TikTok's Singaporean CEO, Chew Shou Zi, fought for his app's life in an almost five-hour congressional hearing last week that has been the talk of the Internet all weekend. In the hearing, Chew worked hard to convince US lawmakers that TikTok does not sell data to the Chinese government, uses controls to protect younger users from harmful or inappropriate content, and takes sufficient steps to protect the mental health of the young with controls.
While Chew was obviously addressing issues that were paramount to the livelihood of the app and its presence in the US, what the internet was abuzz with however, was slightly more personality drive. Many social media users took to a range of platforms to comment on Chew’s composure and poise and how Chew presented himself, despite facing difficult and sometimes outrageous questions by US lawmakers.
Don't miss: Why the 'need-to' basis use of TikTok won't change how SG govt plays on the platform
Never dropping his composure, Chew appeared unfazed throughout the marathon questioning and was able to calmly respond to questions such as if TikTok accesses the home Wi-Fi network of users – a question posed by Republican Richard Hudson which has since gone viral.
In response to Hudson’s question, Chew noted that TikTok could only access the Wi-Fi network if a user turns on their Wi-Fi.
“So, if I have the TikTok app on my phone and my phone is on my home Wi-Fi network, does TikTok access that network?” Hudson asked in a clip seen by MARKETING-INTERACTIVE.
“It would have to access the network to get connections to the Internet, if that's the question,” replied Chew. Hudson went on to ask if it was possible for TikTok to access other devices on that home Wi-Fi network.
“Congressman, we do not do anything that is beyond any industry norms. I believe the answer to your question is no. It could be technical. Let me get back to you," Chew said calmly.
Winning the court of public opinion
Since the hearing, many TikTok users and communications players MARKETING-INTERACTIVE spoke to have praised Chew for keeping calm and noted that despite facing a tough panel that continued to "overpower him" and "deny him the opportunity to speak", he was able to consistently deliver his key messages over the course of the five-hour session, according to Kenny Yap, the managing director of Socialyse and Red Havas.
"While one can go through countless of simulations and preparation, it’s a different matter when you are in the hot seat on the actual day. It is so easy to crack under pressure especially after such a lengthy debate," said Yap. He added that Chew handled the grilling exactly as a spokesperson should rather than someone simply sitting there to respond.
Yap continued by saying that it was impressive that despite the many demands for yes or no answers and "bizarre" questions, Chew held his own and delivered his key messages.
"In moments where he wasn’t sure, especially regarding technical questions, he wasn’t afraid to admit that he didn’t have the answer and that he would check and get back to lawmakers," said Yap.
Yap noted that while Chew likely knew he would not be able to sway congress, he had a big opportunity to win the hearts and support of the public. "I believe he won that battle," said Yap.
Agreeing with Yap, Marion Ang, the ESG, government lead and chief people officer at TriOn & Co. noted that it is always important for spokespeople to stay calm in a tense situation particularly when you are a single person facing a grueling panel over an extended period of time.
In this situation it was even more important as the Congress panel seemed to have a pre-conceived negative mindset and agenda, noted Ang.
Chew's calm demeanour in this situation, tilted people's opinions towards him even before he answered any questions. Even as he stayed calm, he remained intentional in the way he communicated which truly made him the star of the hearings.
Ang added that it certainly didn't help that Congress asked questions that "showed that they were not prepared" and that they "didn't understand basics of what they were investigating."
Like Yap, Ang noted that while Chew may not have swayed Congress, there wasn’t much more he could have done better and that he certainly won the court of public opinion and that this for sure strengthened his reputation and in turn, that of TikTok.
True enough, according to media intelligence company CARMA, social conversations were predominantly negative at 51.2%, with only 5.6% being positive. The dissatisfaction largely lies towards the US Congress, and not towards Chew himself.
"Their opinions mostly revolve around the questions posed by Congress, the fact that Congress did not take other issues in the country as seriously as this, and the fact that Congress might not actually have an understanding of the technology," noted a spokesperson at CARMA.
If Chew was able to win the hearts of the public, why then do many still say US lawmakers were not swayed? It turns out that his Achillies heel could have been in the fact that his responses were simply too generalised, according to Jose Raymond, the director of Strategic Advisory at PRecious Communications. This essentially meant that little was done to assuage the fears which led him to face the US House of Representatives in the first place.
Why was he being questioned in the first place?
So why exactly were these fears that US lawmakers held? It was largely due to national security concerns regarding ByteDance, which is TikTok's parent company that is based in China. The US fears that the Chinese government may be able to use TikTok to access US user data and the devices. It is also afraid that the Chinese government could use the social media app to spread propaganda to its US audience.
The news came as TikTok revealed that it has 150 million monthly active users in the United States, up from 100 million, according to the platform.
To solve this, federal officials demanded that ByteDance sell its stake in TikTok or risk a US ban of the app. More US senators are also backing a bipartisan legislation to give President Joe Biden new powers to ban TikTok on national security grounds, according to Reuters.
Since the news of concerns, fears have spread globally with more governments taking action to secure their data against Beijing-headquartered company ByteDance. So far, TikTok has already been banned or restricted from government-issued devices in Singapore, United States (US), Canada and Belgium.
Last week's hearing was an opportunity for Chew to appeal to US lawmakers to reassure them that TikTok will not be selling data to the Chinese government. In his statements, Chew assured Congress that Bytedance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government and it has not requested or accessed US user data.
Chew also defended the company’s US$1.5 billion Project Texas plan which involves ringfencing US data into a separate division of the company, Oracle, so that all data remains stored in the US.
Chew added that TikTok is headquartered in Singapore and Los Angeles, and that it does not operate in China.
Furthermore, Chew defended TikTok's supposed negative effect on young users. He argued that as a father of two himself, much has been done to protect children on the app such as putting in age-appropriate settings and controls.
He added that users under 13 cannot post videos, comment or message others and that accounts of those under 16 are automatically set to private and that they cannot send direct messages or livestream till they are above 18.
There is also a new 60-minute default daily time limit for those under 18. Now, the world waits as lawmakers deliberate.
Content 360 is back on 10-11 May 2023 in Singapore. A hugely popular event over the years, Content 360 brings the most influential content creators to inspire you. Across two days, you can connect with 300+ brightest minds in the industry and learn how to overcome challenges to make your content stand out among the crowd. Tickets are on sale now, register today: https://conferences.marketing-interactive.com/content360-sg/
Spotify adds video-like feature further heating up competition with TikTok
Dove takes bold stand against popular TikTok filter distorting real beauty
TikTok unveils new 20-minute paywalled video feature: Start of a great migration?