The 10 Most Absurd Moments From Congress’ TikTok Ban Hearing

The 10 Most Absurd Moments From Congress’ TikTok Ban Hearing

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified in a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week. It was Chew’s first major introduction to the public, and it didn’t make for a smooth entry.

Representatives from across the political spectrum hammered the beleaguered CEO, accusing him of aiding in a Chinese plot to undercut American power and corrupt the nation’s youth. Congress pressed Chew with a variety of accusations, some reasonable and some otherwise, typically interrupting him before he could finish responding. When he was allowed to speak, he dodged some of the tougher questions, or declined to answer all together.

For the past four years, the government has been locked in a battle with TikTok, arguing the app’s connection to China could expose user data to the Chinese Communist Party. Most recently, the Biden administration threatened a nationwide ban if TikTok’s parent company ByteDance doesn’t sell the app. Chew’s argument, more or less, is that TikTok isn’t a threat, and it’s too important to ban. You can read Gizmodo’s in-depth analysis of the TikTok CEO’s remarks here.

Like all the past hearings with browbeaten tech CEOs, it was a wild ride full of political stunts, ham-fisted misunderstandings of the internet, and the occasional surprising revelation. Here are the 10 craziest moments from the TikTok CEO’s congressional hearing.

A video threatening the committee members’ lives

During the hearing, one Representative played a TikTok video that threatened the committee (Screenshot: US House of Representatives)
During the hearing, one Representative played a TikTok video that threatened the committee (Screenshot: US House of Representatives)

Florida Rep. Kat Cammack shocked the room, and apparently TikTok, during the hearing by sharing a TikTok video depicting a gun being loaded with the caption, “me as f at the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23.” The video, which Cammack described as a clear threat against the committee members, had been online for 41 days. TikTok later confirmed it removed the video from the app during the hearing after Cammack pointed it out.

“You expect us to believe that you are capable of maintaining the data security, privacy and security of 150 million Americans where you can’t even protect the people in this room?” Cammack said.

“It goes to show the enormous challenge that we have to make sure that, although the vast majority of the users come for a good experience, we need to make sure that bad actors don’t post violations,” Chew said.

A North Carolina Republican asks: Is TikTok stealing our Wifi???

Rep. Richard Hudson (Photo: Wikimedia Foundation)
Rep. Richard Hudson (Photo: Wikimedia Foundation)

It wouldn’t be a congressional tech hearing without politicians making it clear how little they understand about the internet. But of all the obvious misunderstandings, the dumbest came from Rep. Richard Hudson, a North Carolina Republican.

“Mr, Chew, does TikTok access the home Wi-Fi network?” Hudson asked.

Chew paused for a moment before answering. “Only if the user turns on the Wi-Fi ,” he said. “I’m sorry, I may not understand the question.”

“So, if I have the TikTok app on my phone and my phone is on my home wifi network, does TikTok access that network?” Hudson said.

Visibly confused, Chew responded. “It would have to — to access the network to get connections to the internet, if that’s the question,” he said.

TikTok’s CEO dodged questions about Uyghur persecution

Photo: Drew Angerer, Getty Images
Photo: Drew Angerer, Getty Images

TikTok’s CEO was noticeably uncomfortable when lawmakers prodded him on his personal opinions about China and Chinese government policies. Chew repeatedly refused to answer lawmakers’ questions regarding the Chinese government’s persecution of its Uyghur Muslim minority.

Responding to a question from Arizona Rep. Debbie Lesko, Chew said that it was “deeply concerning to hear about all accounts of human rights abuse,” but refused to address the Uyghur persecution specifically. Chew continued to dodge the question, opting instead to say TikTok users can freely express their views on the issue.

Promises of legal action and prison time for TikTok’s CEO

Photo: Tasos Katopodis / Stringer, Getty Images
Photo: Tasos Katopodis / Stringer, Getty Images

More than one of the congresspeople grilling Chew took time to remind him that he was under oath, essentially threatening the TikTok CEO with legal action.

In one heated exchange, Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers asked Chew whether or not TikTok removed content related to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. When Chew said that content was available on the platform, Rodgers expressed frustration and warned Chew against lying under oath.

“I will remind you that making false or misleading statements to Congress is a federal crime,” Rodgers said.

Congress asks: Do you sell data or not? TikTok answers: Maybe.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Staff, Getty Images
Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Staff, Getty Images

At several points, Chew avoided direct questions about whether TikTok sells the data it collects.

“I believe we do not sell data to any data brokers,” Chew said in response to a question from Rep. Frank Pallone. “I didn’t ask you about data brokers,” Pallone said. “Do you sell it to anyone?”

“Congressman, I actually am in support of some rules…” Chew responded before another interruption from Pallone. “I didn’t ask you about rules, I asked you whether the company TikTok would commit to not sell data to anyone.”

“I can get back to you on the details,” Chew said.

While many companies sell data, most major social networks like Facebook don’t, as it would be too valuable to their competitors. There’s more money to be made by hoarding personal information. It would be a shocking departure from the norm if TikTok did sell data. During Mark Zuckerberg’s own congressional testimony in 2019, the CEO stressed that selling data isn’t part of Meta’s business. “We don’t sell people’s data, even though it’s often reported that we do.” Google makes similar promises.

“As we state in our privacy policy, we do not sell personal information,” TikTok spokesperson Maureen Shanahan said in an email. TikTok said that the definition of the word sell is up for debate, as California’s privacy law defines any transmission of data for advertising purposes as a “sale.” The company clarified that it does use data for targeted advertising, but does not exchange data for money.

Republicans AND Democrats want to ban TikTok: “Welcome to the most bipartisan committee in Congress!”


If there was anything truly surprising about the hearing, it was how nice all of the Congress members were to each other. Beating up on big tech is one of the only things Republicans and Democrats agree on, and politicians’ concerns over TikTok are even more universal.

As Georgia Rep. Buddy Carter put it in his cheerful drawl, “Mr. Chew, Welcome to the most bipartisan committee in Congress!”

TikTok deflects: What about Facebook?

Photo: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images
Photo: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

Chew tried to deflect a number of the privacy concerns lodged against TikTok Thursday with a simple, but hard-to-argue-against retort: At least it’s not as bad as Facebook.

Chew repeatedly framed concerns over harmful content making its way onto platforms as “industry-wide” issues and argued TikTok goes far beyond other American social media companies by working to create a domestic “firewall” to secure US user data. The CEO used a similar line of defence when grilled by lawmakers over TikTok’s employment of some Chinese workers.

“There are many companies that use a global workforce, we are not the only one,” Chew said. That what-aboutism drew consternation from some lawmakers like Massachusetts Rep. Lori Trahan who accused Chew of “ducking behind industry standards and competitors.”

During one of his testier exchanges with Florida Rep. Darren Soto, Chew broke from his more generalized statements and specifically named Facebook.

“American companies don’t have a great track record here,” Chew replied. “Just look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.” Ouch.

Yes, ByteDance can access US data, but not at the behest of the Chinese government, TikTok’s CEO claims

Photo: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images
Photo: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

Anyone hoping to walk away from the House hearing with smoking gun evidence of Chinese officials secretly using TikTok to engage in state censorship was left sorely disappointed. That said, lawmakers did force Chew to explicitly admit China-based employees of ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, do indeed have access to US users data “on an as-required basis.” That’s an admission TikTok has avoided in the past. Chew said all of that would change upon the completion of the company’s Project Texas US data routing initiative, but lawmakers were unconvinced.

At the same time, Chew stood his ground when asked if TikTok hands over user data or removes content to appease the Chinese government.

“We do not remove or promote content at the behest of the Chinese government,” Chew said. The CEO went on to say there are plenty of examples of content critical of China on TikTok.

When asked by Florida Rep. Neal Dunn if ByteDance had spied on U.S. users, Chew responded, “I don’t think that spying is the right way to describe it.”

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy reveals he supports banning TikTok

Photo: Alex Wong, Getty Images
Photo: Alex Wong, Getty Images

As unlikely as it may have seemed just a few months ago, a nationwide TikTok ban or forced sale is starting to look more and more like a real possibility. Lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle have introduced legislation that would ban Tik Tok from operating in the US. Newly minted Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy added his voice to the growing chorus of lawmakers calling for a ban during the hearing Thursday.

“I think you see a bipartisan concern here with what’s happening to TikTok, especially the data for Americans,” McCarthy told reporters. The GOP’s most powerful House member went on to say “the hearing today would be quite different” if former president Donald Trump had followed through on his attempt to force a TikTok sale.

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