TikTok Stars Go On a D.C. Field Trip

WASHINGTON — In a hotel room on Wednesday morning, Janette Ok, a fashion and lifestyle TikTok creator from Los Angeles, was getting ready for a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill. She ripped off the tag hanging from a sleeve of her blazer and donned a pair of hot pink gloves, which matched her heels.

Might she consider more ergonomic footwear for the long day ahead?

“Anything for the fashion,” she said.

Ms. Ok, 26, was one of more than 30 TikTok stars who took part in an all-expenses paid trip to speak on behalf of the platform amid rising TikTok tensions as the Biden administration has pushed TikTok’s Chinese ownership to sell the video app or face a possible ban in the United States. TikTok’s Singapore-based chief executive, Shou Chew, testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday.

ByteDance, the company that owns TikTok, flew the creators (and their plus-ones) first class to Washington and put them up in a high-end hotel for the week. On Tuesday, the group had dinner with Mr. Chew, who appeared in a number of videos posted that night.

On Wednesday morning, remnants of room service — a pink smoothie, some picked-over lox and eggs — sat on a table in Ms. Ok’s room overlooking the Jefferson Memorial. She had brought along her boyfriend, Imani Carrier, a fellow creator.

Before joining TikTok in 2019, Ms. Ok had been steadily building a following on other social media platforms. On TikTok, she gained a million followers in six months. With that growth came opportunities. Some have been just plain fun, like meeting the actor Michael B. Jordan. Others have been highly remunerative. These days, she can command as much as $70,000 for a single brand deal, she said.

“It’s like the new American dream,” she said of her experience, adding that her parents had immigrated from South Korea to Los Angeles.

Ms. Ok also said she was not worried about potential national security concerns raised by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. “Security and privacy is a No. 1 priority for the app,” she said. “It’s top of mind for them.” Critics of the platform say that it could be used to give the Chinese government access to the personal data of its users in the United States.

Throughout the day, a number of other creators would echo TikTok talking points on what it says it is doing to safeguard personal data, including a switch earlier this year to routing American user data through Oracle, rather than servers in China. (In June, the company also said it would still keep backups of the data as it made the move.) The creators also leaned heavily on statistics that the platform recently made public, including that 150 million Americans use TikTok, according to TikTok.

TikTok Under Scrutiny

The massively popular video app is facing pressure amid concerns over the handling of users’ data.

Tag gone, heels on, Ms. Ok headed for a bus that would take her and her fellow creators to their first stop of the day.

“The bus, this brings back memories,” Duncan Joseph, a 20-year-old creator, said, noting that he was last in the nation's capital for an eighth-grade field trip.

Adding to the field trip vibes were the TikTok representatives who took on the role of de facto chaperones as “Team TikTok” shuttled from place to place, with bathroom breaks along the way.

Mr. Joseph said he started making videos on the app in 2020, when he was a junior in high school. Now TikTok is his full-time job. “I’m worried about the big picture in regards to all tech companies,” he said. The idea that all social media apps, not just TikTok, are due for better oversight and regulation was another sound bite the creators offered up on Wednesday.

Mr. Joseph was sitting next to Aidan Kohn-Murphy, a 19-year-old Harvard University student and the founder of the activist group Gen-Z for Change. The night before, on a private tour of the Capitol, Mr. Kohn-Murphy had filmed a video for his personal account. “Becoming the first person to say twink in the capitol rotunda,” reads the on-screen caption as Mr. Kohn-Murphy shouts the word into the cavernous dome above.

At the first event on Wednesday, which took place at a rooftop space on Constitution Avenue, the creators met with a small gathering of reporters to describe what TikTok has meant for them. Kenny Jarry, 81, said that joining the app two years ago had fundamentally changed his life. A Navy veteran from Minnesota, Mr. Jarry now has over two million followers. Through a brand partnership, he got new teeth, he said, and his followers also helped him crowd-fund a new mobility scooter.

Ebony and Denise Nunez, lesbian moms who run a family TikTok account featuring their three children, said they hoped the proposed TikTok ban would not go through. “You’d be taking our family away,” Ebony said. They added that they had left prior careers to focus solely on making content for the app.

Other creators also spoke in favor of TikTok, including several teachers who talked about the importance of the platform to education, and Tiffany Yu, who emphasized how it had supercharged her reach as an advocate for disabled people.

Many of those present took advantage of the press event’s scenic location overlooking the rotunda to film videos. Ms. Ok lined up several creators who lip-synced or danced to a portion of Nicki Minaj’s “I’m Legit.” They did it in one take.

Elsewhere on the rooftop, Naomi Hearts, a 25-year-old creator known for her comedy and fashion content, filmed another video. “I had to fulfill my Elle Woods fantasy,” she said, referring to the heroine of “Legally Blonde 2,” who moves to Washington to pursue a ban on animal testing in cosmetics.

From there, group members took Ubers to the Capitol. The building is regularly filled with people walking with phones glued to their hands, but the group of TikTokers, many of them laughing and filming as they strolled the corridors, offered a palpably different energy.

Ms. Hearts and a few others met with staff members from the office of Representative Judy Chu of California. “We talked about how TikTok impacts the community and the U.S. in the positive way,” Ms. Hearts said after the meeting. She added that she thought that Ms. Chu’s staff was “perceptive,” but “didn’t give us much insight.” Still, she said, she was glad to speak her piece.

“I talked about my transition,” Ms. Hearts, who is transgender, said, noting she often learns about new legislation concerning transgender issues via the app. “Just me being able to exist and tell the youth, ‘It’s OK,’ I think is really important.”

Along with a few other creators, Ms. Hearts also visited the office of Representative Sydney Kamlager-Dove of California, whose district includes TikTok’s offices in the Culver City neighborhood of Los Angeles. Ms. Kamlager-Dove was not present for the meeting.

Cynthia Dew, a TikTok spokeswoman, and other company representatives took a group to the office of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — not for an appointment but for a chance to add to the wall of Post-it messages that constituents and fans have left there.

“AOC … who’s that?” one TikTok creator said as the group walked down the hall.

“Wait, I need content,” Kristine Thompson, 35, announced, producing a phone with a light attached and proceeding to record.

At lunch in the cafeteria of the Longworth House Office Building, several fans spotted Ms. Hearts. One stopped to ask for a picture. Ms. Hearts obliged. “Save TikTok,” she cheered, using TikTok’s preferred slogan of the week.

“Maybe these politicians are angry because this food is nasty,” Ms. Hearts joked later as the group ate at a lunch table littered with detritus from sandwiches, pizza, orange soda and Funyuns.

The group went to two more meetings, the first with Representative Linda Sanchez of California, the second with staff members from the office of Senator Dianne Feinstein. Afterward, Ms. Hearts, only half joking, asked the TikTok representatives if her hotel had a spa and would the company possibly spring for a facial?

When asked if she would be among the TikTok creators who would attend the hearing scheduled for Thursday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, one creator said, “What hearing?” It was genuinely hard to tell if she was kidding. (Only a few creators from the group ended up going to the event in person.)

The last stop was a news conference at the House Triangle outside the Capitol, where a select few creators gave short speeches alongside three elected officials, including Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York, a vocal defender of the app.

Several creators said they were tired and hungry. One seemed to be napping while seated upright on a bench. Nearby, a heckler in a red cap that read “MAGA KING” repeatedly shouted, “TikTok is terrible!” He was removed from the area by Jamal Brown, a member of the TikTok communications team. (Mr. Brown was previously President Biden’s campaign national press secretary.)

As the group posed for photos, Ms. Hearts was nowhere to be found. A company representative strode quickly over to the Capitol steps to collect her.

She had been filming a TikTok. It would be posted within the hour.

Source: Read Full Article