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TikTok Is Taking a Page From the Uber Playbook
March 21, 2024

TikTok Is Taking a Page From the Uber Playbook

Reading Time: 5 minutes

A Decade Ago, I Saw ‘Uber’s Zombie Horde’ Take on D.C. Now, TikTok Is Using the Same Tactic., The app is turning its users into lobbyists of sorts., TikTok is turning its users into lobbyists, just like Uber did.

ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, does not want Congress to force a sale of its crown jewel. That threat is real: Last week the House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would do just that, on a bipartisan vote of 352 to 65. Now the action shifts to the Senate.

As ByteDance throws every weapon it can against the bill, a key element of its strategy has emerged: deputize its army of TikTok ‘creators’ to become informal lobbyists, asking them to plead the company’s case.

Earlier this month TikTok users saw a stark message when they opened the app: ‘Let Congress know what TikTok means to you and tell them to vote NO.’ Many have heeded the call.

‘TikTok has allowed my dreams that I used to have as a child to come true,’ Steven King, who makes videos about fashion and travel, told Reuters at a rally outside the Capitol last week. He would hate to see those dreams ‘crushed.’

Asked if he worried about a security risk from China, King sounded like a TikTok PR flack: ‘Absolutely not. If I had any concerns about China, I’d have the same concerns about right here in America sharing and selling our data too.’

TikTok’s people-powered lobbying strategy is unusual, but it is not unique. In fact, it adopts an approach developed over a decade ago by another fast-growing tech platform with loyal users that was desperate to fend off what it claimed was government meddling. That company was Uber—and I had a front-row seat to the battle.

In 2011 I was working for the District of Columbia’s mayor’s office when Uber, then a little-known startup, came to town. Rather than approach city officials to introduce itself and request permission to operate, Uber quietly began offering rides to select customers, inviting targets (often young professionals) to boozy parties where Uber vouchers were distributed. At the time, the idea of summoning a black car from your phone without using cash (or paying a tip) felt like a revelation in a city where taxi service was notoriously abysmal. Uber quickly established a passionate and loyal customer base.

At the time, Uber operated in a regulatory gray area. Ron Linton, the head of the city’s taxi and limousine commission, insisted, with some justification, that Uber was outright illegal. In January 2012 Linton launched a sting operation: He used the Uber app to request a ride downtown, and after arriving at his destination, had his staff impound the car and present its mystified driver with citations totaling over $1,000. A few months later, the D.C. council proposed legislation that would have led Uber rides to cost significantly more than taxi trips.

Uber responded with a massive pressure campaign. Rather than rely on dark-suited lobbyists huddling with elected officials behind closed doors, Uber turned to its fervent early fans, warning them with social media and emails that the city wanted to deprive them of their beloved ride-hail service.

Angry messages poured into the Wilson Building, the District of Columbia’s city hall, where one councilmember said he received 5,000 emails. I myself remember receiving a furious email from the CEO of a prominent local software company. ‘What the hell is the city doing with Uber?,’ he fulminated. ‘You’re giving a middle finger to the tech sector.’

Uber’s strategy pointed to a new kind of political power wielded by consumer tech platforms that could instantly and repeatedly push messaging to thousands—or millions—of loyal users. People have a right, perhaps even a duty, to give their elected officials feedback and input. Now, they were being mobilized to do so not by an organic feeling, or even a grassroots activist campaign, but by a company that had direct and instant access to them.

Uber turned its consumers into lobbyists. And like any kind of lobbying, the messaging was frequently exaggerated.

‘Middle finger to the tech sector’ was, for example, something of an overstatement. Uber had deliberately chosen to operate without government approval, and the company’s executives knew that the city could declare them illegal. It was clear that Uber’s strategy was to beg forgiveness, not ask permission. But the truth was of secondary importance; Uber’s user-fueled lobbying campaign revolved around outrage. And it was powerful. I remember an exasperated mayoral aide complaining to me about the deluge of messages from ‘Uber’s zombie horde.’

Uber won that fight in Washington. In 2012, the city passed new legislation that codified the service’s legality, and company executives have told me they were so happy with the outcome that its D.C. strategy became a model for similar fights elsewhere, such as a successful 2015 effort to prevent New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio from capping the number of vehicles on city streets. That response included a ‘de Blasio’ tab on the app showing extended waits that New Yorkers would supposedly endure if the mayor’s proposal was adopted (even though no one seemed to know whether de Blasio’s limit on Uber vehicles would really cause interminable wait times).

Over the past decade other tech companies have sought to borrow Uber’s playbook, but they have not always succeeded. Airbnb, for instance, tried to mobilize its hosts to squash a plan to limit rentals in Jersey City, New Jersey, but residents approved the proposal anyway.

Now ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese owner, is relying on a similar approach to spur grassroots opposition to the bill under consideration in Congress. Much like D.C. officials dazed by the army of Uber defenders 12 years ago, members of the House seemed taken aback by the torrent of livid messages pouring into their offices last week. Sean Casten, an Illinois Democrat, posted an X/Twitter thread decrying and refuting the ‘woefully misinformed calls and social media outreach over the last two days.’ Julia Letlow, a Louisiana Republican, staffed her own office phone lines, explaining why those asking her to ‘not ban TikTok’ were misguided.

As with Uber’s earlier fights, much of what TikTok defenders are saying has a questionable relationship with reality. Despite slogans to the contrary, Congress is not trying to ‘kill TikTok,’ but to force its Chinese owner into a (very lucrative) sale to new owners who would not carry the same risks of interference by a foreign adversary.

But lobbying is designed to get results, not deduce truth. That’s the case for the office meetings and after-hours schmoozefests that are a mainstay of American politicking, as well as the pithy messages parroted by consumers targeted by a tech company under siege.

With roughly a third of Americans having at least tried TikTok, you can’t really blame ByteDance for tapping its loyal user base when its back is against the wall. (If Boeing had such reach and customer loyalty, it would likely be doing the same thing right now.)

But if you receive urgent messaging from TikTok—or another technology platform you love—telling you that the sky is falling because of government interference, best to do a little due diligence before pinging your mayor or senator as requested.

And if you happen to be that mayor or senator? Recognize the angry messages flowing into your inbox for what they are: old-fashioned, one-sided lobbying, updated for an era of big tech.


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