TikTok is an internet juggernaut. As it has gained popularity, politicians around the country have launched a growing attack on the app, raising concerns about its Chinese ownership. It’s now banned from government devices in multiple states and in Congress over concerns the Chinese government is using it to hoover up data on Americans. A congressional hearing about TikTok’s potential national security risk is scheduled for March 23.
Records show that the same politicians who’ve publicly attacked the app and voted to restrict its use have also accepted donations from top executives with TikTok and its parent company ByteDance.
Federal Election Commission (FEC) records show that in the last election cycle, ByteDance and TikTok employees handed out $130,000 in campaign donations to a range of politicians. A third of these donations came from one person: David J. Urban, who was the executive vice president of ByteDance at the time. (Urban has since left the company.) His profile on his current employer’s website says that he helped ByteDance “navigate public policy and communications challenges.”
On LinkedIn, Urban described his role at the company as “Executive Vice President, North American Corporate Affairs.”
Urban did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Monday.
While TikTok and ByteDance employees are free to donate to whomever they choose so long as they’re United States citizens, politicians accepting funds from the very company they’re railing against publicly could be seen as contradictory or even hypocritical. That’s especially true when the donations are coming from high-level executives, as opposed to rank-and-file employees.
Neither TikTok nor any of the politicians mentioned in this article responded to requests for comment sent via email Thursday afternoon.
One of Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) first moves after becoming speaker was creating a select committee to warn Americans about the danger of China’s increasing power and influence. The committee is beginning this work by focusing on TikTok, per the Washington Post.
According to FEC records, McCarthy is also the largest beneficiary of campaign cash. He received roughly $40,000 from Urban, who was then a ByteDance executive vice president. Urban donated an additional $2,500 to McCarthy after his LinkedIn profile says he left the company, although FEC records still identify his employer as ByteDance.
No other TikTok or ByteDance employees donated to McCarthy, per FEC records.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) wants to prohibit TikTok on all state-owned devices and through internet services at public schools and universities, meaning students couldn’t access it on campus. In a Feb. 15 press release, DeSantis said his proposal is designed to “combat the malign influence of China through the removal of nefarious platforms like TikTok from any state-supported activity.”
His concerns about TikTok didn’t stop DeSantis from accepting $10,000 from a David Urban whose city of residence matches that of the David Urban who donated to McCarthy, according to Florida campaign finance records.
Late last year, the Senate unanimously voted to ban TikTok from government devices. Senators may want to ban the app from their devices, but they are nonetheless willing to take thousands of dollars from the company’s employees.
Earlier this month, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that banning TikTok “should be looked at.” Schumer received a cumulative $6,800 in donations from two of TikTok’s top employees: $5,800 from the head of legal for TikTok; and $1,000 from its marketing chief at the time.
The day the Senate passed the resolution to ban the app from government devices, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) shared his thoughts about the platform. “I hate TikTok for all sorts of reasons,” Lee said.
@nowthispolitics ‘I hate TikTok for all sorts of reasons’ — Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), the same day the Senate passed legislation, via unanimous consent no less, to ban the use of the social media app on U.S. government devices #tiktok #usa #socialmedia #app ♬ original sound – NowThis Politics
Lee doesn’t hate TikTok executive’s money. FEC records show that Urban donated $1,000 to Lee.
Even as political figures on both sides of the aisle espoused their arguably legitimate concerns about TikTok’s security risks, many other politicians, political action committees, and the Democratic and Republican Parties also received donations from people who worked for TikTok and ByteDance. FEC records show TikTok and ByteDance employees made over 700 donations totaling $130,000 in the last election cycle.
This isn’t the only way that funds linked to the company are working their way into politics.
Earlier this month, Sludge reported that ByteDance is using a “back door” to pump money into organizations linked to politicians. According to its report, since mid-2022, ByteDance has poured $410,000 into think tanks and nonprofits affiliated with representatives.
It’s also spent over $13 million lobbying the federal government since 2019, per OpenSecrets, including a record $5.4 million last year. ByteDance’s spending on lobbying was reportedly the fourth-largest among internet companies, behind only Amazon, Meta, and Alphabet.