TikTok’s most vocal defender is now its new interim CEO

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TikTok’s U.S. general manager Vanessa Pappas will replace former CEO Kevin Mayer as interim head of the company following Mayer’s sudden resignation on Wednesday. Mayer announced his resignation less than 100 days after taking on the role, blaming the U.S. government for interfering in TikTok’s operations.

TikTok is owned by Chinese tech company ByteDance Ltd and has been a target of U.S. government criticism over alleged data privacy and national security risks that the company has repeatedly denied.

TikTok’s hiring of Mayer, a former Disney executive, was seen as part of a broader effort to counter U.S. government scrutiny of TikTok by putting a more American face on its operations.

Pappas has pointed to Mayer as evidence of TikTok’s U.S.- and security-friendly credentials, telling Marie Claire in an August article, “There’s a lot of misinformation about TikTok out there. TikTok has an American CEO … and a U.S. team that works diligently to develop a best-in-class security infrastructure.”

But Pappas herself, who worked at YouTube for more than seven years before joining TikTok in 2018, had emerged as a voice for the short video app, even before Mayer’s sudden resignation.

The TikTok general manager is active on Twitter, where she shares articles about TikTok, promotes her own company blog posts, and publishes tweets about the company with striking candor.

“No, we are not a national security threat. Frankly it feels odd to have to say this when the CIA has said it for us,” she wrote on August 20.

While Mayer’s social media and news presence was comparatively quiet during his stint as TikTok CEO, Pappas has appeared on a Vox Media podcast and participated in a Zoom interview for the Marie Claire profile that called her “the reigning queen of TikTok” and the company’s “secret weapon.” It was Pappas who posted a video statement after Trump first threatened to ban the app, vowing that TikTok is “here for the long run.”

It’s not yet known how long Pappas will stay in the interim role at TikTok—or whether she or someone else might eventually take on that role on a permanent basis.

A TikTok representative didn’t respond to Fortune‘s request for comment on Pappas’s interim role.

Sudden resignation

In resigning, Mayer said that he decided to quit after U.S. President Donald Trump announced the U.S. will ban TikTok unless an American company takes over U.S. operations of the short video app by September 15.

“We appreciate that the political dynamics of the last few months have significantly changed what the scope of Kevin’s role would be going forward, and fully respect his decision. We thank him for his time at the company and wish him well,” TikTok said in an emailed statement to Fortune.

However, it isn’t just the U.S. situation that’s changed. India, TikTok’s largest market, also banned the app in June. Jeffrey Towson, a private equity investor and former professor at Peking University, reckons Mayer would never have left Disney for TikTok if he had known the U.S. and India weren’t a part of it.

“Mayer was a major player at Disney, and he wants to run a major international media company,” Towson says. “That’s obviously what he wants, and TikTok outside of China is clearly not that anymore.”

In light of continued pressure from the Trump administration, ByteDance’s plan to paint TikTok as a U.S.-centric company independent of Chinese government influence appears to have failed.

“ByteDance has been trying to address issues raised by the U.S. for a long time, but it seems like it’s still not good enough for Donald Trump,” says Zhang Mengmeng, an analyst at Counterpoint Research.

ByteDance is currently in talks to sell TikTok’s U.S. operations. Microsoft is the frontrunner, but Oracle is reportedly another bidder. Although Mayer’s exit in the midst of negotiations seems like a bad omen for TikTok’s future, Zhang says the Microsoft deal is unlikely to be unaffected.

“Mayer probably doesn’t want to be in the middle of this turmoil,” Zhang says. “He signed up to lead a global company, but there wouldn’t be a lot of development for TikTok at the moment—just wrangling with lawyers and the government.”

Mayer’s exit could also mean that the deal is progressing without him. In his letter to employees, Mayer hinted that the company expects “a resolution very soon” to the political issues it is facing—which seemed to telegraph that a deal is forthcoming.

“If I had to guess why Mayer’s leaving I’d say probably because he’s just hanging out in his office and isn’t involved in the dealmaking,” Towson says. However, if a deal is close to completion, the more interesting question is who will head up TikTok’s U.S. operations instead of Mayer.

“Mayer was the heavy hitter, a major player in the media industry, but whoever the new owner is let him go,” Towson says. “They have to be pretty confident they have someone to replace Mayer if they didn’t even get him to stay as a backup.”

While TikTok’s future leadership remains uncertain, Pappas has stepped in for now as CEO.

Source: Fortune

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