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How TikTok’s CEO prepared for his first grilling on Capitol Hill

<i>Matt McClain/The Washington Post/Getty Images/File</i><br/>TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is interviewed at offices the company uses on February 14 in Washington
The Washington Post via Getty Im
Matt McClain/The Washington Post/Getty Images/File
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is interviewed at offices the company uses on February 14 in Washington

By Oliver Darcy, CNN

Shou Zi Chew is getting ready for his inaugural trip to Congress.

The TikTok chief executive has, for the last week, participated in near-daily, multi-hour prep sessions, CNN has learned, as he readies to face a bipartisan grilling on Thursday from lawmakers on a number of issues, most notably data privacy and security, in his first sworn testimony before US lawmakers.

In prep sessions, which have taken place in Washington, D.C. ahead of the high-stakes hearing, TikTok personnel have worked to sharpen and polish Chew’s presentation. They have played the roles of lawmakers with various questioning styles, peppering Chew with practice queries and scenarios to ready him for hours of relentless interrogation.

TikTok is hoping that all the prep pays off. Chew’s testimony comes at a pivotal moment for the short form social media company that stormed onto the scene in 2016 with viral goofy dance videos and now faces serious threats to its very existence in the U.S. and other Western countries. The Biden administration demanded earlier this month that the company’s Chinese owners divest from the company or be exiled from the country.

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The app has raised bipartisan national security concerns and growing worries that its sophisticated algorithm poses a danger to young people. While some of those concerns are more hyperbole than fact, the company has become a political football amid deepening US-China tensions, with some politicians taking a stiff stance on the company to signal their tough position on the Chinese Communist Party.

Chew is looking to push back on those narratives and will try to underscore four particular points to the committee: that TikTok has a commitment to safety, particularly for young people; that TikTok will “firewall” US user data; that TikTok “will not be manipulated” by any government; and that it will “be transparent and give access to third-party independent monitors.”

“I am well aware that the fact that ByteDance has Chinese founders has prompted concerns that our platform could be used as or become a tool of China or the Chinese Communist Party,” Chew acknowledged in his prepared remarks posted by the House Energy and Commerce Committee ahead of the hearing.

But, Chew will argue that it is “emphatically untrue” TikTok’s corporate structure “makes it beholden to the Chinese government or that it shares information about US users with the Chinese government.”

Whether the committee is receptive to his arguments is up in the air. If I were a betting man, I would not put money on it. Chew will not be on friendly grounds, as made clear by the statement Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chair of the committee, issued in advance of the hearing.

“Americans deserve to know the extent to which their privacy is jeopardized and their data is manipulated by ByteDance-owned TikTok’s relationship with China,” McMorris Rodgers said. “What’s worse, we know Big Tech companies, like TikTok, use harmful algorithms to exploit children for profit and expose them to dangerous content online.”

The congresswoman said she wanted Chew to “answer for” TikTok’s “destructive actions.” We’ll see how that goes.

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