Benefits of US political accord accrue to TikTok

TikTok app logo is seen in this illustration taken, August 22, 2022.
TikTok app logo is seen in this illustration taken, August 22, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

NEW YORK, March 21 (Reuters Breakingviews) - TikTok has one incentive to keep American politicians united. When Americans bicker about political issues, U.S. media outlets like CNN and Facebook steal eyeballs. But when they get along, they seem to have more time for TikTok. As Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew goes in front of Congress this week, he might remember that benefits can accrue to him if representatives remain cooperative.

The short-form video platform’s emergence as a potential weapon of Beijing is one area where politicians on both sides of the aisle can agree. Chew will appear before the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce committee on Thursday to explain security practices and the company’s relationship with the People’s Republic. Partly owned by China’s ByteDance, U.S. government officials are worried about its parentage. Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray told a group of senators that China could use TikTok to get access to data on millions of Americans.

A bipartisan bill making its way through Capitol Hill would grant the Commerce Department new powers to review and ban technologies from foreign entities. President Joe Biden’s administration is threatening to make ByteDance divest TikTok or risk being banned on U.S. smartphones altogether. TikTok will be working to persuade American politicians that citizens’ data is protected, but in reality it will be difficult for the country to ban the app outright.

So in some ways, political cohesion is good for TikTok. The platform’s closest rivals benefit when U.S. political parties are at odds. In 2020, the year Biden squared off against Trump, CNN’s prime time viewership jumped over 80%, Fox’s (FOXA.O) was up some 40% and MSNBC’s increased over a fifth, according to Nielsen. The following year after Trump left the White House, ratings crashed in the double digits.

Likewise, the New York Times (NYT.N) experienced a surge in digital-only news subscriptions, up 50% in 2020 before it tapered to a middling increase of 14% in 2021. Meta Platforms’ (META.O) Facebook and Twitter saw their daily active user growth rate fall in half in 2021 compared with 2020.

Now TikTok is capitalizing on a more relaxed America. In a video appealing to the public, Chew said the app’s popularity has increased 50% to 150 million American users. More adults spend time on TikTok so far this year than Alphabet’s (GOOGL.O) YouTube, Twitter or Instagram, according to Insider Intelligence. Consumers are brushing past any potential safety issues to enjoy viral videos from “Corn Kid” or to learn dance moves like Lizzo. TikTok may not want to cause trouble in Washington, but it benefits so long as Democrats and Republicans agree.

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(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)


TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew is expected to testify before a U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce committee on March 23.

Editing by Lauren Silva Laughlin and Sharon Lam

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