Biden Vows TikTok Ban Pending Congressional Action, Yet Continues Campaigning on the Platform

When Joe Biden made his debut on TikTok ahead of the Super Bowl last month, political scientist Maggie Macdonald noted the “meta” quality of the president’s inaugural post.

“In the video, Biden poked fun at a conspiracy theory that he rigged the Super Bowl — in favor of the Kansas City Chiefs — to somehow help his reelection efforts,” said Macdonald, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, emphasizing the messaging and tone of Biden’s video.

While Biden’s entrance onto the immensely popular social media platform was light-hearted, his utilization of TikTok for this year’s reelection bid lies at the center of a contentious discussion in Washington, D.C., about the app’s very existence in the U.S. Owned by China’s ByteDance, TikTok is seen as both a crucial tool for reaching large numbers of young potential voters disconnected from mainstream media and a purported conduit for Chinese government surveillance of American consumers.

Members of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party introduced a bill this week mandating ByteDance to divest TikTok or face a U.S. ban, following previous federal and state-led initiatives that didn’t materialize. The committee unanimously voted 50-0 to advance the bill to the House floor on Thursday.

Shortly after the bill’s advancement, Rep. Troy Balderson, R-Ohio, labeled TikTok “a surveillance tool used by the Chinese Communist Party to spy on Americans and harvest highly personal data.”

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, in Senate hearings, has refuted any connections between the app and the CCP. In a statement to CNBC, TikTok asserted, “The government is attempting to strip 170 million Americans of their Constitutional right to free expression,” an action that “will damage millions of businesses, deny artists an audience, and destroy the livelihoods of countless creators across the country.”

Since Biden’s lighthearted introductory post, his campaign’s TikTok account has amassed over 222,000 followers and over 2.4 million likes. With eight months until the general election and a probable rematch of the 2020 contest, Biden narrowly trails Republican challenger Donald Trump in most national polls, setting the stage for a closely fought battle.

Concerns about Biden’s age persist in polling data, prompting experts to highlight the importance of engaging younger audiences to sway undecided young voters and energize a traditional Democratic base that sometimes abstains from voting.

“It’s really important for him to have a presence, and for him to interact directly with voters, not just through creators and influencers,” said Aaron Earls, CEO of social media influencer firm Activate HQ, specializing in political campaigns. “The turnout in 2020 was really significant with that younger audience and, everyone’s suggesting that maybe there will be a similar turnout with the younger audience again.”

During Thursday evening’s State of the Union address, Biden’s campaign shared clips of the speech on TikTok, signaling the president’s intention to maintain his presence on the app despite swirling concerns in Washington. However, it poses a particularly complex situation for Biden, as the bill, if passed by both chambers of Congress, would land on his desk.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stated on Thursday, “This bill is important, we welcome this step,” adding that the administration plans to “meet the American people where they are,” while also addressing national security concerns.

Biden affirmed on Friday that he would sign the bill if passed by Congress.

In the wake of the House’s action on Thursday, TikTok seeks to garner support from users. On the app, users were met with a screenshot warning them that Congress was “planning a total ban of TikTok.” Multiple staffers and lawmakers informed CNBC that their offices were inundated with calls, predominantly from young individuals.

TikTok in the Political Arena

Political campaigns in the United States are grappling with how to effectively harness the power of TikTok.

In recent electoral cycles, Facebook has reigned as the preferred social media platform for campaigns due to its capability to precisely target users with fundraising ads and informative content. However, Apple’s 2021 iOS privacy update significantly complicated audience targeting, resulting in increased ad campaign costs across Meta’s platforms.

Biden might ban TikTok but for now he's using it for the campaign himself
TikTok serves as a pivotal tool for political engagement despite looming congressional scrutiny. (Credits: Unsplash)

Moreover, Facebook’s user demographic has skewed older over time, with younger demographics flocking to TikTok. The dilemma for campaigns lies in TikTok’s policy, which prohibits political ads or content soliciting donations or directing users to political donation pages on external websites.

As a result, major campaigns have turned to influential TikTok personalities to galvanize support for specific causes. Last April, for instance, the White House announced its collaboration with a group of volunteer TikTok and Instagram influencers to raise awareness for the Biden campaign.

According to Aaron Earls, this strategy isn’t new in politics; TikTok simply offers a new medium.

“Endorsements from celebrities have historically been a tactic since the Kennedy days, albeit more prevalent in traditional media,” Earls explained. “It’s akin to receiving an endorsement from figures like Marilyn Monroe or Joe DiMaggio.”

Political organizations are actively scouting TikTok for influencers whose stances resonate with potential voters, targeting pivotal swing states crucial in election outcomes. During the 2022 midterm elections, the Democratic National Committee and communication groups such as Climate Power enlisted TikTok influencers to discuss topics like abortion rights and mobilize voters.

Despite its increasing popularity, TikTok remains a specialized tool in the realm of politics.

A study conducted by Anupam Chander, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, and his colleagues last year revealed that fewer than 10% of U.S. Congress members maintain a TikTok account for posting content, likely due to concerns over the app’s ties to China. The report identified only 34 House members and seven senators with official TikTok accounts.

The study also highlighted a significant partisan divide among major politicians on TikTok, with an overwhelming majority being Democrats. Some of the resistance among Republicans could be linked to former President Trump’s unsuccessful pledge to ban TikTok during his administration.

Engaging with Young Americans

Former presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, one of the few prominent Republicans on TikTok, emphasized the importance of connecting with the next generation of young Americans during a primary debate, stating, “Part of how we win elections is reaching the next generation of young Americans where they are.”

Regarding the possibility of Trump utilizing TikTok in his campaign, Aaron Earls suggested it wouldn’t be surprising, attributing the decision less to concerns about China and more to Trump’s connection with his own social media platform, Truth Social, where he is an active poster.

Young Americans are pivotal in elections
Young Americans pivotal in elections; TikTok presence crucial for Biden campaign strategy. (Credits: Unsplash)

“We’ve seen him do whatever it takes to win an election including trying to stop the peaceful transition of power,” Earls commented. “He will do what he thinks will help him win so I suspect we’ll see his campaign join TikTok in the coming months depending upon how things develop with his ability to monetize Truth Social.”

Anish Mohanty, communications director for Gen-Z for Change, revealed that his nonprofit advocacy group, originally named TikTok for Biden in 2020, aimed to “defeat Donald Trump.” The group later changed its name and now leverages its network of hundreds of TikTok influencers to champion various progressive causes such as climate change, and universal healthcare, and advocating for Biden to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

Despite Biden’s presence on TikTok, Mohanty emphasized that simply posting on the platform isn’t sufficient to secure votes, especially if the campaign resorts to “cringy memes about Trump.” Mohanty stressed that young people prioritize issues, citing dissatisfaction with Biden’s handling of climate change and the situation in Gaza.

However, Maggie Macdonald, a professor at the University of Kentucky, sees significant potential for Biden’s engagement on TikTok.

“If you want to reach younger people who are very apathetic, they’re on TikTok,” she noted. “You have an incentive to reach them on TikTok, and it does seem that the Republican Party as a unit is just not doing it.”

Jackson Kelley
Jackson Kelley
Jackson is a political activist and market expert. He covers the impact of politics on the market and global economy.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x