Of TikTok’s 150 million American users, there may be none more valuable to the embattled platform right now than Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York.
A backbench Democrat, Mr. Bowman commands neither TikTok’s largest following (he has about 159,000 fans) nor exceptional political clout. But in recent days, he has gone where almost no one else on Capitol Hill would, appointing himself the platform’s unofficial defender in face of a bipartisan race to target what President Biden sees as a national security threat.
“Why the hell are we whipping ourselves into a hysteria to scapegoat TikTok?” Mr. Bowman asked in an telephone interview as he traveled by train from New York to Washington on Wednesday.
Hours later, he was scheduled to hold a news conference touting the platform’s virtues, alongside dozens of influencers brought in by TikTok for a day of lobbying ahead of Thursday’s congressional hearing with its chief executive. Only two other Democrats were expected to attend, while some of the congressman’s most outspoken allies declined to weigh in, like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a fellow member of the group of left-leaning lawmakers known as the squad.
It is not hard to see why. Mr. Biden and prominent congressional leaders have locked arms around the idea that the platform, owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, poses a serious national security threat at a time of growing competition with China. They are now looking to ban the video app from devices nationwide, or at least to force TikTok’s owners to sell to prevent China’s leaders from gaining access to a trove of data on Americans’ daily lives or being able to use the popular platform as a disinformation tool.
Mr. Bowman, who posts short videos under the handle “repbowman,” said the issue was being warped by Washington groupthink. He argued that the Biden administration had yet to produce meaningful evidence that the platform was actually being manipulated by Chinese authorities and said that he feared it was being singled out amid “xenophobic anti-China rhetoric” in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The app’s opponents in Washington warn that Beijing could use Chinese laws to force TikTok to hand over user data of American consumers. They have also hammered the app over ByteDance’s admission that some of its employees gained access to the data of U.S. users, including reporters who cover the company, while investigating leaks of internal corporate information.
Mr. Bowman said he wants to see Congress take a more holistic approach to regulating social media giants and the way they collect user data — rather than just targeting one company. “We didn’t talk about a ban on Facebook” after Russia used it to influence the 2016 election, he said.
But his unexpected campaign has left many of his colleagues baffled or outright hostile, particularly as some of his arguments have echoed TikTok’s own talking points.
“Anyone defending TikTok is either too caught up in being a social media celebrity or they’ve been brainwashed by the Chinese government’s propaganda,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, a moderate New Jersey Democrat in favor of banning the app or forcing its sale. “Both put our national security at risk.”
As scrutiny over TikTok’s practices has grown, the platform has built a multimillion-dollar lobbying operation led by former congressional aides. In recent weeks, its staffers have accompanied its chief executive, Shou Zi Chew, around Capitol Hill as he told lawmakers about the benefits of a plan to store the app’s data with an American company.
“We appreciate the support of these members of Congress, and we will remain steadfast in our commitment to building a safe, secure and innovative platform,” a TikTok spokesman, Jamal Brown, said in a statement.
Mr. Bowman, who shuns corporate political donations, insisted he had never taken a meeting with anyone who works for TikTok. But one of his aides said that the company did help facilitate a meeting that Mr. Bowman had with influencers it paid to travel to Washington to talk up the platform’s benefits to lawmakers. As for Wednesday’s news conference, Mr. Bowman agreed to hold it after a representative of the company told his office that the influencers were looking to address reporters on Capitol Hill to cap off their visit.
He does have some allies. “It is fantastic that Bowman is speaking out for the 150 million Americans that use this app and whose rights he’s trying to protect,” said Jenna Leventoff, a senior policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
A former middle school principal in the Bronx, Mr. Bowman, 46, first won his Westchester County-based seat in 2020 after upsetting a three-decade incumbent from the left and has sought to push his party in that direction, principally on climate and economic issues.
He said he has come to see the value of the platform, particularly as a way to communicate with young constituents and activists around those issues. Telegenic and gregarious, he posts on weighty topics like Alaskan oil drilling and transgender rights but also trolls Republicans.
A recent selection shows the congressman ranking legendary hip-hop songs in his Washington office (he put “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” by Dr. Dre as No. 1), playfully shaving his head before a hearing (“Gotta make sure the baldy’s looking fresh and clean”) and packing up a box of books on race and racism to send to Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida to help him on his “anti-racist journey.”
He said he decided to become more active on issues of data privacy and monopolies after reading two books about the inner workings of Facebook last fall. But his stance may be equally tied to foreign policy views about China and America’s role abroad that are much to the left of the Democratic or Republican mainstream.
Mr. Bowman and other progressives bucked party leadership in January to vote against the creation of a House select committee focused on “strategic competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party,” and he generally opposes bipartisan defense policy bills. (He also voted against Mr. Biden’s signature 2021 infrastructure bill.)
“I’m concerned mostly with our own affairs here in America,” he said. “The West in general has had a huge footprint in world affairs. The us-against-them ideology is killing everyone.”
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