikTok and Its Lobbying “Avengers Team” Overcome Geopolitics?
When Shou Zi Chew, the CEO of TikTok, showed up in the US Congress, he knew he was facing a difficult audience. Not only for the rhetoric heard in recent months. But also because he had spent a lot of time and resources to prepare as well as possible. Before sitting before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Chew relied on a team of experts to help him study the questions and answers.
Politico reports that among his advisors were former committee staffers and aides of the Republican leader Kevin McCarthy e of the former Democratic speaker Nancy Pelosi. The two most prominent figures in Congress. But he also had the support of Andrew Wrightformer director of legal policy for the transition of Biden-Harris and now a partner in the influential Washington law firm K&L Gates. Additionally, he has spoken to several former lawmakers.
Not that this army of well-paid allies was enough to Chew and his company to avoid heavy criticism from the congressional committee.
Does origin matter more than (expensively bought) allies?
TikTok’s fight for survival is demonstrating two clear trends in American politics. On the one hand, it shows how a wealthy foreign company can use its own economic power to create a seemingly formidable network of influence. And on the other also the limits of what lobbying can do to defend a company at the heart of one geopolitical crisis.
The campaign to save TikTok, according to Politico’s analysis, has been going on for years. The parent company, ByteDancethey started trying to influence the American and European authorities since 2018, long before concerns about TikTok’s Chinese ownership got so acute. The American newspaper listened to over twenty people, including lobbyists and politicians, in the US and Europe they showed the structure of a system of lobbyists and legislators, both in the US and in Europe. Unveiling a structure that even reaches the White House.
TikTok and the lobbies: the “Avengers Team”
In 2019, a TikTok rep said they wanted to form a “Team Avenger” for the company, according to a Washington lobbyist who was offered a job — something many have confirmed. Difficult who was the Nick Fury who contacted the lobbyists, but it seems clear that in its field, TikTok has really looked for the best among the “heroes” of lobbying.
TikTok has been trying to get some companies to partner with her offering generous compensation. The company recently reached out to another Washington lobbyist who works for Big Tech clients and asked him bluntly: “How much do you want?” The lobbyist rejected the proposal. But it was clear that money wasn’t going to be a problem.
And indeed this method has been successful with others a Washington, Londra e Bruxelles.
La Lobby di TikTok, from the USA and Europe
A Washington, about 36 people they lobbied the federal government over ByteDance and TikTok in the last quarter of 2022. There are former Senators and Congressmen, all documented regularly with disclosure documents.
In Europe, the team of TikTok public relations has nearly 40 people in several cities including Brussels, London, Dublin, Paris and Milan. To lead its European strategy, the firm hired at the end of 2019 Theo Bertram, a former high-profile lobbyist for Google. But also the former adviser to British Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. In the fall of 2020, he nominated Caroline Greera seasoned lobbyist with experience lobbying for telecom companies and the US cloud company Cloudflare, who heads up its operations in Brussels.
And in Washington, in recent months, the company has managed to hire SKDKthe PR firm that has a strong network of former Democrats, including some key members of the Biden administration. The company had rejected an initial offer from them. But TikTok’s money has proven very persuasive with the lobbying firm.
For the White House, the social app is a risk – but also a possibility
Listing all of TikTok’s paid staff would become very long and tedious. Instead, it is more interesting to evaluate how the lobbyists have had various possibilities to convince American politics of the usefulness of the app. Above all because the social network is widely used – even by politicians.
Although the threat of a ban in the United States is increasingly concrete, the app is so popular in America that the White House has repeatedly recognized it as an essential means of political communication.
Before Biden’s State of the Union address in FebruaryAnita Dunna senior adviser to the White House, encouraged allies to use the app as an effective messaging tool, especially to talk to women about the administration’s efforts following the Supreme Court decision on abortion legislation. Dunn is a founding partner of SKDK and cannot currently address matters involving SKDK under the White House’s ethics policy. But he told attendees that the White House wanted people promoted the administration’s successes on social mediaaccording to two people present on the call.
Using TikTok (but quietly)
Obviously the White House couldn’t use TikTok, Dunn said. But he suggested that if the people on the call were users of the app, they should post portions of the president’s speech on TikTok.
The White House declined to comment further on TikTok’s situation and its relationship with the administration. It’s unclear whether the administration suspects TikTok is trying to influence its decisions by hiring advisers connected to the Biden campaign, such as SKDK, and whether Dunn was aware of this contract. Greer, a TikTok executive, said he had not been notified of any ongoing investigations by American authorities.
TikTok: not just lobby – all-round persuasion
TikTok said it was “committed to educating lawmakers and stakeholders about our company and our service.” And he pointed out that other tech companies spend significantly more than TikTok on lobbying. He’s right: in 2022, TikTok and ByteDance only spent around $5.9 million compared to over $23 million for Meta.
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But the social media company isn’t spending only in Washington and Brussels. To avoid the ban of the app in the US, TikTok and ByteDance have launched a massive communication campaign to persuade the public that the app is harmless and beneficial. In fact, we tried to convey a positive image of the app through TV commercials, online events, charitable donations and collaborations with celebrities.
In this effort, the company has a big advantage: the popularity of your product. More than 150 million users in the US love TikTok. And many could vote in 2024 when Biden and members of Congress are up for re-election.
Differences on both sides of the Atlantic
Although the US and the EU are moving in a coordinated manner to put society under pressure for geopolitical issues, the approach to social media is different. First of all for the greater collaboration with Chinese companies that we generally adopt in Europe. But also why TikTok has been able to take advantage of the mistrust that many Europeans have towards the big American technology companies.
In January, TikTok CEO Chew attended the Davos World Economic Forum and visited Brussels to meet European political leaders. On these occasions, Chew wanted to convey a message of tranquility. Despite coming under fire from political criticism in the United States, many European lawmakers have maintained a less confrontational attitude towards the companyseeing it as a social media behemoth that needs to be regulated, but not necessarily dangerous.
Caroline Greer, TikTok’s head of government and public relations in Brussels, said the company has never shared user data with the Chinese government and never would. She added that TikTok has always respected the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).. And it appears that the Project Clover proposal, which would see TikTok move its servers to handle European data to Ireland, is being welcomed in the EU. The company would even be willing to show off its suggestion algorithm — something other American social media companies have never done.
In short, it seems that the EU wants treat TikTok like other social media, as far as possible. But the Atlantic Alliance has roots…