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Follow the Money: TikTok's Defenders
many of the loudest voices have financial ties to the company
Facing an existential threat in the form of a nationwide ban, TikTok is fighting for its life as any savvy company would: by doubling down on its lobbying and public relations efforts. The company’s lobbying expenditures have exploded over the last year, and it organized a gathering of prominent TikTokers last week on Capitol Hill to speak out against the ban. But there’s another, arguably more sinister, front in this PR push: third-party op-eds written by trusted policy experts in defense of the company.
While it may not be ideal to have a Chinese-owned company lobbying American officials, at least those elected officials understand what they’re dealing with: lobbyists paid by a company to advance its interests. And while it’s a bit unseemly for “Back in the Kitchen with Bae” to be doing TikTok’s bidding amid a nationwide national security debate, it seems unlikely she’ll be exerting an outsized influence on the Biden Administration’s decision. But when tech policy experts and civil liberties advocates speak out against the ban, their words pack more of a punch — which is troubling, given some of the loudest TikTok-friendly voices have demonstrable financial ties to the company.
Having a financial incentive to make a particular argument doesn’t necessarily render said argument insincere — but as a reader, it’s good to be aware of such incentives, especially when the issues are complex, and the stakes are high. Here’s a list of such incentives at play in the TikTok debate:
Center for Democracy and Technology. The group published a blog post with the subhead: “Why a nationwide ban on TikTok may violate the First Amendment and won’t protect users.” In 2021, it received a direct donation of at least $50,000 from TikTok.
Club for Growth. The Club’s president, David McIntosh, wrote an op-ed for Fox News titled “Banning TikTok sounds tempting. Here’s why it’s all wrong.” One of the Club’s largest financial supporters is billionaire Jeffrey Yass, who was a major early investor in TikTok and therefore has a vested interest in the company’s continued profitability.
Cato Institute. Jennifer Huddleston, a Tech Policy Research Fellow at Cato, has consistently argued against a TikTok ban since joining the Institute in January. On March 13, USA Today ran an op-ed of hers titled “Should the US ban TikTok? Here’s why blocking it isn’t a good idea.” Jeffrey Yass is a board member at Cato.
NetChoice. Prior to joining Cato in January, Huddleston served as Policy Counsel for NetChoice, a technology trade association of which TikTok is a member. The group markets itself as an advocate for free expression and free enterprise on the Internet, but it spends millions of dollars annually lobbying on behalf of the tech companies it represents. On the day of TikTok’s hearing, Brad Polumbo wrote an op-ed for the Washington Examiner titled “Six reasons the US shouldn’t ban TikTok.” Polumbo recently co-founded BASEDPolitics with Hannah Cox, who is a consultant for NetChoice.
This list represents a tiny fraction of the TikTok friendly voices that have emerged as the bipartisan push to ban the company heats up. Lobbying and public affairs industry insiders tell me they’re confident the company has been pouring money into a decentralized third-party PR campaign advanced by way of op-eds such as those listed above — but tracing TikTok’s money trail isn’t always easy, or even possible. That said, it’s worth keeping in mind that it’s commonplace in Washington, D.C. for a company to approach a pundit — usually through a trade association or PR firm — and offer him anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 to write a friendly op-ed, or even to simply sign off on one the company drafted in-house. The number of known financial ties between TikTok and anti-ban advocates is likely significantly smaller than the total number of such ties.
Again, being paid to voice a particular perspective doesn’t itself invalidate that perspective. Everyone who writes for a living gets paid by someone; at some point, we have to evaluate arguments on their merits, or the discourse would devolve into a deluge of hypocritical, unprovable pay-to-play accusations. That said, financial incentives are still worth considering, especially in the context of a high-stakes national security debate, when a lot of people ostensibly concerned with your fundamental freedoms are telling you not to worry about the threat posed by a CCP-linked company occupying an ever-larger share of the American media diet, and harvesting an ever-larger stockpile of American user data.
But we can’t consider financial incentives that are shrouded in darkness. We know how much money TikTok spent on lobbying in 2022; we don’t know, however, how much they’ve spent getting third-party pundits to publicly oppose a ban, because this form of influence buying is not subject to disclosure requirements.
Perhaps it should be.