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Remember Mark Zuckerberg getting grilled by Congress?
Then, in what feels like a totally different lifetime (actually, just 2018), the dorky startup founder explained the Internet as lawmakers asked him what happens when they "email someone over WhatsApp".
Back then, it was seen as a pivotal moment that could determine Facebook's fate.
Five years later, Facebook is still around, and so maybe getting grilled by the U.S. Congress is just a rite of passage for every up-and-coming social media platform.
But TikTok today, unlike Facebook in 2018, is under serious threat of being banned in the U.S..
The security concerns over the social media app remain, and so TikTok can expect further scrutiny in the near future.
Against this backdrop, TikTok's eloquent chief executive officer Chew Shou Zi (a Singaporean) appears to have made an impact, perhaps in a way he did not expect.
His showing had all the right ingredients of a viral trend: Simple yet compelling storyline; quotable moments, sprinkled with the right kind of understated humour — like the look on Chew's face when asked yet another painfully simple question; and to top it all off, a protagonist to root for — especially for audiences in Singapore, seeing a fellow Singaporean making an impact on a global stage.
Isn't this just a passing trend?
You might think that some are jumping on the bandwagon to stan the latest zaddy, and that this is just another passing trend.
You might think these bandwagoners just want to be part of the next in-thing, and that they don't really even know why Congress is interested in TikTok in the first place.
And you would probably be right — it can't be that all the young people making fan vids have a good grasp of U.S. politics.
But there are also some deeper undercurrents that floated this boat, which will probably float future boats too.
Those undercurrents are the reasons why Shou Chew (as he's known in the first-name-last-name format the U.S. is accustomed to) went viral, especially among young people.
Platform of choice
TikTok is the platform of choice for a lot of young people (supposedly 150 million users in the U.S.). It's the platform that many are introduced to at a very young age, at a time when social media is beginning to become woven into everyday life — a process not caused, but certainly hastened by, the pandemic.
TikTok has emerged as the go-to platform for the younger generation, where they enjoy freedom of expression in a form that's unique to them and near-incomprehensible for older people, much like previous generations did with Facebook and Instagram.
With the not-entirely-vague threat of a TikTok ban, there's something very real at stake for that generation — namely, the future of the platform.
It's no surprise that clips of Chew's Congress hearing are getting created, shared, and re-shared on TikTok.
Standing up to the bully
Here's another reason why Chew's Congress hearing attracted the attention it did: There's a feeling that Chew stood up to the bullies who were trying to strong-arm him into giving incriminating answers to leading questions like "Do you know how many children have died because of [TikTok]? Do you have any idea? Can you tell me?"
The U.S., for better or for worse, can come across as a bit of a bully. And not just because of former president Trump and his harsh, take-it-or-leave-it policies on immigration and other matters.
So to see Chew single-handedly fending off a barrage of questions from the lawmakers who represent U.S. policy was immensely satisfying, not to mention that everybody loves it when an underdog comes out on top.
Asians everywhere, all at once
Here's another reason young people are excited about Chew's appearance: Asian representation.
Particularly in Asia of course, and all the more so in Singapore, where Chew attended Hwa Chong Institution and served National Service as an officer.
But in the U.S. itself, it wasn't too long ago that anti-Asian hate crimes were rife, possibly amplified by anxiety over Covid-19 and its supposed origins in China.
Now, in 2023, the pandemic is as good as over, and "Everything Everywhere All At Once", with its plot of an Asian daughter travelling through parallel universes in search of acceptance from her mother, swept the Academy Awards with multiple categories.
In yet another #AsianPride moment, Michelle Yeoh became first Asian to win the best actress award.
It's easy to see how that momentum carries forward into a very different sphere, with the Asian CEO of a global company seen holding his own in a testy, confrontational hearing watched by many around the world.
"Gd AM, I m on TikTok"
And then there was the fact that Chew's exchange with the Congressmembers reinforced what many young people know — boomers — including the ones wielding power and influence as elected officials — don't get the technology that's second nature to younger people.
Some lines of technophobic questioning were a tangible example of this — with one of the most shared clips from the hearing being one where a Representative asked Chew if TikTok accesses one's home WiFi, to which Chew said, almost incredulously, that the app would need WiFi to access the internet.
Remember, this is a generation that loves to poke fun at boomers' typo-ridden, stilted text messaging habits.
It's not hard to imagine their glee in sharing the clips.
What's going to happen to TikTok next?
The Representatives in Congress raised many valid concerns relating to user safety and national security, but these were perhaps overshadowed by a few key moments of theatrics and gaffes.
Was the Congress hearing merely for them to air their grievances (and unfortunately, their ignorance)? Or, is the U.S. really moving to ban the app, in spite of its growing popularity (150 million users in the U.S. and counting)?
As of Monday (Mar. 27), the answer appears to be yes — "The House will be moving forward with legislation to protect Americans from the technological tentacles of the Chinese Communist Party," wrote U.S. House of Representatives speaker Kevin McCarthy in a tweet on Mar. 26 (Sunday) evening.
Of course, nothing's set in stone until actual legislation is actually passed, and after all, there's already been one attempt to ban TikTok that eventually fizzled out — then-U.S. president Donald Trump's executive order.
All that's left to do is wait and see.
Top image via @ruier_ruier, @leonaziyan, and @interestingishfae on TikTok
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