Top TikTok exec and public face of company in US is stepping down

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TikTok’s chief operating officer Vanessa Pappas is leaving the company, according to an internal memo obtained by CNN, after spending several tumultuous years as its top public advocate and a champion of TikTok creators in the face of accusations the platform poses a national security risk.

Pappas, who is non-binary and prefers to go by V, will continue to consult for TikTok on a private basis as a strategic advisor, according to the memo written by CEO Shou Chew and sent to employees Thursday.

“V. Pappas has decided to step down to refocus on their entrepreneurial passions,” Chew wrote. “I want to take this opportunity to thank V for their many contributions over the years.”

“Throughout their time at TikTok,” Chew added, “they have been instrumental in growing the business, advocating for the company, elevating our product offerings and marketing campaigns, and fostering a positive community of creators and users.”

The move marks the latest high-profile departure for TikTok, which last month saw a key trust and safety executive leave the team. Pappas’ exit also comes at a pivotal juncture, as policymakers at every level of government have moved to ban the app over claims that US users’ personal information is insecure.

On Thursday, Senate lawmakers made public a disclosure by TikTok acknowledging that certain business information related to TikTok content creators may be stored in China and not covered by the company’s Project Texas initiative to safeguard US users’ app data.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, one of the lawmakers who released the disclosure, said the acknowledgment “makes it crystal clear that Americans’ data is still exposed to Beijing’s draconian and pervasive spying regimes – despite the claims of TikTok’s misleading public relations campaign.”

In a note to employees Thursday, Pappas wrote: “I am incredibly humbled to have been able to help steer the company” amid “some of the industry’s most unprecedented challenges.”

Pappas had spent more than four years at TikTok, including two years as COO and nine months as its global interim head.

A former senior YouTube official, Pappas carved out a visible role at TikTok as a voice for its community and for content creators. As skepticism deepened about TikTok’s links to China through its parent company ByteDance, however, Pappas gradually came to represent the whole company to the wider public.

They went from reassuring TikTok users and creators that the platform was “here for the long run” to testifying before Congress and defending the company’s corporate structure to skeptical lawmakers. Pappas also tried to clarify how TikTok handles US user data, relying on nuanced, distinction-filled statements that have failed to resolve suspicions that the Chinese government may be able to access Americans’ personal information for spying or other purposes.

Pappas stepped in as TikTok’s interim head in August 2020, after the company’s then-CEO, the former Disney executive Kevin Mayer, quit following just three months at the helm.

Pappas had to navigate an uncertain and worsening political environment in Washington, as then-President Donald Trump made attempts to ban TikTok or to force a spinoff of the company a centerpiece of his anti-China agenda.

Those efforts were ultimately blocked in court, but TikTok continued to negotiate with the US government on a deal that might allow the platform to keep running in the United States. Those discussions have stretched on into the Biden administration, with no resolution in sight.

Pappas’ profile receded somewhat in recent months as Chew became TikTok’s top public advocate, but Pappas remained vocal in their support for the company.

After Chew spent more than five hours being grilled by House lawmakers this year, Pappas spoke out to condemn the hearing, describing it as being “rooted in xenophobia.”

As part of Thursday’s announcement, Chew said TikTok Chief of Staff Adam Presser — a former executive at WarnerMedia, CNN’s former parent company — will become the company’s head of operations, while Zenia Mucha, a former Disney communications executive, will become TikTok’s Chief Brand and Communications Officer, overseeing global marketing and communications.

In the note to employees, Pappas expressed pride in having helped to build a platform that now reaches more than one billion people globally.

“My north star throughout it all was to uphold what I refer to as ‘the last sunny spot on the internet,’ to build a platform for positive expression that celebrates diverse voices,” Pappas said.

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