WASHINGTON—TikTok launched a battalion of influencers in the nation’s capital Wednesday to send a message to Congress: Banning the app would be met with widespread popular opposition.
“TikTok is not a children’s dancing app,” said Aidan Kohn-Murphy, a college freshman with close to 300,000 TikTok followers and founder of the advocacy group Gen-Z for Change. “It is one of the most powerful tools that young people have to engage each other and to get civically involved.”
Mr. Kohn-Murphy was one of more than 20 TikTok personalities with wide followings who traveled to the capital this week at the company’s invitation to lobby lawmakers and others in advance of TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew’s appearance before a House committee on Thursday.
The influencers’ blitz is part of TikTok’s response to persistent concerns among U.S. officials that the app, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd., could be used by the Chinese government to spy on Americans or promote divisive or manipulative content.
The Biden administration recently demanded that TikTok’s Chinese owners sell their stakes in the company or face a possible U.S. ban of the app, and members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee are expected to question Mr. Chew about the security concerns and other issues.
TikTok maintains that it isn’t beholden to any government and is a vital platform for 150 million American users—a theme the influencers worked to underscore in a meeting with journalists near the Capitol on Wednesday.
“It would be difficult to be able to support a candidate that would take away something that is so integral to the direction we’re going as a society,” said Baedri Nichole, a bakery owner from Columbus, Ohio, whose “hot cocoa bomb” confection is a hit on TikTok.
Kenny Jary, an 81-year-old retiree known on TikTok as Patriotic Kenny, said he uses the app to raise money to buy mobility scooters for fellow veterans. Others said the app provided a platform to launch small businesses or discuss topics such as eldercare and mental health.
TikTok covered the group’s travel and accommodation expenses. The company bused the influencers on Wednesday to the Capitol grounds, where they gathered on a scenic rooftop to shoot their own videos and stand for journalists’ interviews.
Later in the day, the influencers met with lawmakers and held a news conference near the Capitol building with Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D., N.Y.) and others.
“Why the hysteria and the panic and the targeting of TikTok?” asked Mr. Bowman, before suggesting xenophobia against China was at play and Congress should focus instead on addressing broader concerns about social media. “American social-media companies have been used to facilitate harms.”
After threats of banning the app started during the Trump administration, the company has spent recent years building a U.S.-based security apparatus to wall off U.S. user data and give officials the ability to inspect the computer code that recommends videos to users.
TikTok stars were a crucial factor in the company’s successful effort to fight off a proposed ban during the Trump years. Whether they will have the same influence this time around remains to be seen.
“I’m aware of the popularity of the platform. I’m not oblivious,” said Rep. Yvette Clarke (D., N.Y.), a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who hasn’t yet taken a position on a potential ban. “However, it’s important to weigh our equities here. National security has to be addressed.”
Ahead of Mr. Chew’s appearance, TikTok has ramped up lobbying efforts with the help of Oracle Corp., its U.S. data-security partner. Advertisements at the capital’s Metro subway stops tout the company’s commitment to user safety.
Mr. Chew also asked the platform’s users to weigh in, in a TikTok post this week disclosing that 150 million Americans are on the app.
“Some politicians have started talking about banning TikTok,” he said. “This could take TikTok away from all 150 million of you.”