TikTok Workers Feel 'Anxiety,' 'Anger,' And 'Rage,' Amid Trump Crackdown | WCAI

TikTok Workers Feel 'Anxiety,' 'Anger,' And 'Rage,' Amid Trump Crackdown

Aug 29, 2020
Originally published on August 29, 2020 9:47 pm

Patrick Ryan is sitting on a couch in the garage of his house in California's San Mateo County. Dressed in aviator-style glasses and cowboy boots, he talks intensely about his job as a technical manager at TikTok —a job that politicians in Washington have put at risk.

This week, Ryan filed a lawsuit against President Trump and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, thereby becoming the public face of TikTok employees fed up with the administration's efforts to ban the video-sharing app because it is owned by a Chinese company.

"Sometimes it's anxiety. Sometimes it's anger. Sometimes it's disappointment. Sometimes it's rage. It's a mixture of things," Ryan said of the feelings he and his colleagues have had lately.

Indeed, it is an emotional experience when the president of the United States marshals the powers of the executive branch to squash your company's business, especially just as the company's growth is soaring.

TikTok, which gained popularity for showcasing short videos of dance challenges, lip-syncing and cooking tips, has been downloaded more than 100 million times in the U.S. and has emerged as one of the fastest-growing apps during the coronavirus pandemic. TikTok said it planned to hire 10,000 workers in the U.S. over the next three years.

But on Aug. 6, Trump signed an executive order outlawing "any transaction" between U.S. citizens and TikTok's Beijing-based owner, Bytedance. The order declares a national emergency over TikTok, citing national security concerns.

Ryan, 51, arrived at TikTok five months ago after nearly a decade at Google. In addition to being a technical manager, he's a lawyer. His lawsuit calls Trump's action unconstitutional, alleging due process and other violations. Ryan also writes in the suit that the president's official actions against the company have "defamed and disgraced" TikTok employees.

"It's going to be prohibited for our company and for anybody to transfer money to us or for us to pay any payments or transactions of any kind to any person, so we want to stop that," Ryan said. "We also want to make sure that we continue to get paid."

Ryan remembers the Friday night, in late July, when President Trump declared aboard Air Force One that he intended to ban TikTok. Fittingly enough, Ryan first found out about Trump's remarks from his two daughters, 15 and 13, who watched a video about the comments on TikTok.

Since then, TikTok has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the company seeking to block the Aug. 6 directive, which is the first of two executives orders Trump signed targeting TikTok.

Ryan, however, is forging his own path. He is raising money for the suit online. TikTok is not officially a part of his legal battle. That said, the company did not discourage his effort.

"I hear from employees all the time on a one-to-one basis in terms of what their concerns are and their fears, in many ways," Ryan said. "The questions are all very similar: What does this mean? Does this mean I'm going to lose my job?"

It could, according to Ryan. He points out that many TikTok employees are in the U.S. on work visas, which Trump's executive order may imperil.

Trump's crackdown could force another, less dire outcome: If ByteDance sells TikTok to a U.S. company to satisfy the administration, TikTok's 1,500 employees may have a new corporate owner. Perhaps even be Microsoft and Walmart, which have put in a joint bid to acquire TikTok.

That would solve the problems with TikTok the administration cites: Officials say having a Beijing owner leaves Americans' data susceptible to Chinese authorities, an accusation Ryan deems "absurd."

National security experts outside of the White House say under Chinese law, companies must comply with government requests from the authoritarian regime.

As of now, though, such requests remain theoretical, since Trump officials have not offered any proof that such data has ever been sought by Beijing.

Ryan, who oversees TikTok's servers, said he knows firsthand that the data of Americans stays in the U.S., primarily in Virginia, with a backup server in Singapore.

"I spend a lot of time making sure that network is safe. And understanding what is going on," he said. "We look very closely at the dataflows of the network, and I can say with extreme confidence that there is no shadow network."

Washington, according to Ryan, is unfairly singling out TikTok because its top executives are in China. He notes big American tech companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft make products that are banned in China, yet the companies have a significant presence in the country.

"Nobody is accusing the management in Apple China of controlling Apple USA," Ryan said. "So I don't know why that's the case here," he said.

In the midst of talks about TikTok's future, the company's U.S.-based top executive, Kevin Mayer, quit earlier this week.

Ryan said Mayer's surprise departure was a blow to the company, though he said it will not stop his quest to fight for TikTok employees.

"I certainly didn't take this case on because I was worried about Kevin Mayer," he said. "I took this case on because I'm worried about my colleagues around here who might be in a situation where they won't be able to find another job."

Even if an American company buys TikTok, Ryan said his legal challenge will continue. Employees, he said, remain worried about those on worker-visas losing their sponsorship, in addition to fears over changes in pay, benefits and workplace conditions.

"A deal is not going to end this for me," Ryan said.

Editor's note: TikTok helps fund NPR-produced videos from Planet Money that appear on the social media platform.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

By now, you've probably seen the shocking images out of Kenosha, Wis., where a gunman killed two people and injured another during protests against police violence. A 17-year-old has been charged with murder in the incident. As well, the events in Kenosha have revived many debates, including about the Second Amendment and the pervasiveness of gun ownership and gun violence in this country. Senator Chris Murphy has thought a lot about these issues, and now he's written a book about them.

Senator Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, gives his take on the history of the Second Amendment and why gun violence is as bad as it is today in the U.S. And along with that, he tells the story of some of the people behind the numbers and even explains the shift in his own thinking on these issues after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. The book is called "The Violence Inside Us: A Brief History Of An Ongoing American Tragedy." And Senator Chris Murphy is with us now.

Senator, thank you so much for joining us.

CHRIS MURPHY: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: First, I did want to ask you about what's happening in Kenosha. I just wanted to ask, you know, what's your take on this week's events?

MURPHY: Well, it's absolutely heartbreaking that yet again, we're watching videos of a Black man this time being shot in the back by police officers. And it's time that this country has a reckoning with a centuries-long history of racial violence that has been used to subjugate people of color and keep in place a racial caste system that we can't tolerate any longer. And, you know, all we're seeing is the videos that get captured.

What we know is that this kind of violence has been happening routinely on our streets for decades. And this vigilante justice that we are also seeing - this young man who took a very powerful rifle into a crowd and ended up with two people being killed - that's also part of our history as well. Vigilante justice has deep roots in American history. I think it's also incumbent upon us to take a look at our firearms laws to understand how those kind of weapons get into the hands of young men like that so easily.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, the book is partly a history of gun violence in America, but it is also about you and your own - I don't know if you'd call it a transformation or awakening around guns. And you talk about your shift from being a politician to an activist. What do you see as the difference?

MURPHY: You know, what I talk about in the book is the fact that, you know, I had lots of issues that I worked really hard on. I was a prodigious state legislator and congressman. I rewrote the nation's affordable housing laws. I passed a bill in Connecticut investing millions in stem cell research. But what I found was that that was different than having a emotional connection to an issue. I was intellectually connected to issues, but I didn't wake up every day with that sort of core mission to drive me.

And that all did change in 2012. I still work on all those other issues. But now I feel like if I don't get a bill done to address gun violence in this country by the time that I hang up my spikes, then I've failed. I've just fundamentally failed as a legislator. And that is a difference between being intellectually connected to issues and being emotionally connected to issues.

And I hope people try to take that journey as well. I hope people who are sort of following the headlines about gun violence spend the time to, you know, learn about these families and get to know about what has happened in this nation as the NRA has become so powerful. And maybe they'll get emotionally connected in the same way that I've become and stand up and become an activist as well.

MARTIN: You also say in the book that gun safety measures would be easier to attain if some of your Democratic colleagues were willing to compromise. So what are the Democrats getting wrong in how they are approaching this issue, in your view?

MURPHY: Some people will be surprised that in this book, I do say that my study, in part done through the research in this book of our constitutional history, is that - results in my belief that the Constitution does protect the right of private gun ownership. And I think Democrats should make clear that we are not seeking to take away everyone's guns, nor do we think the Constitution allows for that.

But at the same time, as I explain in the book, there was pretty heavy gun regulation at the time of the writing of the Constitution. So our Founding Fathers likely believe there was a common law right for everybody to own a gun, but they also thought that that right should be pretty tightly restricted. And that's where I think Democrats should land today - that we respect that constitutional right but that we think that there has to be some common-sense limits.

MARTIN: So common sense - you know, one person's common-sense limit is another person's, you know, outrageous violation of their fundamental rights, OK? So give me one example of where you think that both sides could agree. I mean, one thing that deeply disturbs progressives this the caliber of weapons that people are now able to buy - you know, very large, long gun, semiautomatics, you know?

And people who support an expansive view of gun rights say, you know, I don't tell you, you know, how much horsepower to put in your car. Don't tell me how much - you know, how much caliber or how many, you know, bullets or what size magazine to put in my gun. And so what do you say to that?

MURPHY: I tell the story of the assault weapons ban in 1994. There's a lot of mythology about that in which people think that it was really controversial and that lots of Democrats lost their races because they voted for it. That's just not true. It was wildly popular in 1994. Ronald Reagan was the primary proponent of it along with Gerald Ford. And so we have to sort of understand that some of these proposals aren't as controversial as you think.

And, you know, I also tell the story in the book of a conversation that I got in - one I get into regularly - with a voter in Connecticut in which, you know, he was so angry at me. He sought me out at the end of an event because he thought that I was trying to take away his guns. And I started to talk to him about background checks. And immediately, he said, well, I'm for those. I think that background checks are important. I went through those when I sold my gun.

And so when I think we have a real conversation about what our agenda is rather than the agenda that the NRA tells their members we are pursuing, the conversation becomes a lot easier.

MARTIN: Do you think there is possibility of not - I mean, gun control is whatever it is, but making this country safer - let's just put the objective there - so that fewer people die because of gun violence? What gives you the hope that that might change?

MURPHY: I hope that people do see a positive path forward here. I do spend time at the end of this book talking about a candidate like Lucy McBath in Georgia, who ran in a district that hadn't had a Democrat representing it in Congress for decades and decades. And she was the mother of a young man who had been killed in a brutal shooting. And she ran based on her belief in changing gun laws, and she won in a Republican district. We elected enough people like her that we passed universal background checks through the House of Representatives. And I really do believe that we can win more races like that Georgia race, and we ultimately can change our laws.

And I also, as somebody who works so closely on this issue of gun laws, I did also want to write a book that explains the breadth of the problem. And it's not just about gun laws. It is also about a long history of violence as a mechanism to keep a racial caste system in line. And in that sense, maybe our task does look overwhelming.

But since I wrote the book, we have seen the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement that should give us all new hope that we can have more productive conversations around a broader set of issues beyond gun laws. So, yes, the solutions to violence in America are big and comprehensive. But I don't know. I see so many signs from 2018 to this summer that we have the potential to turn the corner. And I just hope this book is a primer for folks who want to be educated activists as part of those movements.

MARTIN: That's Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut. His new book, "The Violence Inside Us: A Brief History Of An Ongoing American Tragedy," is out Tuesday.

Senator Murphy, thank you so much for speaking with us.

MURPHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.