It’s TikTok and Snapchat’s turn in the hot seat on Capitol Hill.
On Tuesday, executives from TikTok and Snapchat as well as a representative from YouTube answered questions from members of the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security surrounding the current hot-button topic: Kids’ safety on social media platforms.
The issue has been thrust into the spotlight recently due to internal Facebook documents leaked by former employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen. These documents detailed how the social media company’s own research found that its platforms, such as Instagram, were having negative effects on the mental health of kids, especially young women.
In those initial hearings, there appeared to be a rare instance of bipartisan support for some sort of Congressional action to be taken over what was learned in the leaked documents. The Facebook hearings were focused on the issue at hand: child safety on social media platforms.
Yet, while watching the hearing with TikTok and Snapchat execs on Tuesday, some Senators, namely Republicans, lost the plot and were back to bickering over their old partisan pet issues.
With many issues facing children and these social media platforms, Republican Senators like Ted Cruz used their time to focus on TikTok. And, their focus wasn’t on the troubling eating disorder content or problematic challenges that go viral on the platform.
No, their focus was on TikTok’s ties to its Chinese parent company, Bytedance.
It was TikTok’s first time appearing before Congress, so questions about China were bound to come up. There are obvious privacy and data concerns there. But, the specific line of questioning seemed more as if those Republicans were continuing former President Donald Trump’s war on the social media app, where he sought to ban it from the country last year.
For example, Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) grilled TikTok’s VP and head of public policy, Michael Beckerman, on whether users can make videos comparing China’s president Xi Jinping to Winnie the Pooh, a common satirical nickname thrown at him by his critics. How is this an issue facing 13-year-old American kids?
And, unlike the Facebook hearings, it also felt very partisan. Such as Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) referring to and emphasizing the “Chinese Communist Party” every time she brought up China when questioning TikTok.
In those moments, it was as if Congress was getting further away from a Big Tech issue they are actually so close to acting on.
However, there were relevant takeaways from the hearing.
It was interesting to see representatives from all three social media companies distance themselves from Facebook.
TikTok’s Beckerman honed in on how Facebook is based on a users’ relation with the people they follow and interact with online and that’s just not how TikTok’s algorithm works.
Snap’s VP of global public policy, Jennifer Stout, took aim at Facebook, saying that even beyond regulation, there should be a responsibility from the social media companies to moderate themselves.
The YouTube Kids app was often referenced by the company’s VP of government affairs and public policy, Leslie Miller, as an example of the company already taking action.
Yet even then, when Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) asked them simple questions about whether they would support a federal bill that protected children online based on the very things they were discussing, all three representatives balked at answering the question straightforward.
Facebook is the worst offender, but it’s clear that the issue extends beyond Mark Zuckerberg. This hearing showed that our political representatives may be able to unite on the issues when it comes to Facebook…but that’s about it.