Politics

Can coronavirus — and a new lobbyist — help TikTok repair its reputation in Washington?

Former IA chief Michael Beckerman says "companies will be judged" by how they handled the crisis.

An iPhone with the TikTok logo

The coronavirus crisis may give TikTok a chance to improve its standing with lawmakers.

Photo Illustration: Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

For hundreds of millions of fans around the world, TikTok is the place to go for videos of dancing celebrities, cooking advice and teenage hormones on overdrive.

For its critics, TikTok is a front for the Chinese government that censors its users and makes it too easy for pedophiles to stalk innocent children.

Michael Beckerman's job is to persuade Congress that TikTok is something else entirely: a trustworthy social media platform that helps families bond and gives them authoritative health information — all while protecting them from both the Chinese and the creeps.

"I've never shied away from a challenge," he says.

Beckerman, the former president and founder of the Internet Association, joined TikTok a month ago as its top lobbyist in Washington, with marching orders to build out the company's D.C. presence. Sources familiar with the situation said TikTok sought him out for the job, hoping to leverage his years of relationships in Congress and within the Trump administration to help the company shed its shaky reputation.

It's easy to see why TikTok turned to Beckerman. When Beckerman started IA eight years ago, he personally set up the association's bank account, chose the office space and built out the team. Today, with more than 40 tech company members, IA brands itself as the voice of Silicon Valley in Washington — to the chagrin of some other tech trade associations. But even some of IA's competitors say TikTok made a smart move when it hired Beckerman. Steve DelBianco, the president and CEO of tech trade association NetChoice — of which TikTok is a member — said Beckerman gives the company some "needed credibility and relationships on Capitol Hill."

Still, some of Beckerman's peers and former employees said they were surprised when he announced he was moving to TikTok in February. "There's a lot of things going on: an overlay of privacy and kids, TikTok and national security concerns," said Gary Shapiro, a tech policy veteran and longtime head of the Consumer Technology Association. "It's an incredibly challenging position he's in."

TikTok has endured a steady clip of negative headlines and multiple congressional hearings devoted almost entirely to bashing the company and its parent company, Bytedance. As the first Chinese-tied app to make significant inroads in Western markets, TikTok itself is in a tenuous position as anti-Chinese sentiment reaches a fever pitch in Washington.

"TikTok challenges are beyond the techlash challenges," said one of Beckerman's former employees. "You've got techlash plus the national security piece." A trade association source agreed that TikTok has "unique problems. "They need a Washington office," the source said. "Their survival in the U.S. may depend on that."

TikTok clearly grasps the gravity of its Washington challenges. In the first three months of 2020, ByteDance spent $300,000 on lobbying, doubling its spending during the previous quarter. It tapped an array of top Washington firms to lobby on its behalf, including K&L Gates, Monument Advocacy, and Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas.

Beckerman entered the fray in the first week or March, just as the coronavirus pandemic began to upend life for businesses across the United States — and for TikTok. He flew out to California to meet his colleagues and go through onboarding. By the time he landed back in Washington, shutdowns were beginning to sweep the country.

But the timing may have been fortuitous. Coronavirus has bolstered the company's fortunes — and presented it with a chance to flip the script.

At its core, TikTok brands itself as a fun, lighthearted app that can provide a respite from other social media platforms dominated by politics and news. It's an attractive option for tens of millions of American children and adults, forced to stay inside; TikTok's #HappyatHome hashtag has amassed 13.5 billion views in a little over a month, making it one of the most popular hashtags in the company's history.

Michael Beckerman Michael Beckerman's job is to persuade Congress that TikTok is a trustworthy social media platform that helps families bond and gives them authoritative health information — all while protecting them from creeps. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On Thursday, mobile analytics firm Sensor Tower announced TikTok had amassed more than 2 billion downloads, generating the most downloads for any app ever in a quarter. TikTok does not offer specific numbers, but the company confirmed it has seen a significant uptick in users and time spent on the app since COVID-19 hit. It's a serious challenge to Facebook's family of apps, YouTube, Twitter and other top social media networks.

TikTok has used the crisis as an opportunity to build a different reputation for itself. For the past month, the company has been laser-focused on building COVID-19 tools within the app and rolling out new safety features geared toward parents and their children.

"When this crisis is passed and we all look back at the time during the quarantine and during the pandemic for the planet, I think companies will be judged by the way they've handled it," Beckerman said. "When we all look back and policymakers take a real hard look at our company and others, they'll have a better understanding of what this company's about and what it's capable of."

Starting in mid-March, TikTok began sending out a weekly newsletter touting its proudest accomplishments to aides on Capitol Hill, including those in offices that have been openly critical of TikTok, according to copies of the newsletter obtained by Protocol.

One Senate aide said their office hasn't heard directly from TikTok since a snafu in which the company canceled multiple meetings with lawmakers at the last minute in December. But the "TikTok government affairs" newsletter started showing up in Capitol Hill inboxes on March 23. In a recent issue, the company promoted the $375 million TikTok has committed to support COVID-19 relief efforts. In another, a section under the heading "TikTok for Good" announced the United Nations had joined TikTok in order to provide "trusted information for our community."

At the same time it's promoting its coronavirus work, TikTok is trying to negate some of the criticisms it's faced.

In mid-March, the company convened the first meeting of its "TikTok Content Advisory Council," a panel of outside advisers including several leading online speech experts tasked with helping TikTok improve its content moderation policies, which have come under fire many times before .

The council members met over video, said Rob Atkinson, the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, and the meeting revolved around election integrity. TikTok employees presented ideas around how to deal with disinformation, and council members gave feedback according to their expertise. The council's second meeting, held on Tuesday, was devoted to protecting minors on the app, he said.

"I'm sure that if they do a good job on [content moderation] … it would certainly make their life easier in Washington vis-a-vis the 'China issue,'" Atkinson said.

Last week, TikTok banned users under 16 from sending or receiving direct messages, a restriction children's safety advocates have encouraged in order to combat "grooming," when predators reach out to children online and try to get them to meet in real life — a serious problem for an app that explicitly attracts minors.

Family Online Safety Institute CEO Stephen Balkam, who has been advising TikTok on its child safety efforts, said the task of making social media safer for children is "never over." But he credited TikTok for committing resources to protecting children since the Federal Trade Commission hit the company with a record $5.7 million fine for violating children's privacy laws last year.

Balkam said TikTok is "beefing up their Washington office to make sure they don't fall foul of regulations."

Right now, there are only a handful of TikTok employees in Washington — a far cry from the massive lobbying operations of Facebook, Google and Microsoft. It's Beckerman's job to help build out TikTok's Washington presence — and help the company push back against its critics.

Last month, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley introduced legislation to ban TikTok from government phones, and Indiana Republican Rep. Jim Banks put out a bill that would send users warnings before they download apps like TikTok.

"TikTok and China should be considered one and the same because all the entities that prop up China's economy, regardless of whether they are state-owned, have no choice but to adhere to Beijing's authoritarian demands for control and oppression," Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, said in a statement to Protocol on Wednesday. "While I welcome steps to increase privacy controls for children's online safety, TikTok will not be able to assuage my concerns over its ability to obtain consumer data."

TikTok has denied allegations that it operates at the best of the Chinese government and insists it stores all TikTok U.S. data in the United States with backup in Singapore.

Beckerman said part of his role will be to "correct the record" about how TikTok operates.

The company is planning to launch a "transparency center," a museum-like exhibition in Los Angeles and eventually Washington. TikTok will invite policymakers to the centers to get a closer look at how the company operates and makes its policy decisions. Beckerman says construction has been delayed by coronavirus.


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Meanwhile, Beckerman himself will have some bridge-building to do. He comes into the position with some baggage; there are lingering resentments in the tech community about IA's decision to support a compromise version of SESTA-FOSTA, legislation that pared down Section 230 to hold online companies liable for knowingly facilitating sex trafficking. "That left a bitter taste in a lot of peoples' mouths, both in the government and in industry about how that all played out," said one tech industry source.

DelBianco sees some irony in Beckerman's new role. "Michael will likely want TikTok's trade associations like Netchoice to hold the edge on issues like Section 230 and content moderation," he said.

IA says protecting against further erosion of Section 230 is a "top priority." Will Beckerman seek to have TikTok become a member of his old group? "We'll have to see," he said. "We're still focusing on building our team in Washington first."

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