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TikTok’s D.C. Influence Campaign
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TikTok’s D.C. Influence Campaign

Under scrutiny from Congress, the social media company is leveraging close ties to American power brokers.

U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman participates as TikTok content creators gather outside the Capitol to voice their opposition to a potential ban on the app on March 22, 2023. (Photo by Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Popular social media app TikTok is facing more scrutiny from Congress and the White House over concerns it shares Americans’ data with Chinese authorities. But parent company ByteDance is fighting back in its own way by employing former members of Congress and other lobbyists to influence current politicians.

ByteDance and TikTok hired 43 lobbyists in 2022, including former members of Congress from both parties, according to research group OpenSecrets. (For comparison, ByteDance made over $80 billion in revenue in 2022; Meta made $116.6 billion the same year and employed 75 lobbyists.) One lobbying firm in particular, Crossroads Strategies, employs former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and retired Democratic Sen. John Breaux, both of whom were paid $440,000 for their work as lobbyists for ByteDance. ByteDance also paid former Democratic congressman Bart Gordon and former Republican congressman Jeff Denham $160,000 each. Both now work for law firm K&L Gates. 

But ByteDance’s attempts to influence politicians extend beyond formally recognized lobbying.

In March TikTok reportedly hired SKDK, a consulting firm with connections to President Joe Biden, to provide communications support. (SKDK had turned down work with TikTok in the past, and in 2020 told employees to delete TikTok from their devices.) A founding partner of SKDK, Anita Dunn, worked on Biden’s campaign in 2020 and is now a senior adviser at the White House. Top communications figures for the White House, Pentagon, and Department of the Interior also came to the Biden administration from SKDK. (SKDK did not respond to a request for comment.)

Politico also reported that former aides to Speaker Kevin McCarthy and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi have served as consultants to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, while former representatives— including lobbyists Denham and Gordon—helped connect Chew with current members of Congress before Chew testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23. Jamal Brown, former national press secretary to the Biden campaign, now manages policy communications for TikTok. ByteDance also hired David Urban, an adviser to Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign, as a consultant, as an executive vice president at ByteDance. He’s now an outside consultant.

Despite the close connections to Congress and the administration, there’s still a lot of pressure to take congressional action of some sort against TikTok and its influence campaign.

“I think the American individuals and the American companies who are facilitating this should be ashamed,” said Klon Kitchen, a former Dispatch contributor who is now a managing director of Beacon Global Strategies and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Given ByeDance’s ties to the Chinese Communist Party, he thinks the company’s lobbyists should be forced to register as representatives of a foreign government. “And I think that there should be long-term implications for their ability to work for the U.S. government and certainly to ever have a security clearance again.”

Some politicians agree. “It’s time TikTok lobbyists register as foreign agents,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn tweeted in July. 

“Every employee of TikTok in our country should be forced to register as a foreign agent, as should every one of their lobbyists, PR flaks, and lawyers,” Sen. Tom Cotton tweeted in March.

The Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) requires anyone engaged in lobbying on behalf of a foreign government or entity—broadly defined as anything under the control of a foreign government, organization, or person—to disclose their activities and funding. FARA can be more broadly applied to individuals working for a foreign entity—communications firms, for example, or consulting groups—who don’t have to register as lobbyists. Lobbyists attempt to influence legislators; a foreign agent can be anyone who attempts to influence the public.

But ByteDance currently falls into gray areas. While businesses in China are heavily controlled by the government, and ByteDance must, for example, abide by Chinese law to turn over data to the Chinese government, the Chinese government doesn’t technically own the business. In 2021, Rep. Mike Gallagher and Cotton proposed a bill that would close this loophole, but it hasn’t advanced past congressional committees.

In addition to formal and informal lobbying on TikTok’s behalf, some influential Americans themselves have a vested interest in the Chinese business remaining in the United States.

American venture capital firm Sequoia Capital began investing in TikTok’s parent company in 2014, has a seat on the company’s board of directors, and owned 10 percent of ByteDance as of 2020. (The company was recently valued at around $220 billion.) Sequoia’s Global Managing Partner Doug Leone was a donor to Donald Trump and attempted to use his contacts in the Trump administration to ward off a TikTok ban in 2020 when Trump proposed doing so. Sequoia partner Michael Moritz made no political donations from 2011 to 2019 according to FEC data, but began making political donations to Democratic-supporting political action committees shortly after lawmakers began publicly discussing investigating TikTok’s potential threat to national security in October 2019.

The Carlyle Group, a U.S.-based equity group, purchased a $150 million stake in ByteDance. Carlyle makes political donations through its own PAC, and Biden and his family joined Carlyle co-founder David Rubenstein for Thanksgiving at Rubenstein’s mansion in 2021. And according to analysis performed by Bloomberg, just over half of billionaire Jeff Yass’ fortune is tied up in his 7 percent share of ByteDance. Yass also happens to be a Republican mega-donor, contributing to campaigns, super PACs, and charities broadly aligned with the GOP. Among those donations: $5 million in 2021 to a super PAC supporting Sen. Rand Paul, who broke from his Republican colleagues in the Senate to oppose a bill introduced by Sen. Josh Hawley that would ban TikTok in the United States. Paul denies that his opposition to a TikTok ban is based on the views of any of his donors.

With bipartisan support for a TikTok ban, it’s unclear how effective ByteDance’s efforts have actually been. Sen. Mark Warner introduced a bill that could lead to a U.S. ban on TikTok, the RESTRICT Act, and says that he sees ByteDance’s influence campaign as evidence of the likelihood of a ban becoming law.

“I think the extent of this PR push by ByteDance speaks to the strength of our bipartisan effort, which would put TikTok and other technologies from adversarial nations under a microscope and provide the government a set of tools to mitigate threats that may be identified,” he said in a statement.

Alec Dent is a former culture editor and staff writer for The Dispatch.