These Lawmakers Aren’t Buying Biden’s Argument for Going After TikTok

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill on Wednesday that could ban TikTok in the United States. The vote came with President Joe Biden’s support, amid a warning from his administration that China had used the popular social media platform to try to influence the 2022 midterm elections — and could do so again in this year’s contests.

The bill, which must still pass the Senate, would force TikTok’s China-based parent company ByteDance to sell the app within 165 days, or face a ban in the U.S. Several Democratic lawmakers, one Biden campaign official, and one intelligence expert tell Rolling Stone the election meddling and misinformation arguments presented to justify the legislation were not strong enough.

Speaking with Rolling Stone after voting no on the bill Wednesday, Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) says, “The threats that we were told about were things that could be done on any platform — it was not actually about the ownership model of the platform. I think the existing national security threats regarding TikTok will not be solved by and do not warrant this very broad cudgel of a bill.”

Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) also voted no on the bill. He says that concerns about the app potentially being used to influence elections are “not unique to TikTok,” explaining: “We saw similar issues with other social media in the last presidential campaign. This is something we need to address for all social media. I think targeting TikTok specifically with this ban is not good policy.”

Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, voted no on the legislation, too, based on First Amendment concerns. “I refer to the TikTok-China threat as theoretical,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I don’t want to sound like a China dove here, because the Chinese are enormously sophisticated in everything that they do. But there’s not evidence really that the Chinese have used social media platforms to try to affect presidential elections.”

The lawmakers all express concerns about the privacy of Americans’ personal data, but say that is a much broader problem that the bill would not solve.

The legislation to potentially ban TikTok, one of the most popular social media platforms in the world, quickly advanced through the House and passed Wednesday by a count of 352-65. It now heads to the Senate, where its prospects for passage are less certain. The bill appears to be more controversial with the public than in Congress. Last week, as the legislation was beginning to advance, congressional offices were flooded with calls from angry constituents, young and old, concerned they will lose access to their favorite app.

The bill could become a 2024 general election issue: Biden and his administration have gone all-in on the legislation. While presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump similarly pushed for a U.S. takeover of TikTok as president, he has backed away from it now. One potential reason for that: money. Some observers believe Trump is courting support from conservative megadonor Jeff Yass, a billionaire investor with a large stake in TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance.

There may be other political considerations at play. In recent campaign strategy discussions, Trump and some of his advisers have expressed their belief that opposing a TikTok ban could help him shave off some of Biden’s support among Gen Z and young voters, according to two sources with knowledge of the matter.

Meanwhile, some operatives on Team Biden share that belief — albeit as a concern. One Biden campaign official tells Rolling Stone that they personally do not believe the government has presented compelling intelligence or a sufficient case for a ban. The official says it would be “nuts” for Biden to willingly “give Trump a winning issue,” even if a comparatively small one. “[And] for what reason? Possibly bogus China scare tactics.”

A Biden campaign adviser tells Rolling Stone that their youth voter outreach program is not overly reliant on TikTok, and the president’s campaign has been working to engage young people across a range of platforms for months.

In recent days, Biden officials have been making the case for the TikTok bill in public. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, framed the pitch in rather Trumpian terms in a press briefing to reporters Tuesday: “Do we want TikTok, as a platform, to be owned by an American company or owned by China?” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre backed him up, saying, “Where do we want that ownership? Where do we want that data of Americans to be: here or in China?”

A spokesperson for Biden’s National Security Council separately told Rolling Stone the TikTok bill is necessary to “address the threat posed by certain technology services operating in the United States that put at risk Americans’ personal information and our broader national security, including through the manipulation by foreign powers of Americans’ views and beliefs.”

The administration and proponents in Congress have argued the legislation would not “ban” TikTok, but rather only force its sale. The bill’s opponents reject this strain of thought: “It’s a conditional ban — if you don’t meet this condition, we ban you,” says Himes, calling it “a lethal threat.”

The 165-day timeframe to sell the company, as mandated under the bill, would very likely result in a ban, Frost and Jacobs both note, adding that TikTok’s size poses another problem: Few people or companies have the resources to buy it.

“I think if you really look at the six-month window for divestiture, it’s quite unrealistic given the size of the company,” says Jacobs, adding, “One of the things I’m concerned about is that [another] large tech company would be the most likely buyer … and you would see further consolidation of an already consolidated market.”

Along those lines, progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) announced Wednesday she was voting against the bill, in part, due to potential antitrust questions, adding that “any national security concerns should be laid out to the public prior to a vote.”

Biden officials participated in briefings on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, ahead of the vote on the TikTok bill. Avril Haines, Biden’s director of national intelligence, told lawmakers that her agency “cannot rule out” the possibility that the Chinese Communist Party would use TikTok to influence the 2024 elections.

In an unclassified annual threat assessment released Monday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence warned that the People’s Republic of China is expanding its capability to carry out influence operations and could attempt to meddle in the 2024 election “at some level.” The section contained a pointed, albeit vague, reference to TikTok: “China is demonstrating a higher degree of sophistication in its influence activity, including experimenting with generative AI. TikTok accounts run by a PRC propaganda arm reportedly targeted candidates from both political parties during the U.S. midterm election cycle in 2022.”

A separate ODNI report released late last year offers slightly more specific language on this topic. “In December 2022, a U.S. media organization claimed that TikTok accounts run by a PRC propaganda arm targeted candidates from both U.S. political parties, garnering tens of millions of views in the United States,” it states.

A Forbes report in December 2022 documented how, during the 2022 midterm election cycle, China’s state-owned media network, China Central Television, ran videos on TikTok criticizing some U.S. political candidates and complimenting others, without “clear disclosure that they were posted by a foreign government.”

The ODNI report additionally says: “Information from August indicated that China’s English-language messaging efforts on TikTok had increased focus on U.S. politicians and U.S. domestic issues, such as abortion, mass shooting, and immigration.”

Gavin Wilde — who served as director for Russia on the National Security Council from 2018-19, in the wake of revelations by the intelligence community that Moscow had meddled in the 2016 election — is skeptical of the case made for a TikTok ban.

“Proponents of this legislation have not met the burden of demonstrating that this threat goes beyond the speculative,” Wilde tells Rolling Stone. “If the U.S. government had the goods, as they had in the run up to the Ukraine war in 2022, I’d recommend they bring them. Clearly, the intelligence community is keen to share even exquisite, sensitive intelligence when it serves the national interest. The fact that the most we’ve seen thus far are vague statements of concern and citations of open source reporting, itself speaks volumes.

He worries that the rush to take drastic action in the fact of theoretical threats could legitimize authoritarian conspiracy narratives about Western social media platforms. “Russia-hands are used to rolling their eyes at Moscow’s claims of ‘U.S. interference’ based on the mere existence of Western social media platforms paired with public criticism of Moscow from Washington. It would be unfortunate to adopt a similarly conspiratorial worldview — one which assumes so little of the American public, while imparting such wizardry to Beijing,” Wilde says.

During the 2022 midterms, Chinese state operatives did try to intervene more directly in American electoral politics during a brief campaign across several Western social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (now known as X). Researchers at Meta identified and suspended the activity and later detailed the attempts in a quarterly threat report.

The effort was “very sporadic” and involved only a small number of accounts which targeted both Republican candidates, including Biden and prominent China hawk Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), with crude memes adorned with plagiarized text. Unfortunately for the trolls, “Only a few people engaged with it and some of those who did called it out as fake,” Meta noted.

Jacobs, the California congresswoman, says she believes “the PRC and their political influence operations” pose real threats, including to U.S. elections.

“I don’t think that this bill actually answers those threats,” she says. “A lot of what we heard about as threats was around targeted misinformation or misuse of personal data. But, you know, American data brokers routinely sell and share this data. And targeted misinformation can be done on any social media platform.”

Himes says he has a “very specific sense for the Chinese threat here as a member of Intelligence,” and worries that the Chinese Communist Party could theoretically tell ByteDance “to alter the algorithm so it does XYZ.” However, he adds, “Don’t try to tell me that Elon Musk isn’t doing that on a regular basis on Twitter, or that every other social media platform doesn’t manipulate its algorithms in service of something.

“At the end of the day,” says Himes, “I just wasn’t prepared to bless a very complicated restriction on American freedom of expression.”

More from Rolling Stone

Best of Rolling Stone