TikTok hearing live: Congress grills CEO on China concerns and teen mental health | TikTok

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TikTok hearing live: Congress grills CEO on China concerns and teen mental health | TikTok

Key events

We are back in session, with testy questioning from Congress continuing. Stay tuned for more.

The hearing has entered recess and will reconvene in a bit. Stand by for updates.

Congresswoman Kim Schrier, who is a pediatrician, asked Chew a number of questions about TikTok’s impact on young users’ health.

The issue has been a central concern in today’s hearing, which is titled TikTok: How Congress Can Safeguard American Data Privacy and Protect Children from Online Harms. Schrier said TikTok has been particularly dangerous for children during the pandemic, when social media was already replacing in-person interactions.

“Social media is designed to be addicting, and your platform is the most addictive of all,” she said. “And this endless, mindless scrolling takes teams away from human relationships.”

She added that TikTok is keeping teens awake “well past their bedtimes” at a time when “sleep is critical for brain and physical development”. She also noted that there is a large amount of harmful content on the app encouraging eating disorders.

Chew said TikTok has worked with experts to tackle such content and is building models to identify and remove it more quickly. “Anything that glorifies eating disorders we remove,” he said. “It’s something we take very seriously.”

Previous Guardian reporting showed that hashtags promoting eating disorders frequently evaded bans on TikTok. Teens attempting to recover from disordered eating described being trapped in algorithmic bubbles that fed them dangerous content. Schrier encouraged Chew to expedite responses to these concerns.

“We need you to do your part,” she said. “It could save this generation.”

Republican representative Neal Dunn of Florida outright asked: “Has ByteDance spied on American citizens?”

The question comes after reports emerged in 2022 that the company accessed location data of reporters in an attempt to identify which employees were leaking information. Chew responded that “spying is not the right way to describe it”.

Chew says his own children are not on TikTok

Driving home concerns about young users on TikTok, Congresswoman Nanette Barragán asked Chew about reports that he does not let his own children use the app. “At what age do you think it would be appropriate for a young person to get on TikTok?” she said.

TikTok hearing live: Congress grills CEO on China concerns and teen mental health | TikTok
Shou Zi Chew testifies Washington DC. Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

Chew said his children are not on TikTok because in Singapore, where they live, there is not a version of the platform for users under the age of 13. In the US there is a version of “TikTok for Younger Users” in which the content is curated for a younger audience.

“Our approach is to give differentiated experiences for different age groups and let the parents have conversations with their children to decide what’s best for their family,” he said.

Lawmaker raises ‘concerns’ about Project Texas data management plan

California Republican Jay Obernolte, who is a software engineer, asked a series of technical questions of Chew relating to how TikTok plans to manage US user data in the future.

The questions related to Project Texas – an effort TikTok is carrying out to relocate all US user data to domestic servers. As part of the project, US tech firm Oracle is going through lines of TikTok source code – a massive undertaking.

“I am concerned that what you’re proposing with Project Texas just doesn’t have the technical capability of providing us the assurances that we need,” Obernolte said.

Obernolte said that concerns raised by TikTok are not unique to the Chinese company and called for better protections for Americans.

“Social media companies gather a tremendous amount of user data and then use powerful AI tools to use that data to make really accurate predictions of human behavior, and then seek to manipulate that behavior,” he said.

“That’s not just TikTok – it’s all social media companies that are doing this. Ultimately, the solution is to enact comprehensive federal data privacy legislation that will prevent that kind of behavior, or at least allow users to consent to it.”

US representative Tony Cárdenas, a Democrat from California, asked the CEO outright if TikTok is a Chinese company.

Chew said TikTok is global in nature, not available in mainland China, and headquartered in Singapore and Los Angeles.

Cárdenas again underscored the bipartisan nature of today’s hearing.

“You have been one of the few members to unite this committee,” he told Chew.

Kari Paul here on the west coast, taking over the blog for the remainder of Chew’s hearing. Stand by for updates.

Mid-morning summary

The hearing is now in recess. As expected, two hours into the hearing we’re still hitting on a lot of the same questions.

  • Does the CCP control TikTok decisions, either directly or indirectly?

  • How does TikTok get around CCP laws that require companies provide access to user data?

  • How does the company plan to alleviate the harmful impacts of its platform on teen mental health?

It doesn’t appear many lawmakers are interested in hearing Chew’s response and in some cases rarely give him the opportunity to fully respond to their questions. That said, Chew is also repeating much of the same lines from his opening testimony when responding to questions. The WSJ report today, which has been cited by members of the committee at least three times, has not helped Chew at all given the impression lawmakers have from that story is that China would have control over whether or not ByteDance could be sold.

Members have also used this hearing as an opportunity to promote their efforts to pass a federal privacy bill that limits how user data is collected and shared.

Two moments have stood out as potentially damaging to Chew’s testimony. First, when Cammack pulled up a TikTok post that appeared to threaten the committee and the committee chair that had not been taken down by the company 41 days after it was first posted. Second, when Gus Bilirakis shared the story of Chase Nasca who died by suicide. Bilirakis alleged that it was TikTok content that lead him to do that and then proceeded to play a series of videos that discussed suicide.

Representative Brett Guthrie goes back to the threatening video that Cammack presented and asks why and how it’s been up for 41 days.

“We had a threat against our committee … you seem to be able to prevent this content in China … and yet it’s on your website,” Guthrie said. “You said earlier as soon as you find this information you take it down. How quickly does your algorithm detect keywords or content that involve illicit drug trafficking before these posts are self-reported or used by others?

Chew says there are 40,000 moderators working on this, alongside automated systems … but no company can be perfect.

Guthrie is expressing confusion on why Douyin, the ByteDance-owned China-based version of TikTok, is able to stamp out illicit drugs content entirely but TikTok isn’t able to do that.

Chew said you have to deal with the reality of the country you’re operating in, but that it’s a shared challenge with other tech companies in the US. Essentially drug laws aren’t as strict here as it is in China.

TikTok CEO pressed on youth mental health

Representative John Sarbanes is asking whether TikTok is looking into how to make its platform less “manipulative”. Chew said the company was the first to implement the 60-minute watch limit and also prohibits users under 16 to use direct messages. Users under 16 also can’t go viral by design, Chew said.

But Sarbanes points out that teens have been able to bypass the 60-minute time limit. “If you concluded that putting some reasonable limits in place … would lead some percentage of your users to leave TikTok and go somewhere else is that something you’re prepared to accept?”

Chew said yes.

Lawmakers are focusing more on teen and children mental health on TikTok now.

Representative Gus Bilirakis shares a story of Chase Nasca, a 16-year-old boy who ended his life a year ago by stepping in front of a train.

“I want to thank his parents for being here today, and allowing us to show this,” Bilirakis said. “Mr Chew your company destroyed their lives. I admire their courage to be here and share Chase’s story in the hopes it’ll prevent this from happening to other families. The content in Chase’s “For You” page wasn’t a window to discovery … instead his “For You” page was sadly a window to discover suicide. It is unacceptable, sir, that even after knowing all these dangers you still [contend] TikTok is something grand to behold.”

Bilirakis then played a series of TikToks that promote suicidal ideation.

“Do you have responsibility over the algorithms used by TikTok to prioritize content for its users,” he asks Chew.

In his answer, Chew attempted to emphasize that TikTok shares mental health resources but Bilirakis pushes him on the question, taking his attempts to address what TikTok is doing to help teen mental health as a means to avoid answering his question or accept responsibility.

CEO asked why violent content not removed

Representative Kat Cammack has presented a video that was posted 41 days ago that shows a gun being shot. The text over the video says “me ASF at the House Energy and Commerce Committee…” and the caption includes the name of the chair of the committee, Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

“I think this is a blatant display of how vulnerable people who use TikTok are, you couldn’t take action after 41 days when a clear threat, a very violent threat to the chairwoman of this committee and the members of this committee was posted on your platform,” Cammack said. “You damn well know that you cannot protect the data and security of this committee or the 150 million users of your app because it’s an extension of the CCP.”

The chair did not allow Chew to respond.

Important to note that members of the committee have repeatedly tried to establish Chew’s connection with ByteDance executives – some of whom, they say, work with or are affiliated with the CCP.