What The Senate’s Child Online Safety Hearing Revealed About American Democracy in 2024

“No, Senator. Again, I am Singaporean.”

As Senator Tom Cotton repeatedly grills TikTok’s Singaporean Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Shou Chew about his ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at the Senate Child Online Safety Hearing, the U.S. Senate once again becomes the world’s laughing stock due to its representatives’ off-topic tangents and comical inefficiency.

Behind light-hearted memes and viral video clips about the senate hearing, America faces heavy questions about the aggravating ineffectiveness and polarization in its democracy. A poll conducted by global analytics firm Gallup reveals that a new low of 28% of adult Americans feel satisfied with the way democracy works in the U.S. With the 2024 election around the corner, America needs an answer fast.  And this answer lies in the recognition of showman politics — the tactic of utilizing eye-catching,  aggressive behaviors to win over voter attention that is poisoning our democracy.

One blatant example of such political showmanship can be found in the same recording of the aforementioned senate hearing, where senator Ted Cruz repeatedly raised his voice and cut off TikTok CEO Chew’s responses as he questions Chew about TikTok’s limited amount of content on the Tiananmen Square protest at the senate hearing originally aimed to discuss Big Tech and the Online Child Sexual Exploitation Crisis

“For something like hashtag Taylor Swift or hashtag Trump, researchers found roughly two Instagram posts for every one on TikTok: that is not a dramatic difference. That difference spikes to 57 [Instagram posts] to one TikTok [regarding] the hashtag “Tiananmen Square,” Cruz dives off of child safety on TikTok and asserts loudly. “What censorship is TikTok doing at the request of the Chinese government?” 

In response, Chew composedly debunks Cruz’s claims by explaining that the study cited by Cruz was proven faulty by the Cato Institute, creating a sharp contrast between Cruz’s aggressive yet off-topic and poorly-informed accusations. Together with Senator Cotton’s assertions of TikTok’s connections to the CCP, irrelevant and misleading statements like these are a favorite trick among political showmen such as Cotton and Cruz: the extremity of these statements paired with dramatic tone and gestures are efficient in garnering voter attention — however — at the cost of an infectious  inefficiency growing in our senate floor and beyond.

Moreover, facing a polarized congress that required 33 tie-breaking votes from the vice president in just the last four years, showman politicians eager to secure their seat in the 2024 election sees this as the prime opportunity to capitalize on this polarization through a rhetoric of absolutism.

Most notably, during Senator Josh Hawley’s questioning session, Hawley fires one taunting question after another at the defendants of this hearing and left little time for the questioned to respond before blaringly interjecting with rebuttals time and time again — defeating the purpose of input and civil problem solving at senate hearings.

In the comment section under a video highlighting Hawley’s questioning session, viewers express frustration toward Hawley’s unceasing interruptions.

“Deaf to any response and sticking to your view is not a conversation. That is where democracy dies,” one commenter wrote.

Nevertheless, triumphant in his verbal attacks and unwillingness to allow any uninterrupted response from the defendants, Hawley reposted his performances at the hearing on his YouTube channel to gather cheers from his supporters, oblivious to the fact that his bellicose behaviors have just made theater out of a senate hearing.

At last, while this hearing has identified glaring examples of political showmanship and its detrimental effects on our democratic process, mere recognition is not enough. As citizens who are impacted by the words, actions, and decisions of politicians who care less about public representation than the security of their seat in office, we must reject sensationalism over substance as we drive the direction of our democracy in the coming election.

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