On the TikTok Beat, Trends Dance With National Security

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A social media app once known for cat videos and dance challenges has become a political flashpoint among Washington lawmakers.

In March, the Biden administration ordered that TikTok, a platform with more than 150 million users in the United States, be removed from federal government-issued devices, over concerns with the app’s handling of sensitive user data. Citing national security concerns, the administration later demanded that TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, sell the app or potentially face a full ban in the United States.

Last month, in a tense congressional hearing, politicians grilled TikTok’s chief executive, Shou Chew, about the company’s ties to the Chinese government, the handling of its users’ data and concerns about children and teens who use the app. In the aftermath of the hearing, passionate TikTokkers came to Mr. Chew’s defense and he went viral on his own platform.

Sapna Maheshwari, a business reporter at The New York Times who writes about TikTok, covered the roughly five-hour hearing, and has since reported on China’s response to American scrutiny of the app. In an interview, which has been edited, Ms. Maheshwari discussed her reporting, Washington’s suspicions and what happens next.

What were your takeaways from the hearing on March 23?

I was really struck by the harsh tone lawmakers took with Shou Chew. It seemed like the 50-plus lawmakers who questioned him were interested in using their five minutes to either express an opinion they had about TikTok or pursue a very specific line of questioning that matters to their constituents. It was quite aggressive, and showed that there’s not a lot of love for TikTok in our government right now.

How much of the of that skepticism do you believe is tied to anti-China sentiments among politicians right now?

No politician is going to be faulted for being too tough on China right now, and that is definitely part of what’s going on. But there’s certainly a fair bit of criticism from lawmakers that could apply to other social media companies. TikTok’s C.E.O. really tried to defend the platform by bringing that up several times. If you’re talking about anxiety, depression and self-esteem issues among teenagers who use TikTok, it is reasonable to bring up similar concerns with Instagram.

Similarly, with data privacy issues, TikTok’s C.E.O. has repeatedly said that its user data is in an even safer position than with American technology companies. But people were really not interested in having that conversation during the hearing.

Where do you guess TikTok goes from here?

What makes this an incredibly compelling story to cover is that it is completely unprecedented in the United States. When you look to history for examples, there’s never been an instance of the government trying to ban an app that 150 million Americans are using on their smartphones. A lot of this is really to be determined, which makes it an exciting beat to cover.

In the short term, the U.S. government’s pace is not fast. We will see how the negotiations unfold between the Biden administration and TikTok. We’ve already seen a lot of concern from TikTokkers who say, “Follow me on YouTube in case it’s banned” and taking different precautions. And as we reported recently, there’s a new app in the works from ByteDance called Lemon8.

What do you make of Lemon8 so far? Is this an effort by ByteDance to circumvent the measures being taken against TikTok?

From what I’ve learned from my sources, they started talking to ad agencies about this in January. At that point in time, TikTok was nervous that they hadn’t heard from the Biden administration, so there is a chance they were concerned about the future of TikTok in the U.S.

But Lemon8 seems to be a really different kind of platform — they’ve positioned it as a complementary app to TikTok. There’s an interesting slide that we found in our reporting of Lemon8; in its marketing materials, ByteDance showed a potential top app store chart with CapCut, their video-editing tool, TikTok and Lemon8 as the top three apps.

I think this is ByteDance undeterred, charging forward and thinking, “We’re going to be the biggest and the best app maker in America.”

Is there something especially challenging about covering evolving platforms like TikTok?

One of the biggest challenges with covering tech platforms is how highly tailored they are to your personal interests and your internet behavior. You don’t want to put yourself into a silo, where you’re missing trends that other people are seeing. I do a lot of checking in with different firms that track what’s popular on TikTok, and people who represent creators.

How often do you use TikTok in your personal life? Have the privacy concerns affected the way you use TikTok?

I’m definitely logging on every day. I have seen firsthand how addicting it can be. The feed is really good at figuring out what you like right away. I have created a few accounts to vary the content.

It would be really hard to cover TikTok at this point if I never used the app. I was certainly concerned after learning of surveillance of American journalists by ByteDance employees. The company says that this is not their practice and that those were rogue employees. We’ll see how the F.B.I.’s and Department of Justice’s investigations pan out.

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