President Biden and the White House regularly post to millions of followers on social media, talk about the economy on Facebook, share Christmas decorations on YouTube, show off pardoned turkeys on Instagram, and post about infrastructure on Platform X. They're even on Threads.
But they don't directly target the 150 million Americans on TikTok. There is no official account for @POTUS, the White House, or Biden-Harris 2024. There you will find only one of the Republican presidential candidates, and only 37 sitting members of Congress, according to a New York Times review of accounts.
Some experts are calling next year the “TikTok election” due to the video app's growing power and influence. TikTok may have been known for viral dances in 2020, but it has increasingly become a news source for millennials and generation Z, who will be a powerful part of the electorate.
But with less than a year until the election, most politicians are staying away from the app, as efforts grow in Washington and elsewhere to restrict or ban it because it is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. Many lawmakers and regulators have expressed concern that TikTok could put user information in the hands of officials in Beijing, an argument the company disputes.
However, by passing up a huge microphone because of those concerns, politicians risk that they and their campaigns will not directly reach young people through the app. They could also be overshadowed by smart rivals who may not feel as conflicted and who can figure out how to use TikTok to their advantage.
Many campaigns are trying to hedge their bets by tapping into a growing network of political TikTok influencers to share their messages or by making short videos on YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels in the hopes they end up trending on TikTok. To achieve this, they have to give up some control and must persuade creators to work with them, often for little or no payment.
For many political consultants, the absence of politicians on TikTok is perhaps unsustainable.
“The discourse is being shaped by this even if you don't use it yourself,” said Teddy Goff, a top digital strategist for President Barack Obama's 2012 campaign and Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign.
Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist, said he was telling candidates that “if you don't ban it in 2023, you need to move forward in 2024.”
Several Republican presidential candidates criticized TikTok in their recent debates and criticized Vivek Ramaswamy, the only candidate to join the app despite previously referring to it as “digital fentanyl.” He has defended joining TikTok, saying he did it to reach young voters.
Biden's re-election campaign team said it did not need its own TikTok accounts to reach voters.
“The reality is that having an account wouldn't make a material difference in what we need to do on TikTok,” said Rob Flaherty, Biden's deputy campaign manager and former White House digital strategy director. “The most important thing you can do is work with influential people.”
TikTok arrived as a political force during the 2022 midterm campaign, when Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., successfully roasted his opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, in a flurry of cutting videos, and Rep. Jeff Jackson , Democrat of North Carolina, used a Video Filter to make his head look like a piece of broccoli. while talking about reach a younger audience.
Annie Wu Henry, a 27-year-old digital strategist who helped manage Mr. Fetterman's TikTok account in 2022, said its use showed TikTok's potential reach and influence. He said he was surprised to see the clips and memes that the Fetterman campaign posted on the app take off “and become real parts of the conversation or picked up by traditional media sources.”
However, weeks after the election, Washington's sentiment toward the company turned sour. The Biden administration, as well as most states, some cities and some college campuses, have banned use of the app on official devices. Some lawmakers have called for a national ban.
Today, only 7 percent of the 533 senators and representatives have verified accounts on TikTok, and some have never posted, according to The Times analysis. None are Republicans. The few who have joined often post to the app from separate “TikTok phones” for security reasons, said Mike Nellis, a Democratic digital strategist.
Jackson is the most popular, with 2.5 million followers, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, is second with 1.4 million. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota each have more than 200,000 followers.
Ms. Wu said campaigns, including Biden's, were potentially leaving large audiences on the table.
“It needs to be figured out, and right now there's almost this rush to find out who's going to do it,” he said.
The White House has leveraged TikTok in recent years by working with social media stars to promote access to the Vaccines against Covid-19 and information on the Russia-Ukraine relationship war and the Inflation Reduction Law. Several stars told the Times that they were not paid but were eager to participate.
This type of solution is expected to become even more popular next year.
“There's this booming industry beneath the surface of agencies and platforms that are helping political organizations, social impact groups and politicians themselves sponsor content on TikTok and partner with creators and influencers to spread messages,” said Brian Derrick, political strategist. and companion. -founder of Oath, a platform to guide donations to Democratic campaigns.
Tik Tok prohibits Paid political ads, including paying creators for their endorsements. It does not encourage politicians to join the platform, although it does verify official accounts.
When a White House spokesperson was asked about the use of TikTok, he pointed to a rule prohibiting use of the app on federal devices starting in March and declined to comment further.
Harry Sisson, 21-year-old New York University student and political commentator. on tiktok, began posting in 2020, when he was a high school senior, to help Biden's campaign for the presidency. He has accumulated 700,000 followers.
Sisson said that in the past year and a half, Democratic groups had offered him more opportunities, including filming voting videos with Obama and watching the State of the Union at the White House. He didn't get paid, but he was happy to participate.
With the White House in particular, he said, “they've always emphasized that we're not here to tell you what to say, if you don't agree with us, we're not going to get mad.”
Sisson said he made money through views of his TikTok videos and accepted some paid collaborations with advocacy groups he believed in, such as Planned Parenthood, but that his goal was to help elect Democrats.
AB Burns-Tucker, 34, is another political content creator who has joined the White House briefings. He posts on TikTok as @iamlegallyhype and has over 700,000 followers. He said his account took off after he made a popular explainer video about the war between Russia and Ukraine, which colloquially referred to world leaders like “Big Daddy Biden” and “Big Bad P.” She says it's now a news source for people who don't tune in elsewhere.
“I talk about current events with my friends all the time, but most of them tell me, 'Girl, I don't watch the news, if you don't tell me, I don't know,'” she said. “I took that and moved on.”
Ms. Burns-Tucker believes she has influenced voters, pointing to the passage of a recent ballot measure in Ohio that enshrined abortion rights in the state Constitution. Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights paid her to make a TikTok video urging people to vote for the ballot measure, which aligned with her personal beliefs, she said. “A lot of people in the comments section were like, I didn't even know, I'll be in line first thing tomorrow morning,” she added. The video exceeded 45,000 views.
People like Sisson and Burns-Tucker are unparalleled among conservatives, said Amanda Carey Elliott, a Republican digital consultant.
Elliott said he was strongly against the use of TikTok because of the party's stance on China, but that there was also less incentive for Republicans to use it.
“There's not a big TikTok influencer culture on the right; it's just not the same for us,” he said.
Still, some Republican consultants say the opportunity is too big to pass up. Wilson, the Republican strategist, has been trying to guide candidates on how to sign up for the app after criticizing it.
“Candidates drive cars all the time; that doesn't mean they want cars to be unregulated,” he said. “There's not necessarily hypocrisy if you're clear about what your position is and how you're using it.”
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